Fida Abu Turky

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Fida Abu Turky's work was prepared when Fida Abu Turky was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011 .

Introduction

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

The New Idea

Fida 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. Fida is providing alternative income-generating opportunities for women in rural areas who are marginalized from their society’s labor market, using a grassroots, community-based, and business-adapted approach. Fida’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.

Fida is adopting a venture capitalist approach/model in her initiative to economically empower poor, rural women through her business, Irada (meaning Will Project). According to her business model, Fida provides 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 Irada’s financial sustainability, Fida takes 20 percent of the sale profits. This 20 percent is reinvested into the Irada 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 (e.g. the wall that divides Palestinian territory in the West Bank), Fida plans to provide 10 percent of her grants to women with special needs to help incorporate them better into society. Through her existing efforts beginning in 2009 with Irada’s founding, Fida has provided seed funding for over 1,200 projects.

Over the next five years, Fida will expand outside 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, Irada will continue to keep its operations independent, localized, and able to engage local communities of women on a widespread scale.

The Problem

In comparison to women in other regions of the world, women in the Levant suffer from high pregnancy rates, gender gaps in literacy, less access to job opportunities, and under-representation in the political system. Because of an 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 percent 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 labor law. Neighboring countries in the Levant such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon fare slightly better, but their numbers remain high at 85.8 percent, 85.1 percent, and 70 percent 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.

Combined, these factors prevent women from entering the formal labor market. To overcome these barriers, the World Bank recommends the promotion of solutions centered on microfinance. 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.

Microfinance 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 lack knowledge of marketing-related strategies and of supply and demand dynamics; and require training in order to empower them.

Consequently, numerous microfinancing schemes have arisen throughout 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 percent of all beneficiaries of microfinance 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.

While microfinance is a viable employment option for women, a difficult task faced by a number of micocredit agencies working in rural areas is proper follow-up and monitoring of the projects. Additionally, insurances that products of microfinance loans such as crafts or services, may not always reach the right markets, and repaying loans can be a challenge.

The Strategy

Fida has been working on combating poverty and reducing unemployment rates among women by focusing on women in rural areas of Palestine; one of the most vulnerable populations because of their remote location and the difficulties in traveling from their homes, due to the building of Israeli settlements and the Separation Wall.

The Palestinian Center for Communication & Development Strategies (PCCDS) was launched in January 2009 from Fida’s organization. It is implementing a three-pronged approach for combating poverty and reducing unemployment rates among women in marginalized, rural communities in Palestine. Fida provides financial assistance, technical and training services to ensure quality products are produced, and supplies market venues to sell the women’s products abroad. Fida provides grants to women living in rural communities adversely affected by the Separation Wall. She assesses the proposed project’s needs, provides grants to women based on their needs, and then conducts regular follow-up and evaluation to ensure the project is running smoothly. To complement the grant, Fida also provides business support resources and services through a network of thirty-four rural organizations. She has partnered with a local marketing company, which markets and sells the project’s products locally, regionally, and internationally—including in other Palestinian towns, and in the Gulf countries. These products have a seal which reads: Made in Palestine by Small Female-Led Business.

Fida’s customers give 20 percent of their revenues to Irada, which in turn is reinvested into her social initiative and used to fund other micro-projects. This approach is unique and previously untapped by more traditional microcredit institutions and charity projects. This strategy ensures the sustainability of Fida’s initiative as well as strengthens and supports the social businesses Irada incubates.

In the beginning, Fida solicited local donations and contributions from the community to finance sixty mini-businesses run by women. Fida incubates the business idea by providing seed funding for the mini-business, which she calls a “grant.” The grant is supplied in-kind through assessing the proposed project’s needs.

Along with financing the project, Fida provides practical and theoretical training to 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. Fida’s organization monitors and evaluates the quality of the products and provides consultation when necessary. Fida and her team have also produced manuals with step-by-step instructions on how to manage a certain business (e.g. beekeeping) successfully and produce high-quality products.

Furthermore, Fida provides additional loans to women who want to expand their businesses. She has established an agreement with a local lending company to provide small and affordable loans to women that are also in line with the Islamic loan principles. The small-scale businesses that Fida initially sponsored were agricultural and rural in nature, such as beekeeping, 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, Fida 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 2011. As of 2011, Fida incubated over 1,200 projects and has managed US$2M in funding. Based on their evaluation of Fida’s initiative, the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development has pledged an additional US$750,000 to expand the business incubation model to Northern Palestine.

Fida’s approach is unique in that by incubating the women’s businesses and receiving a share of the revenues, she is ensuring self-reliance and sustainability of her own initiative while providing the right support for women’s start-up businesses to succeed. Furthermore, she is providing training and rigid procedures and assessment to ensure that the products are of high-quality. Through a vast network of rural organizations, Fida ensures constant monitoring and evaluation of her beneficiaries’ projects. Furthermore, she relies on local, community-based organizations. This community-based approach adapts the business incubation model into a local cultural and social context.

Within the next two to three years, Fida plans to establish Irada as a separate organization to focus purely on business incubation and to expand this model throughout the Arab world—including the Levant, North Africa, and the Gulf countries. By economically empowering different groups of women, Fida 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 in the Arab world.

The Person

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

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

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

In 2003 Fida founded the Network of Rural Development Committees in which she created linkages and synergies among development organizations scattered throughout the rural areas of Palestine, offering trainings, fundraising tips, and connections to donors. In her third year of university, Fida was offered a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Social Policy from Birzet University. In 2009 Fida co-founded PCCDS. Currently, Fida is the Financial and Administrative Director of PCCDS, and it is through PCCDS that she implements her business incubator initiative, Irada.

Fida is also a finalist for the King Abdullah II Award for Youth Innovation and Achievement, funded by the King Abdullah II Fund for Development. Fida is a strong believer in local, grassroots-based approaches for solving the issue of unemployment and poverty because she believes communities must rely on their own strength and wisdom to bring about change.