Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), only 13 percent of firms are owned by women—far less than other middle-income regions like East Asia, Latin America, and Europe/Central Asia, according to a 2007 report by the World Bank. However, women-owned businesses in MENA defy stereotyping. They tend to be as large as those of their male counterparts—more than 30 percent employ more than 250 workers. Female-owned firms are even hiring more workers than male-owned firms, and they are equally as productive.

It’s clear that women entrepreneurs have the potential to thrive and contribute greatly to economic growth. To tap into this tremendous potential, new solutions in MENA are working boost the entrepreneurial success of women across a variety of industries.

For instance, the Khadija Technology Program, operating in Yemen, is helping female graduates of information and communications technology (ICT) programs to start their own businesses. According to Khadija, Yemen is seeing a surge in female ICT graduates, but the job market still favors men, due to traditional attitudes about gender and the perceived notion that women are more likely to leave their jobs once they marry or have children. Khadija provides business training and seed funding to ICT graduates, and helps them secure partnerships with NGOs that incubate their projects.

In Afghanistan, an organization called Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA) has helped launch or enhance 9,300 women-owned agricultural enterprises since 2004. Now, with a grant from the US Department of State’s Women’s Empowerment Fund, GPFA has piloted a new initiative focused on helping women agricultural entrepreneurs scale up their micro-businesses into small and medium-sized businesses. Each woman entrepreneur—who might engage in activities like beekeeping, wholesale food distribution, or multi-crop farming—receives hands-on training from GPFA’s female staff, as well as materials and ongoing support.

Ongoing and comprehensive support is a recurring theme among effective programs that help women entrepreneurs. For example, the BADAWEYA Women’s Handicraft Initiative, operating in Egypt, helps female Bedouin artisans become business owners through business skill training, product development, and connecting them to distributors in Egypt and abroad. Product development is a key aspect of BADAWEYA’s solution, because Bedouin artisans have struggled to create products that compete with other artisanal goods on the market. BADAWEYA, however, has helped the artisans improve the quality of their goods and to develop new products inspired by traditional practices.

As a result, BADAWEYA had this success story to share: “Meet Amira (21) and Selma (40). The women have participated in BADAWEYA’s training programs which have improved their understanding of sewing, quality management, product design and business management. Together with the trainers, their group developed 3 new products and designs inspired by old traditions and modern principles of product design. In the future: Together with others Amira and Selma will start a small cooperative venture in 2015. The venture will sell to a hotel chain, two shops in Cairo, a German trade chain and over the internet. They will hand out orders to 200 Bedouin women who will earn $160/month (average worker’s salary). Being important information sources and breadwinners, the women are heard in family decisions.”


Kristie Wang

Kristie Wang is a writer and media manager at Ashoka Changemakers, where she covers topics in social innovation, such as women’s empowerment, community development, and health. Her work has appeared...

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