Micro-finance Project in Egypt-Empower 200 women

by Coptic Orphans
Vetted

Imagine the sense accomplishment you'd feel at being able to buy blankets for your children when before they'd shivered on chilly nights. Furthermore, imagine being able to buy your kids a new mattress to keep them off the cold tiled floor of your home.

That's the sense of accomplishment that Salma has — and she's a widow who's never before experienced economic empowerment.

Salma, a mother of two young children, lost her husband eight years ago in a traffic accident. Her troubles were compounded by health problems.

I met Salma in the Upper Egyptian city of Sohag, where up until recently, she and her family endured the brief but chilly winter nights as best they could. Her sense of what she had to put up with in life, though, has changed since six years ago. That's when she got involved with B'edaya.

Using a small loan provided by the project, she started a hairdressing business in her home. B'edaya allowed her to develop her enterprise by buying modern equipment. With that boost, she went from having to travel to her clients, to having them come to her house for appointments.

"The equipment is what attracts the ladies to come to me," she told me, showing off the neat wooden shelves where she stacks her hair dryer, combs, and hair care supplies.

"Salma is very wise in how she manages the profits from her business," said Susan, the Coptic Orphans staff member who oversees Salma's loan. Indeed, the money from styling her neighbors' hair has purchased the new mattress and blankets that keep Salma's kids warm at night.

This is all part of the B'edaya strategy, which emphasizes empowerment over handouts. For all of the widows who take out loans, the capital and the income it helps generate are good things. But the loan is only a catalyst — a means for Salma to harness her inner drive and latent abilities, and in the process, be transformed.

It's especially important to focus on transformation in the society where Salma is from, because traditions about widowhood in Upper Egypt are piled on top of other patriarchal constraints. The end result is that widows are often house-bound and kept helpless. To see a widow in this situation evolve into a businesswoman, therefore, is quite extraordinary. The blankets and mattress, in this context, are the smallest wonders I can see in Salma's home.

As is proper, B'edaya can't take credit for this transformation. That credit goes to Salma herself. And that's how it should be.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of B'edaya participant.

Susan - a proud entrepreneur - and her daughter.
Susan - a proud entrepreneur - and her daughter.

A giant drawing of St. George looms over visitors to Susan's home, but she's not waiting for heroes on horseback to save her family. She's taking her fate into her own hands — she's had to, since the artist, her husband, passed away two years ago.

When I first met Susan this August, she was still grieving for her husband. But, as she says, the time came when she had to decide how to support her 8-year-old daughter.

It wasn't going to be easy, there in her marginalized neighborhood on the outskirts of Minya in Upper Egypt. From an already hardscrabble existence, her husband's death dropped her down even farther on the economic ladder. For Susan's family, some necessities quickly became luxuries.

Added to the economic blow of widowhood came the restrictions imposed on her by Egypt's male-dominated society. Expectations are that widows will stick to the home and rely on charity to survive.

Certainly, the last thing anyone in Egypt expects a widow to do is to go into business. Better, the thinking goes, that they live on handouts. Yet, says Susan, "I knew I had to do something productive."

It was an uphill battle to scrape together what remained of her savings, borrow bits and pieces here and there from family and friends, and turn a room of her house into a dry goods store. But Susan did it.

Today, people from the neighborhood pop in for their bags of detergent and other household needs. Their small purchases earn a thin margin of profit that helps put bread on the table for Susan's daughter.

Talking to Susan, I came to understand the pride she takes in this achievement, and the depth of her drive to succeed despite huge, huge obstacles.

It's for people like Susan that B'edaya, Coptic Orphans' microfinance project, exists. I'm proud that we've begun the process of selecting a new group of 50 mothers to receive B'edaya loans of up to 7,000 Egyptian pounds (around US$1,000).

For those who have already started a business, the money may foot the bill for improvements that offer a competitive advantage in the market. For others, the loan may be the first step towards financial self-sufficiency, and fund the foundation of the enterprise they're envisioning.

B'edaya mothers — all of them the widowed mothers of orphans in our program — have successfully run everything from feed stores to photography studios to home furnishings outlets.

This next round of B'edaya builds on the achievements of 30 mothers in Sohag, Minya, Alexandria, Monofiyya, and Cairo who received the most recent round of loans in 2014. So thanks to generous support from all over the world, we're getting closer to our goal of empowering 200 women through microfinance!

The next round will begin in March 2016, and the widows selected to participate will receive ongoing coaching and skills-building to ensure that they can use their loans to best effect.

We hope that all of the Susans of Egypt will apply for B'edaya's next round, and we're encouraging them to do so. Because as she can tell you, there's a difference between waiting for a handout and being your own boss.

The difference is pride.

B
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

 

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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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