Micro-finance Project in Egypt-Empower 200 women

by Coptic Orphans
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B'edaya moms have more to smile about than money.

Money, money, money. It's easy to think of microfinance only in those terms.

But the surprising thing is how your support for B'edaya changes lives in ways that go far beyond money and material benefits.

No one explains this better than Salma. She's one of the widows who was able to start an in-home grocery store thanks to a loan that your support makes possible.

Being involved with B'edaya, she told me recently, has "meant the world" to her.

"It's made my daughter proud of me," were her exact words.

Salma's words echo what I've heard from many others among the 30 mothers in Sohag, Minya, Alexandria, Monofiyya, and Cairo who received the most recent round of B'edaya loans in 2014.

Over and over, their descriptions of B'edaya reflect wider impacts on their lives: stronger family unity, greater self-worth, an increased sense of confidence and direction.

Salma reminds me that when you and I partner to equip these smart, strong mothers with the tools to break the cycle of poverty, the least we should hope for is financial success.

The ultimate outcome, God willing, is widowed mothers who — perhaps for the first time in their lives — feel fulfilled, valuable, and in control of their destiny.

In March of 2016, we will kick off a new round of B'edaya loans. We want to reach even more mothers in this round — a total of 50. Will you help us gear up for that round, so that we achieve our goal of empowering 200 women through microfinance? A good surge of support this May will put us over the halfway mark of our fundraising effort!

Thank you, as always, for your support. As Salma says, it means the world.

Egyptian businesswoman Samah in her showroom/"set"
Egyptian businesswoman Samah in her showroom/"set"

Some days, in Egypt, you just wish the TV crews were there to record what you're looking at. Great material for reality shows is everywhere. Who needs the Kardashians when you have real live Egyptians doing the most amazing stuff, often while talking on their cell phone and driving 77 mph?

The most amazing Egyptian I've met lately is Samah. She's perfect for a reality show in the style of The Apprentice, that goopy drama where Donald Trump eliminates his protégés by shouting "You're fired!" Samah is an up-and-coming businesswoman herself — although she's a widow raising a young girl, she's paying her bills by retailing blankets, bathmats, and other household goods.

But really, Samah could have a show of her own — Real Businesswomen of Egypt ? — because she needs no Trump to hire or fire her. She's doing it her way, with the help of a loan from Coptic Orphans' B'edaya microfinance initiative.

In fact, the closest person to a Donald Trump in Samah's life is the Coptic Orphans "rep" who works with her. Reps, you'll remember, are the Church-based volunteers who guide and mentor the orphans in our Not Alone program, and who support their mothers in acquiring life skills. This particular rep, whose name is Isis, has been a source of inspiration and coaching for Samah.

From the moment you meet Isis, you know she's no Trump-style caricature of what a mentor should be. She's not looking to create a money-making empire; instead, Isis is all about building strong, faithful, self-sufficient families by serving the Church and "her" orphans. She exudes patience and kindness, qualities she has used to walk Samah through the process of starting her business. She's also got two other essential ingredients: determination and business savvy.

With Isis's help, and lots of hard work, here's the enterprise that Samah has gotten up and running. After looking around her neighborhood to see what her customers really need, Samah buys a load of household goods from a wholesaler. These, she sells out of her own home, which doubles as a showroom. The income she generates is of enormous benefit to raising her daughter, and allows her to keep them — and her home — in a healthy state. She's even sewed new curtains for her windows.

Samah, who credits part of her success to good people skills and strong business ethics, is a "graduate" of B'edaya now. She's paid off her loan, yet she continues to receive income from the business she's built. It's steady money — something she can rely on. Not only that, she reports that her income from the business has increased sevenfold since 2010. For B'edaya, that's right on target, because the goal is to foster family independence and self-reliance.

Things have not always been so rosy, especially in 2004, when Samah's husband died after five years of battling liver cancer. The illness was emotionally and financially draining; the family spent every pound they had and borrowed more to pay off medical bills. It has taken a long time to get past the initial stages of mourning and recovery.

But handling these challenges, and encouraging a move to family self-sufficiency, is what B'edaya is all about. It's a microfinance initiative that tailors small no-interest loans to the needs of widows in our Not Alone program, giving them an income, more skills to feed their children, and more control of their lives. In the second round of loans, from the beginning of 2013 through January 2015, B'edaya disbursed US$14,067, with 29 of an initial group of 37 mothers seeing the process through to fruition. The loan recipients are in Sohag, Minya, Alexandria, Monofiyya, and some less well-off areas of Cairo.

When I visited Samah this month, I met her daughter Amira. She's at the top of her 12th-grade class and doing exceptionally well, with all kinds of honors. She's well-positioned to be accepted into a competitive university.

"She's the angel who God has sent me," Samah tells me.

I have to think: Wouldn't that be a much better ending for a reality TV show than Donald Trump yelling "You're fired!"?

A small business is no small undertaking in Egypt.
A small business is no small undertaking in Egypt.

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:

  • Courage and lack of fear of the situation surrounding her
  • Ability to take into consideration the culture of the people and their needs
  • Selection of a project that fits the nature of the restrictions imposed on widows in her region
  • High ambitions and desire that the project become her main source of income
  • Basic knowledge about reading and writing
  • High level of organization and awareness of her business environment

Michael, the B'edaya staff member who works with Warda, says her success is a function of her:

  • Drive to secure a sustainable monthly income
  • Courage and determination to change her status as a widow
  • Ambition to use her personal abilities to become self-reliant
  • Flexibility in the face of shifting conditions
  • Ability to search out alternatives and solutions
  • Awareness of how to properly manage her project

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.

 

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Organization Information

Coptic Orphans

Location: Merrifield, Virginia - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.copticorphans.org
Project Leader:
Kirollos Barsoum
Merrifield, VA United States

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