Micro-finance Project in Egypt-Empower 200 women

by Coptic Orphans

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.

Madame Nahed meets in her newly purchased studio
Madame Nahed meets in her newly purchased studio

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.

B'edaya Bird



“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.



Shadia had no savings and only seven Egyptian pounds (about $1 USD) in her pocket. She was an illiterate widow living with her only son in Alexandria. What could she do with that money?

For seven Egyptian pounds, she could buy bread for four days. Or, she could spend it all on one meal of beans or lentils.

But Shadia had her eye on something much more valuable: she wanted to educate her son. She needed that money —and much more — to pay his school fees.

So here is what she did.

She applied for a microcredit loan to start a mini-mart in her small village. When her application was approved, she gained access to resources that empowered her to start and run a successful business. Shadia can't forget the first day villagers swarmed her store to to buy their staples. Through this small project,  Shadia took her first sturdy step towards financial independence earning about 200 pounds a month.

This project turned life around for Shadia and her son. It was the perfect choice. 

The truth is that there are countless widows in Egypt barely scraping by. Many have the creativity to do a lot with a little, but they still need that extra bit of help that will lift themselves and their children out of poverty.



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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