Egyptian women make their mark

Niveen Wahish , Tuesday 3 Mar 2020

A new group has taken Facebook by storm, uncovering the talent, passion and entrepreneurship of Egyptian women

Works of Atef

It has been fewer than three months since the “I Make This” group showcasing entrepreneurial talent among Egyptian women was created on Facebook, and it has already reached some 150,000 followers.

Rania Atef, the creator of the group, said its target was to provide a platform where women who had a product or service that they make themselves could advertise for free. Advertising fees on Facebook have become expensive, she told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that she created the group as an alternative.

The group’s idea has caught on like wildfire, proving beneficial to advertisers and members alike. The things many women are making are also incredible, Atef said. In fact, from handcrafted biscuits, embroidery and jewellery to dog beds, fine arts and fashion styling, anything and everything can be bought off the group.

source: The World Bank

The products are also authentic and unique, unlike mass-produced items on the market. Atef, who lives abroad with her husband, said she could not get herself to buy the usual Christmas gifts after having seen what was available on the group. She wanted to be back in Cairo to do her Christmas shopping.

Since its creation, demand to join the group has been overwhelming. Atef receives close to 300 requests to post every day, and some weeks following its creation she changed the group’s rules and is now very selective about the products that get posted. She chooses those that have something unique to offer and posts around 20 items per day.

The level of creativity and diversity is a decisive factor in who posts, she said. This is important in order to allow each product enough viewing time and to give the group members time to digest each product, she explained.

Atef, a graduate of the London School of Economics, is a freelance family photographer, a job she is passionate about and one that allows her time to take care of her three children and gives her the flexibility to be with her husband who works abroad. She has also posted samples of her work on the website.

source: The World Bank

In order to be approved, posts must include a brief description and photographs of the service or product the person is providing, as well as sample prices. They should also include a Facebook page or Instagram page so that people can follow them. And they need to be accepting of other group members reviewing what they have to offer.

The main purpose is to help creative women reach new market opportunities that they would not be able to reach otherwise. “Let’s empower each other for free,” is Atef’s motto. The group provides advertisers with an audience representing significant purchasing power, she says, and despite the number of posts, “those who have something special to offer will always make it,” she added.

Atef encourages page users to show support by following the pages of the advertisers, complementing their work or even just liking their posts. “It helps their posts to be more visible and puts a smile on their faces,” she wrote on Facebook. She also encourages users to review products they have tried.

Sara Al-Kady, one of the advertisers, makes printed textiles and home accessories. For her, joining the group has been a game-changer, multiplying her customers. She said she had always wanted to have her own business, but she had only decided to take the plunge a year ago. At first, she did so while also holding the job of teacher’s assistant and studying for a Masters degree in mass communication. But starting her business coincided with her getting pregnant, and after giving birth she could not get back to the regular fixed-hour job, and since she could not extend her maternity leave, she decided to resign.

Works of Nagy

Now she dedicates her time to her baby, finishing off her studies, and taking care of the business. Whereas she used to get one order per week, after joining the group she is getting one order per day. Now she wants to quickly finish off her studies to be able to give her full attention to the business. To her the group has provided a target market that is socio-economically doing well and who can afford and appreciate her customised products.

Digitally printing textiles is costly, she said, which was why her products were more expensive than similar products on the market. She was thrilled by the reaction she got from the group, and she hopes that if her business really takes off, she might consider giving up her other career altogether.

Works of Rushdy

WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS: Al-Shaimaa Rushdy does cookie art, meaning that she makes cookies and individually paints them using what is known as royal icing.

She developed the skill while living in Saudi Arabia with her husband who worked there. A petroleum engineer by education, Rushdy taught herself the cooking skills needed for the cookie art because she loved the process. It was never her intention to go commercial, as mostly she would simply make cookies for her children’s class whenever there was an occasion.

Rushdy started her business a year and half ago when she got back to Egypt. Today, she not only sells her products online, but has also started giving classes. One thing she often tells her students is that if they believe in themselves and work hard enough, they are bound to reach their target.

What the women have to offer seems endless. Alyaa Mohamed Hashem is owner and co-founder of an arts centre, and as a graduate of the Fine Arts Education Faculty in Cairo, she worked in graphic design for years. But with two children, working as a graphic designer in the advertising business did not work for her, as she was able to spend very little time with her children. If she had continued, one thing would have had to give way on account of the other.

Together with her husband, she therefore decided to open an art academy where she wanted to help budding talent in the way her father had helped her. She continued to paint and to take part in art exhibitions, but never sold her work. But a year ago, she followed a friend’s advice and decided to sell her paintings as well. She is grateful for the group’s appreciation of her work.

Besides the businesses often associated with women such as catering, makeup, baking and embroidery, the group has showcased more unusual businesses such as car repair, storytelling sessions, parenting instructors, and kids’ bike club organisers, among many others. Maha Nagy, for instance, makes dog beds. She wrote on the group that the idea of her business all started out of the love for her dog. After having made a bed for her dog and finding that he liked it, she posted the picture on the group and in fewer than two months her dog bed had turned into a business.

Works of El-Kady

It is not just about products: some women are there to offer a service, others to inspire, and still others to inform people about their blogs or Instagram accounts. Walaa Zoulfakar posted on the group to inform people about her styling service. Though she works for an international organisation, Zoulfakar also has a passion for clothes. “It puts me in a good mood,” she said.

A year ago, she took an online course from a styling institution in London, and since then she has launched her own business. Zoulfakar, who has changed her own style since then, helps women who want a makeover to find the style that suits them, enabling them to make the most of the pieces in their wardrobe.

This is a service that is relatively new to the Egyptian market, she said, but there is a growing market for it as girls and women are increasingly paying attention to fashion. She even offers her clientele, usually women between the ages of 25 and 45, shopping sessions where she goes with them to shops to buy their needs.

Zoulfakar said she tries to choose simple and practical items that do not divert too far from the client’s existing style to ensure the sustainability of the makeover. She also follows up with them to make sure they remain on track. While one-on-one sessions are only for women, she also offers online styling advice to men as well. With a full-time job, however, Zoulfakar is only able to do her side job at weekends. If her business were ever to take off, she would want to make it her full-time job, she said.

There are two types of women in the group, Atef, the group creator, explained, those that are already in a job but who also do something they are passionate about on the side and those that have left corporate life behind and taught themselves something or developed a skill that they want to use to create their own business. Many women in Egypt want to find something to do to enable them to be financially independent, yet they also want something that is convenient for them, especially if they have children, she explained.

In terms of the larger statistics, women’s participation in the labour market in Egypt declined from 27 per cent in 2006 to 23 per cent in 2012 and 21 per cent in 2018, according to a policy brief by the Economic Research Forum, a NGO, on “The Future of Labour Supply and Demographics in Egypt: Impending Challenges and Untapped Potential” by researchers Caroline Krafft and Emma Kettle.

“We would expect that as Egyptian women become more educated, their labour force participation would similarly increase. This is not happening in Egypt, in part due to the decline of the public sector (women’s preferred employer), the low quality of jobs created by the private sector, and the difficulties women face reconciling domestic responsibilities with work,” the authors say.

Works of Hashem

Meanwhile, on the Facebook group the items that have the largest number of posts include jewellery, crochet and knitting, and baking, said Atef. What helps the group grow by the day is that anyone wanting to post must also invite friends to join the group, thus creating a larger pool of viewers. At first, Atef thought that she would allow people to post only once about their product. But she said that this would not have been fair because when some people posted at the start of the group, there were only a couple of thousand followers, whereas now there are tens of thousands.

Atef is now also taking the group beyond the virtual world. A bazaar scheduled for 13-14 March is being organised where members can rent physical space to display their goods. She is also creating another group called “I Make This Lab” (IMT Lab), which she intends to be a form of “incubator” to help small businesses grow. It provides opportunities for training, funding and collaboration, Atef said. The group now has an Instagram account to allow for more exposure.

For Atef, the group has become a handful. Whereas as a freelance journalist and photographer she worked around three hours a day, she has since been putting in 15 hours per day since the creation of the group to manage the flow of posts. She is also putting in more time and flying back to Cairo on a more frequent basis to administer the IMT Lab and organise the bazaar.

For Atef, the group holds the promise of her very own business.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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