Giving Libyan Women Entrepreneurial Independence

  • 6 Min Read

Non-profit MEDA is delivering business training in a place where going to a classroom is no longer possible.

Becoming an entrepreneur is a difficult journey even in the best of circumstances, let alone as a woman in a warzone. However, that is the path Majda Shtewi is currently travelling. Two years ago, the 30-something Libyan woman was struggling with her home-based wedding accessories business in a country torn apart by conflict.

Now, thanks to the efforts of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored program implemented by Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) called Libya Women Economic Empowerment (LWEE), Majda is the proud owner of her own Tripoli-based fully equipped training and advertising center where she teaches graphic design, as she and other women across the country are acquiring the necessary training and skills to launch and run their own enterprises.

Women stepping in to fill a business void

It’s been five long years since the Libyan Civil War and the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Rather than bringing the independence and freedom Libyan people longed for, the Libyan Revolution became the match to a flame, tipping the North African country into a state of ongoing upheaval and conflict that continues to this day. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, some 2.44 million people needed humanitarian assistance and protection. The number of civilian casualties remained unknown, but some 20,000 were injured between May 2014 and May 2015, the UN estimated. At least 600 civilians were killed in 2015 according to the ICC Prosecutor.

There are ongoing security issues. Cities face the constant risk of shelling. Travel – even short distances – is very risky. Many schools and businesses have closed due to the hostilities. Most of the country’s oil revenues have dried up, and Libyans face daily electricity, fuel and Internet shortages.

Life is particularly hard for Libyan women who, like Majda, have been left behind to manage the homes and families while husbands, brothers and fathers are engaged in fighting. While many Libyan women are highly educated, in the culturally conservative country it is unusual, and even frowned upon, for women to take up business leadership roles, or to own their own property. However, due to the ongoing conflict, women have stepped in to assume greater scope of responsibility, taking over family businesses, and filling in the business gaps left vacant in the community.

Unleashing unrecognized economic potential

Seeing an opportunity to stimulate Libya’s economy through female entrepreneurship, USAID approached MEDA, an international economic development organization, whose mission is to create business solutions to poverty. Attracted by the success of a similar MEDA project in Pakistan, where women entrepreneurs conducted outreach to other women, USAID partnered with MEDA to unleash the economic potential of women’s entrepreneurship in Libya.

“We recognized women could play a critical role in ensuring Libya builds a vibrant business sector and in helping the country rise above instability and strife,” says Helen Loftin, VP of Economic Opportunities, Youth and Women for MEDA. “When women are able to earn an income, they contribute to the household and can move beyond basic survival needs. They also become more empowered and confident in their abilities. They become a more active participant in the decision-making in the household.”

Launched as a pilot in 2012, the LWEE project set a goal to train 200 women entrepreneurs, ages 18 to 65, across a number of Libyan cities such as Tripoli, Benghazi and Zawia. Spearheaded on the ground by Intissar Rajabany, women were coached in fundamental business skills, with local LWEE workers helping them to build a business plan, manage finances, market their product and tap into different resources within the country, such as staff and facilities, to build a sustainable operation.

Over 600 applicants were received for the initial Phase I training, which was delivered face to face, through workshops, networking events and other gatherings. Now a few years in, the program has accomplished its initial training goals and has been recognized by other development organizations in Libya and the Libyan people as a successful program.

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Delivering training in a warzone

Just like the country in which it operates, the LWEE program has faced its share of challenges. Training entrepreneurs in the middle of a warzone is beyond difficult. In 2014, a significant flare-up in the conflict caused the pull-out of all foreign organizations, diplomatic missions and companies from Libya. Tripoli faced a barrage of shelling resulting in the shutdown of major portions of the city. Even LWEE offices sustained a direct missile hit.

“Intissar’s management and problem-solving skills were instrumental in enabling the programming to continue during this very challenging time,” says Helen Loftin. “To engage with the LWEE program, women literally were putting their lives in jeopardy to attend training classes. We were also experiencing an outpouring of need from across the country and recognized it would be nearly impossible for us to deliver similar services all over Libya. We knew we needed to find a better delivery option.”

For Phase II of the program, MEDA submitted a second proposal to USAID recommending a virtual business incubation (VBI) model, allowing the LWEE program training to be delivered in an online model.

“Despite its challenges, Libya actually has quite a sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure – 97% of people MEDA surveyed owned a mobile phone, 89% had access to a laptop and 96% had Internet connectivity. So we knew a VBI model was possible. We were considering email, or phone and providing training online,” explains Adam Bramm, Associate Director, West Africa, MENA/MEDA. “Then I went to my knowledge management director at MEDA and described what we were looking for. He suggested a learning management system (LMS). I had never even heard of the concept before.”

Online learning lessens the danger, broadens the scope

After learning a bit more about the LMS landscape and available technologies, Bramm and the MEDA team discovered Brightspace by D2L.

Initial meetings with the D2L team proved promising. The Brightspace platform was a natural fit for the LWEE project, easy to use and capable of supporting MEDA’s vision for virtual business incubation delivered via a mobile phone. The company was philosophically aligned with the project’s goal to engage and empower women. And to the MEDA team’s delight, the Brightspace platform also fully supported delivery of content in the Arabic language.

“Our learners are very different from the typical tech-savvy western millennial,” says Bramm. “Libyan women have a different reality. But the D2L team was very good at working with us and finding common ground. For instance, we needed to keep training very streamlined and simple. Given the bandwidth restrictions and power shortages in Libya, materials needed to be accessible online and offline, graphics had to be kept to a minimum and content needed to be accessible on multiple platforms.”

Liberating women to realize their business goals

In the course of her training, Majda was able to win a business competition entitling her to a $17,000 business grant, allowing her to firmly establish her training center and advertising business. She launched her company in 2015, and is now revising her business plan to allow her to expand her services.

“We have so many success stories coming out of this project – women who have been able to start businesses and bring income into the family. Outside of the pure economic drive of the project, we find we have become something of a community stabilizing force in a time of great instability. Women are coming together to form their own support network and it is fantastic to see,” says Bramm.

“Our training is not just focused on business training. It also addresses the soft skills, such as negotiation and leadership, which also are required for entrepreneurs who are establishing a business,” says Helen Loftin. “Many of our LWEE beneficiaries never thought they would be able to engage with men, or negotiate contracts on their own. They’ve become more assertive and able to represent themselves, and it’s been quite liberating.”

The VBI phase of the LWEE projects with Brightspace is expected to kick off during the summer of 2016. MEDA officials expect this next phase of training to be very positively received by women across Libya and are already accepting applications for participation.

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