Introduction

Fidaa is economically empowering women in rural areas of the Levant by implementing a grassroots venture capitalist approach that is adapted for the cultural context. In doing so, the women are becoming active, visible members of society working to raise and improve the socioeconomic development of their country.

Fidaa Abu Turky is the first entrepreneur in the Arab world to adapt business incubation for the Levantine cultural context in order to create jobs for women, encourage women entrepreneurs, and diversify local community economies. In doing so, Fidaa is providing alternative income-generating opportunities for females in rural areas who are marginalized from their society’s labor market using a grassroots, community-based, and business-adapted approach. Fidaa’s approach to elevating the economic status of women in the Levant is opening new markets and introducing the concept of business incubation in a region that traditionally relies on charity and loans.

Fidaa is adopting a venture capitalist approach/model in her initiative to empower poor, rural women economically through her business, Erada (meaning willpower). According to her business model, Fidaa provides her female clients with seed funding to start their enterprises, technical assistance through a pool of experts to ensure the quality of the products, and marketing services to guarantee the sale of the products in local and regional markets. To ensure Erada’s financial sustainability, Fidaa takes 20% of the sale profits. This 20% is reinvested into the Erada brand, operations, and other micro-projects. This approach is unique and the first of its kind with social ventures, especially those targeting women in the Arab region. Given the similarities of conditions of rural women in the Levant and other Arab countries, this model is both transferrable and replicable, not only in Palestine and the Levant, but across countries like Egypt and Morocco.

In addition to targeting women in rural communities who are economically affected by the Separation Wall (a wall that divides Palestinian territory in the West Bank), Fidaa plans to provide 10% of her grants to women with special needs to help incorporate them better into society. Through her existing efforts beginning in 2009 with Erada’s founding, Fidaa has already provided seed funding for over 1200 projects.

Over the next five years, Fidaa plans to expand outside of Palestine by partnering with local organizations in other Arab countries and providing training and coaching on her business incubation model which local organizations can then adopt. Using this strategy, Erada will continue to keep its operations independent, localized, and able to engage local communities of women on a widespread scale.

In comparison to women in other regions of the world, women in the Levant suffer from high fertility rates, gender gaps in literacy, less access to job opportunities, and under-representation in the political system. Because of international focus on the plight of women in the Middle East, there has been a number of initiatives and significant progress made in all the aforementioned areas, except for one – women’s participation in the labor market.

According to the UNDP, 90.5 % of women in Palestine remain outside the formal labor force, working as unpaid family members or in the informal sector, where they do not enjoy the benefits and protections provided by the Labor Law. Neighboring countries in the Levant such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon fare slightly better, but their numbers remain high at 85.8% and 85.1%, and 70% respectively.

This exclusion of women from economic opportunities is the result of a number of different factors. For one, prevailing patriarchal society, culture, and values view women as dependent on men for economic welfare and security. As a result, men take priority both in access to work and the enjoyment of its returns. Laws concerning labor and personal status pose further obstacles to women’s participation in formal economic life. Some personal status and labor legislation restricts women’s freedom by requiring a father or husband’s permission to work or travel.

The above factors all act together to prevent women from entering the formal labor market. To overcome these barriers, the World Bank recommends the promotion of solutions centered on micro-finance. This is a realistic and practical approach as most of the aforementioned obstacles faced by women make home-based production in the form of micro-enterprises an appealing, and culturally-appropriate solution for women in the Arab World.

Micro-finance appears to be even more attractive since access to traditional sources of capital is equally socially curtailed. The UNDP reports that women in the Arab region generally lack information about loans and borrowing, and may not have access to traditional sources of collateral; they also lack knowledge of marketing-related strategies and of supply and demand dynamics and require training in order to empower them.

Consequently, numerous micro-financing schemes have sprung up in the region; some reaching out to women specifically. Micro-enterprise loans through the Syrian government and UN Relief and Works Agency for example are provided for women at a far lower rate than for men. The Jordan Department of Statistics reports that women represent 70% of all beneficiaries of micro-finance projects. As for Palestine, the World Bank asserts that microcredit schemes are targeted to help Palestinian communities—and women in particular—alleviate poverty and cope with the crisis by creating employment.

Fidaa’s approach is unique in that by incubating the women businesses and receiving a share of the revenues, Fidaa is ensuring self-reliance and sustainability of her own initiative. Furthermore, she is providing training and rigid procedures and assessment to ensure that the products are high-quality.

A difficult task faced by a number of mico-credit agencies working in rural areas is proper follow-up and monitoring of the projects. Through a vast network of rural organizations, Fidaa ensures constant monitoring and evaluation of her beneficiaries’ projects. Furthermore, Fidaa relies on local, community-based organizations. This community-based approach adapts the business incubation model into a local cultural and social context.

Fidaa has been working on combating poverty and reducing unemployment rates amongst women by focusing on women in rural areas of Palestine who are one of the most vulnerable sectors because of their remote location and difficulty of travel due to the building of Israeli settlements and the Separation Wall. Fidaa launched her business incubation model, known as Erada, through her organization, PCCD, for Palestinian women in January 2009.

Fidaa is implementing a three-pronged approach through her initiative, Erada, for combating poverty and reducing unemployment rates amongst women in marginalized, rural communities in Palestine. She is providing financial assistance, providing technical and training services to ensure quality products are produced, and supplying marketing venues to sell the women’s products abroad. Fidaa provides grants to women living in rural communities adversely affected by the separation wall. She assesses the proposed project’s needs, provides grants to the women based on their needs, then does regular follow-up and evaluation to ensure the project is running smoothly. To complement the grant, Fidaa also provides business support resources and services through a network of 34 rural organizations. Fidaa also has partnered with a local marketing company, which markets and sells the project’s products locally, regionally and internationally.

Fidaa’s customers give 20% of their revenues to Fidaa’s organization, which in turn is reinvested into her social initiative and used to fund other micro-projects. This approach is unique and previously not used by more traditional microcredit institutions and charity projects and ensures the sustainability of Fidaa’s initiative.

In the beginning, Fidaa solicited local donations and contributions from the community in order to finance 60 mini-businesses run by females. Fidaa incubates the business idea by providing seed funding for the mini-business, which she calls a “grant”. The grant is provided in kind by assessing the proposed project’s needs. However, 20% of the business revenue goes back to Fidaa’s organization.

Along with financing the project, Fidaa provides practical and theoretical training to the women so they can effectively manage their businesses. Common services provided include helping with business basics, offering marketing assistance, and providing trainings on soft and technical skills. Fidaa’s organization monitors and evaluates the quality of the products and provides consultation when necessary. Fidaa and her team have also produced manuals with step-by-step instructions on how to run a certain business (e.g. bee-keeping) successfully and produce high-quality products.

In order to sell the women’s products, Fidaa has partnered with a local marketing company which markets and sells the products locally, regionally and internationally – including in other Palestinian towns, and in the Gulf countries. These products have a seal said “Made in Palestine by Small Female-Led Business”.

Furthermore, Fidaa also provides additional loans to women who want to expand their business. Fidaa has established an agreement with a local lending company to provide small and affordable loans to the females that are also in line with the Islamic principles of loans. The small-scale businesses that Fidaa initially sponsored were agricultural and rural in nature, such as bee-keeping, sheep and cattle herding, and creating home gardens to produce crops and medicinal herbs.

As a result of the success of the first phase of the initiative which ended in 2010, Fidaa has received additional funding from the Canadian Agency for International Development, the Representative Office of Japan, the Representative Office of Germany, and the OPEC Fund and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development to incubate 555 women-run mini-businesses in the year 2011. As of 2011, Fidaa has incubated over 1200 projects and has managed $2 million in funding. Based on their evaluation of Fidaa’s initiative, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development has also pledged an additional $750,000 for Fidaa to expand the business incubation model to Northern Palestine.

Currently, Fidaa runs and manages the business incubation initiative, known as “Erada”, through her organization PCCD. The main office of PCCD manages the entire operation, with four branches throughout Palestine. The daily follow-up and trainings are implemented through a strong network of 34 rural charity organizations in Palestine, who also help to manage the relationship with the local marketing company.

Within the next 2-3 years, Fidaa plans to establish Erada as a separate organization to focus purely on business incubation and to expand this business incubation model throughout the Arab world – including the Levant, North Africa and the Gulf countries. By economically empowering different groups of women continuously, Fidaa aims to empower 5,000 women in the next ten years and thus contribute to elevating the economic status of women in the Arab world. Her goal is to become the business incubator for female-led small businesses around the Arab world.

Fidaa grew up in Hebron, Palestine. Hebron is a city in the West Bank that has been subjected to intense curfews and suffers tensions and attacks from an Israeli settlement built in the middle of the city. Life is harsh and difficult and movement around the city has contributed to the extreme poverty. Growing up, Fidaa experienced harassment and intimidation from settlers on her way to school and back home. She was particularly affected by an intense 60-day shutdown of Hebron following the massacre and attack on a popular mosque that occurred when she was 11 years old. For 60 days, the entire community suffered from lack of access to food, supplies and money and Fidaa witnessed how her mother was worried about how to feed the family.

Through her personal experiences and those of her fellow family and friends, Fidaa has been an avid community mobilizer and social activist to help improve the socioeconomic conditions of women.

Fidaa comes from an uneducated family who encouraged her to excel in her studies. During her university years from 2001-2005, she studied primary education and business administration. She played a leading role in a variety of local, grassroots organizations and founded two civil society organizations while in university. The first was the Palestinian Center for Communication and Development Strategies, which raises awareness in communities and schools on the importance of teenagers finishing their education instead of beginning labor-intensive jobs (in the case of boys) or marrying early (in the case of girls).

Two years later in 2003, Fidaa founded the Network of Rural Development Committees in which she created linkages and synergies amongst the development organizations scattered throughout the rural areas of Palestine offering trainings, fundraising tips and connecting them to donors. It is through the Network of Rural Development Committees that she implements her current initiative, Erada throughout the villages in Palestine.

In her third year of university, Fidaa was offered a scholarship to pursue a Masters in Social Policy from Birzet University. In 2009, Fidaa co-founded Palestinian Center for Communication and Development Studies (PCCD). Currently, Fidaa is the Financial and Administrative Director of PCCD, and it is through PCCD that she implements her business incubator initiative, Erada.

Fidaa is a current finalist for the King Abdullah II Award for Youth Innovation and Achievement, funded by the King Abdullah II Fund for Development. She looks forward to becoming an Ashoka fellow and connecting with the other Ashoka Arab World fellows to build a strong, regional base so that she can expand and replicate her business incubation model around the Arab world. She is a strong believer on local, grassroots-based approach to solving the issue of unemployment and poverty because she believes that the community must rely on their own strength and wisdom to bring about change.