Every day in Egypt, smart women — aspiring entrepreneurs — face challenges that would shred most people like a dry leaf in a wood chipper. For starters, most women there contend with crushing sexism and soaring inflation.
But Egypt's widows face even huger challenges. Traditions restrict how they dress, who they speak to, where they go. Often, they can't leave the house to work for a living. That's even if their children are malnourished.
B'edaya is a microfinance initiative designed to handle exactly these hostile conditions — the everyday life of a widow in Egypt. It tailors small loans to the needs of the mothers of orphans. The aim is to give them an income, more ability to feed their children, and more control of their lives.
Of the 30 women currently taking part in B'edaya, from mid-January to October 2014, only one (because of severe illness) was unable to make her monthly loan repayments. In the harsh climate I just described, how is that possible?
In answering, I want to share the story of one of these women. Some details of her life are unique among the B'edaya widows. But her fighting spirit and will to secure a better future for her children are not.
Warda is a 30-year-old who lives outside the city of Sohag. In this region, where the searing-hot desert is split by the Nile's waters, her husband died on the roads while transporting stone.
Since 2012, she's run a grocery out of her house — since tradition dictates that she can't leave it. She feeds her two children with the profits she makes selling sugar, rice, cheese, oil, and some canned goods to her neighbors.
Warda started her grocery with a loan of 1,700 Egyptian pounds that predated B'edaya. It came through Coptic Orphans, with the encouragement of the volunteer representative who mentors her children.
So far, the income she sought is arriving — not all she hopes for, yet, but enough to put food on the table. Today, she's part of B'edaya, and makes regular repayments on her loan through the program.
Why has her business succeeded so far? Warda attributes it to her own:
Michael, the B'edaya staff member who works with Warda, says her success is a function of her:
To these factors, Michael adds the encouragement Warda has received from both him and the Coptic Orphans "rep" who helps meet her children's education, health, and other needs.
Lastly, mixed into Michael's list, among many other factors, is the B'edaya loan. In other words, this is so much more than "take one entrepreneur, add loan, watch the results." The widow herself must bring positive qualities to the table.
At the end of the day, this last aspect of B'edaya is what sets it apart from so many other approaches to charity and development.
Unquestionably, the loan and the income it generates are good things. But the loan is only a catalyst — a means for Warda to harness her inner drive and latent abilities, and in the process, be transformed.
This aimed-for transformation from helpless, house-bound widow to self-sufficient businesswoman is the opposite of traditional charity, which (even if well-intentioned) creates a dependency on handouts.
Which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning: "How is that possible that 29 out of 30 widows made their B'edaya loan repayments over almost a year?"
I would say the critical answer is this: The loan program does not focus on these women's weaknesses — instead, it harnesses their strengths. It unlocks what's within them. And that's the key to success.
*Image and names changed to protect the privacy of B'edaya participants
Ice-cold orange juice crackles through my taste buds like lightning, taking the edge off the fiery Egyptian heat. Thank goodness for our relentless host, who's deaf to our protests of "No, please don't bother... no, really, we just had something to drink..."
Defeated by Egyptian hospitality, I settle back comfortably in a folding chair as our host, Ireney, explains how a widow like herself could beat the odds to become a prosperous trader.
It's a vast, shady room attached to her house here on the outskirts of Samalout. All around me are great, heaped-up sacks of animal feed. A heavy handful of pellets trickles through my fingers and tickles my nose, sweet and musty.
Standing by the street door, her children bustling underfoot like loose chicks, Ireney describes how a microloan from B'edaya gave her the boost to get started as an entrepreneur.
It's been a lot of work to break into the animal feed business, she concedes, and it's taken her time and sweat and persistence to stay afloat. She started small, built up her inventory in the last few months, and has begun to welcome more customers. Now she sees a monthly profit - not a huge amount, but enough to cover some of the costs racked up by her three small kids.
I listen and contemplate what Ireney's been up against. Traditions are strong here in Upper Egypt, and while some of them promote community and cooperation, others box in widows, limiting their options and even their ability to leave the house. Many mothers, lacking a male breadwinner, end up taking charity for life.
But Ireney has politely but firmly refused to follow the script: stay hopeless, stay helpless, stay house-bound.
What does she hope to do instead? Grow the business.
This is what B'edaya was meant to do.
"With my own hands." That's the meaning of "B'edaya,"and the program demonstrates what the hands of widowed mothers can accomplish if they have access to start-up money. As a microcredit initiative, B'edaya funds these women's income-generating projects from the ground up until they become self-sufficient. Donations cover all aspects of the loan process from beginning to end, and the money is reinvested over and over to help multiple families.
As I listen to Ireney, I can run the numbers in my head. In the last six months, of the 29 mothers who've taken out loans, only one hasn't been able to turn a profit. Bad luck with the livestock she bought. The other 28 mothers generated about 40,165 Egyptian pounds (US$5,617) as a net profit.
What were the widows able to do with their profits? I know that our team in the field has asked that very question, and the answers have come back: Buying new goods to build up inventory. Paying their kids' expenses. Socking away cash in savings accounts.
And this in the face of power failures, soaring inflation, and other challenges. Can you imagine? These women are overcoming things each day that would give Fortune 500 CEOs various kinds of cold sweats. They're not on the cover of Forbes. Yet. But for courage and ingenuity, they could be.
I turn my full attention back to Ireney, who's been providing some details on the animal feed market. Probably nuances I can't begin to grasp, but that's OK. What's happened here is not an organization taking responsibility for Ireney's life. On the contrary, she's taken responsibility for her own family, her own fate. I get a kick out of that. It's an incredible thing to see. It's transformative.
In my next report to you, I look forward laying out some of the obstacles that have faced widows in the B'edaya project, as well as some of the training needs they've expressed.
* Image and name of B'edaya participant have been changed in this instance to protect her privacy.
Microfinance is truly one of those things where you get back what you put into it. That's what makes it part of a transformational approach to development, as opposed to a "handouts" approach. This kind of approach is critically important when it comes to widows in Egypt. Historically, these women have experienced charitable approaches that have met their immediate needs without empowering them to break the cycle of poverty.
Every business-starting widow who takes out a loan with the B'edaya initiative commits to paying back the money so it can be ploughed back into the community. They also agree to save some of their profits to build a stable foundation for their family. In that sense, each entrepreneur is also agreeing to steer her own future, and that of her community.
Madame Nadia is one of the widows who's taken out a B'edaya loan, and she's out to prove that the headline of this update is not a typo. She's a seamstress. For the past 20 years, Madame Nadia has been supporting her family and caring for her ailing husband using a small sewing machine that she operates on the floor. She learned her trade by sewing her children’s undershirts and eventually their clothing. When her neighbors caught on to her work, she began to accumulate customers and has been making clothing for others ever since.
When her husband passed away, Madame Nadia continued to be the main provider for her family. Life didn't get any easier with the loss of her loved one, and since then she has been looking for ways to break the cycle of poverty.
That's where B'edaya comes in. With her micro-loan, Madame Nadia has purchased a new and larger sewing machine, one with a table. She has high hopes that her small business will grow.
And of course she has high hopes - otherwise, she wouldn't have taken out a loan of US$377, a large sum in her hometown of Minya in Upper Egypt. But this is the dynamic of B'edaya. It allows widows without any capital to mobilize resources for business projects that would otherwise be out of reach. It allows them to aim for a better life, in defiance of a world that arrays immense forces against them.
She's showed that she works hard and is not afraid to take calculated risks. Those are key ingredients of a successful entrepreneur. We're confident that Madame Nadia will reap what she sews, and we'll keep you updated.
“My husband use to have a photography studio together with his brother and I used to work with him. Now the brother wants to break up the partnership and open a new [studio] in a different city. He wants a sum of 4000EGP and the photography studio will only be for me.”
These were the words that widow Madame Nahed put in her Coptic Orphans Micro-Finance Project application. It was a simple plan to save her husband’s life work, and in September 2013, she was accepted for a loan and got her first check.
When our Area Program Manager met Madame Nahed two months later, she was busy. She was cutting the portraits of a young man, a customer she had photographed the previous day. As she handed him the neatly cut small square, he smiled and paid her the 10EGP ($1.44) before he was on his way. Around her, new equipment hummed: a new digital camera, an upgrade from her previous film camera, and a brand new computer screen.
While official data estimate that 16% of Egypt’s breadwinners are women, Mona Ezzat of the New Woman Foundation, says that independent sources put the figure closer to 30%. And these women brave a fierce economic market in Egypt today. Still, like Madame Nahed, so many are determined to beat the odds.
With the micro-loan from Coptic Orphans, Madame Nahed not only paid off her brother-in-law for complete ownership of the studio, but she also registered shop in her kids’ names. She even moved the studio to a better location, upgrading it with a new paint job to entice customers. Finally, she hung banners of her photographs outside of her shop as proof to her customers that she was up-to-date in her field, using programs like Photoshop. When the Area Program Manager asked her why she decided to apply for the loan, Madame Nahed replied that she was inspired because she saw an opportunity for herself to grow and to support her family. Despite the challenges --- a far commute from her home, a slumped market, and running the studio entirely along since her husband passed away four years ago--- she carries onward, forward, ready for the next customer.
“I will buy 100 hens that weigh 1KG, two sacks of corn and five drinking containers. I will let the veterinarian [oversee] my poultry but I will buy the medications. The hen lays eggs after two months so I will have at least 50 eggs every day. I will sell the eggs for 25 EGP per day. That is 750 EGP per month. [My family] Mariam and Samiha will help me and I will sell the eggs to the merchant.” ----Ekbal
It begins like this: a dream, a plan. In their applications to our B’edaya Program, each mother outlines her project idea. She imagines the kind of change this small business will bring to her life and the kind of support it will bring to her family. At Coptic Orphans, we empower each participating mother to bring her dream to reality: by providing an interest-free, micro-finance loan and helping her to develop a sustainable form of income. As of this month, Ekbal’s project is underway. She has already purchased the chickens, their medicine, and containers for them to drink. She’s consulted a veterinarian. And, she has already separated the larger chickens from the smaller ones to protect them and elongate their life. Now she waits for them to grow, produce eggs, and finally, make a profit! It is a small beginning to another beginning.
In September 2013, Coptic Orphans began another 18-month cycle of the B’edaya Program. Despite security concerns and Egypt’s contemporary political turbulence, a total of 30 mothers have received their loan checks and started their businesses. In Upper Egypt, 12 projects are up and running; Middle Egypt boasts 9; and both Greater Cairo and Lower Egypt proudly host another 9 small businesses combined. The projects include a photography studio, a small upholstery services, 5 grocery kiosks, two beauty salons, and 6 others like Ekbal’s ambitious enterprise: raising small farm animals for profit.
All it takes is some seed money. That is it. And that is how change begins.
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