As part of our Voices from the Micro Business Community series, this blog introduces the four businesses and civil society group working with Aston, Birmingham and Warwick Universities on the project Productivity from Below.

Business owners and community activists tackle these questions in a new blog series based on the real-time experiences of a unique project – entitled ‘Productivity from Below’ – jointly led by academics and practitioners. The project focuses on small businesses in three low-paying sectors: Bangladeshi catering, retail and creatives. These sectors have been badly hit. It’s important to hear the voices of business owners and communities on the frontline.

This blog introduces the four businesses and civil society group working with Aston, Birmingham and Warwick Universities on the project: ACH, Citizens UK Birmingham, Punch Records, and the Bangladeshi Skill Network. The Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME) at Aston University coordinates this collaboration. But the focus in this blog series is on the voices and experiences of the practitioners, businesses and communities involved in the project. It’s time to hear from them now …

Punch Records is a business with a strong social mission to promote artists from deprived backgrounds). The Punch team has contributed deep insights on, and meaningful connections with, young black creatives who have often been overlooked by the ‘mainstream’. One outcome has been the highly innovative leadership development programme for diverse creative entrepreneurs and artists – called the ‘P’ Word – led by Punch and supported by CREME. Punch’s Development Coordinator, Tarik Ross-Cameron, comments:

No one could foresee the circumstances within which we launched and have delivered the programme thus far, but they have certainly shaped what the programme has become. The P Word has created a bridge between the underrepresented creative entrepreneurs and businesses on the programme and influential institutions and funders like CREME and Arts Council England. At a time when incomes, customs, practices and events that creatives rely on to grow and sustain themselves have been severely damaged by the effects of the pandemic, The P Word is a meeting point for them to receive support that could make all the difference to their futures as viable artistic businesses.


The Bangladeshi Skills Network

Johur Uddin of the ‘Skills Network’ has a lifetime’s experience of working in, and with the Bangladeshi catering sector. He’s held several public sector and charity positions too. He’s deeply concerned about future …

I have been working with the Bangladeshi catering sector for many years and it is something very close to my heart. The sector has been the backbone of the Bangladeshi community economic and social development for the last 50 years. The last few years have … seen a number of challenges for

Bangladeshi restaurants which have been exacerbated by Covid 19. Many restaurants have ceased trading as operating purely takeaways was not variable for them. Moreover, Bangladeshi people working in the sector have been disproportionality affected as up to 50% of staff have been furloughed as restaurants are only allowed to operate as takeaways.

There has never been any research into the Bangladeshi catering sector and this partnership with CREME at Aston University aims to try and find out what the real issues the sector is experiencing and what needs to be done to ensure its sustainability.



Richard Thickpenny is Chief Innovation Officer of ACH (a sector-leading refugee integration and employment service). Richard is a passionate about tackling inequality in employment and entrepreneurship, and views ACH’s participation in the ‘Productivity from Below’ project of addressing this challenge …

At ACH we are exploring all aspects of the system which perpetuates BAME communities and refugees in poverty … We have seen the way business support, language training, preparation for employment and poorly defined service offers all combine to curtail the development of robust resilient business. From our work with the Productivity from Below project we have seen how issues surrounding the economic viability of BAME businesses have been cruelly highlighted by Covid. Whilst some issues arise from the individual businesses own circumstances so many issues are as a consequence of systems which are purely focused on achieving policy aims.

Working with the project we have been able to explore more widely how a broader range of businesses interact with local authorities, business support and importantly within their own networks. This informs and helps validate our work with differing groups of businesses and combines to enrich our knowledge and to improve the quality of the service we offer. This knowledge transfer has increased our intellectual capacity to argue for change, which has resulted in our own complementary project to democratise business support. Being part of the project has not only enabled strategic growth of ACH but will significantly increase the impact of our services.

thumbnail_ACH logo small.jpg

Citizens UK Birmingham

Saidul Haque Saeed – Lead Organiser of Citizens UK Birmingham – has witnessed the devastating impact of Covid 19 on his neighbours and businesses in Lozells. He’s worried by the lack of recognition of local shops in supporting local communities in the pandemic …

Shops and businesses in Lozells have been navigating one of the toughest years in the history of this small inner-city Birmingham neighbourhood of diverse communities. A year of the pandemic spreading at warp speed across the area has kept Lozells consistently on the authorities list of the top 20 Wards with the highest rate of Covid infections. Businesses owners have not been far away from the focus of Council enforcement on strict Covid safety rules. Most recently, Covid Marshalls patrolled Lozells Rd and Villa Rd to test compliance of retailers. For many of the businesses in the area we are working with, the owners live locally and our all too aware of the risks posed to their own households every time they return from work, so they did not have objections to the patrols. To some of the elderly and most vulnerable local residents not online, local retailers are still an important point of contact with the outside world beyond their own household. Here these longstanding business act as an important layer of support and assistance not reflected in the sales they do.

What Next?

The PfB project will continue to highlight the challenges of the kind of firms that have featured in this blog. We’re aiming to improve the quality and quantity of support for such businesses. Practitioners will influence this work and will continue to air their views in this blog as the project unfolds.

The Productivity from Below project is a three-year project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council located at Aston Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME). The project aims to develop productivity-boosting interventions to support micro-businesses (with 1-9 employees) in the West Midlands, with a specific focus on the retail, Bangladeshi catering and creative sectors.