By Neehal Khatri
COVID-19 lockdown, flooding and a fire. Brij Lata Chand experienced a triple blow to her tailoring business earlier this year and six months later she is still trying to recover from her losses.
At the beginning of this year, Lata was operating a small but profitable tailoring business from a market in Suva City. She had just opened her business six months earlier and was starting to attract customers and make money.
However, business came to a standstill in early April when Suva went into lockdown for two weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lata was unable to operate her business and she had to stay at home during this period. While the city was still in lockdown, category 4 Tropical Cyclone Harold hit the country and Lata’s shop was flooded after the building was damaged. Rolls of fabric and piles of sewn clothes that had been placed on the floor were destroyed and because she couldn’t enter her shop during lockdown, she didn’t find out about the damage until a few weeks later. She was not able to salvage any of the damaged material.
Lata was afraid to complain to her landlord because she feared losing her shop, so she quietly spent a week cleaning up. Soon afterwards, another bout of heavy rain led to more flooding in her shop and additional damages to her stock and equipment. Several weeks later, she faced another business setback.
‘Six weeks after the flooding, there was a big fire… and all my belongings, that was the backbone of my business, was gone. I had 3 industrial (sewing) machines – all burned. At the moment, I don’t have any…so I’m looking forward to buying a machine so that I can operate from my house,’ Lata shared, adding that her losses amounted to about FJ$16,000.
After losing her shop in May, Lata is now planning to operate a tailoring and clothing business from her home in Nakasi, a suburb located along the Suva-Nausori corridor.
‘I can’t afford to pay rent at this moment. It’s better for me to operate from home as I’ll be saving my rent too,’ she said.
The process to rezone her property, however, is proving to be lengthy and expensive. Lata has already spent about 6 weeks trying to fulfil the requirements of the application process and she is worried about how much longer it will take.
‘They told me that the rezoning will take time and I told them why don’t you just give me at least a temporary licence so I can just operate because I’m finding it very difficult having no money, no cash. I want to work because I don’t like to sit idle,’ Lata added.
Reviving the business
To revive her business, Lata applied for the government’s COVID-19 concessional loan and she has received FJ$7,000, which she will use to buy a new sewing machine. The application process was not difficult, and the interest rate was low and affordable, she said.
In June, the Fijian Government launched the COVID-19 Concessional Finance Support Packages to support existing micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and to help people who had lost their jobs start their own business ventures. The size of the loans ranged from maximum of FJ$7,000 for micro enterprises to FJ$21,000 for medium enterprises, with an annual interest rate of 0.5% to 1.5% depending on the size of the business.
The government received an overwhelming response of about 9,000 applications, which were assessed by an independent panel comprising Women in Business, the Fiji Chamber of Commerce, the Fiji Commerce and Employers Federation and the Fiji Institute of Accountants, with help provided by the Ministry of Agriculture for agro-based business applications. As of October, the government had approved about 2,500 applications valued at close to FJ$15 million.
Lata was fortunate that her business, Priti’s Fashionwear, was already registered since one of the requirements for the concessional loans was a valid business licence. However, other women entrepreneurs who have not yet registered their businesses were unable to apply for this financial assistance, leaving them vulnerable to loan sharks or compelling them to dip into their savings to stay afloat.
Lata has more than 20 years of experience in operating a business and this has come with its share of ups and downs. She launched her business in 1998 with her husband.
‘We started the business in a van, and we went from house to house to sell clothes… From there, we managed to get money which helped us expand our business. Then we rented a shop which was located at Laucala Beach.’
The business soon became a one-stop shop as they sold a variety of goods and there weren’t any similar shops nearby. Lata shared that she and her husband loved to help others and they often assisted people who came to their shop asking for money to buy groceries or milk formula and diapers for their babies. They also assisted other small businesses who used to buy wholesale goods from them.
‘Our shop was not just for ourselves; it was for others too. We used to help everybody… I don’t see race or colour. I just know that they are human beings,’ Lata said.
Through hard work and perseverance, Lata and her husband gradually expanded their business and bought another shop in Suva City. Life was good and business was booming.
However, during the 2000 coup crisis, one of their shops was looted and they lost FJ$40,000 worth of goods. Soon afterwards, Lata’s husband had a heart attack.
‘It was a really hard time for me. My daughter was schooling, and I had one staff working for me…I had to look after my husband because he got sick…it was a very hard life for me, but I had to manage somehow,’ she said.
In the Spotlight: Informal Women Workers
As part of the 16 Days of Activism global campaign, the Fiji Women’s Fund is sharing a series of stories featuring the experiences of women entrepreneurs in the informal sector as well as those who have transitioned, or are transitioning, into the formal sector.
16 Days of Activism is a global campaign focused on ending violence against women and promoting women’s rights. In 2020, the Campaign is dedicated to informal women workers whose lives and livelihoods have been acutely impacted by COVID-19 and the unprecedented economic crisis that has followed. According to the International Labour Organization, more than 60% of the world’s employed earn their living in the informal economy and 92% of women in employment in developing countries are informally employed. They face precarious workplace conditions and are typically excluded from national labour laws and denied social protection.
The Australian Government through the Fiji Women’s Fund has been supporting women’s groups, networks and organisations to amplify the voices of women in the informal sector through our partnerships with grantees like the Women Entrepreneurs Business Council, Fiji Disabled Peoples Federation, Women in Fisheries Network, Talanoa Treks, Rise Beyond the Reef, Ra Naari Parishad, Naitasiri Women in Dairy, Waisomo Women’s Group and the Soqosoqo Vakamarama Kadavu.