From Sweet Shops to Festivals: The Women Challenging Yemeni Business Traditions

The business environment in Yemen is complex and male-centric, presenting numerous barriers to women's participation. However, Yemeni women have managed to enter the business field and have quickly been able to prove their abilities despite the country’s traditions and customs – which are obstacles to their efforts – as well as more general complications and practical difficulties.

Many women were able to overcome these challenges and start their own small businesses from home, with few resources available to them because of the tough economic conditions caused by the conflict.

Samah al-Qadasi, a Sana’a-based baker, is one of the women who faced difficulties in opening up a business in a retail outlet – a sweet shop – and so instead she established her sweet shop enterprise in her own home. al-Qadasi’s idea to manage a small business from home crystallized after encouragement from friends, because of her excellent skills in baking sweets and pastries.

A mother of three, al-Qadasi says: “We were used to women’s work being limited to fulfilling the husband’s and the children’s domestic needs, and it wasn’t common at all for a woman to start her own business and go against the famous Yemeni proverb ‘The home is the woman’ (al bayt al mara) to become a business owner and think commercially to improve her income level.”

She started her own business about three months ago with a modest budget, buying the necessary equipment to make sweets. She then gave out her business cards at parties and festivals, attracting many customers. She says: “I bake sweets and pastries. My participation in festivals run by foundations that support Yemeni businesswomen has helped me a lot.”

Through her small business, al-Qadasi was able to better her economic situation. She became the primary breadwinner for her family after her husband stopped receiving a salary six months ago due to the war, which has been going on for more than two years.

She adds, “Every woman must break the barrier that was created by society, launch her own business, and develop the skills she has. Even if the business is small at first, it will grow with time as long as the will for that to happen is there.”

As well as al-Qadasi, there are many Yemeni women who have launched their businesses from home, and then succeeded in managing them until they were able to establish shops.

 Photo Courtney of SMEPS  

Photo Courtney of SMEPS  

Eman Mu’jam, a Yemeni businesswoman, started her journey in entrepreneurship before the war by selling merchandise on social media, which enabled her to attract a lot of clients. Mu’jam developed her business and was able to open a shop in 2011. She called it Emy Fashion. Step by step, Mu’jam continued her journey: she now owns a group of shops, as well as a development foundation aimed at economically empowering women.

Mu’jam says, “I started my business by importing products that women use, like clothes and accessories and beauty products from abroad, and then selling and promoting them on social media. I gained the trust of many clients, and was able to develop my business step by step until I was able to set up a group of stores.”

She affirms that Yemeni women had proven themselves by holding down many different types of jobs, but says that it’s different when it comes to setting up your own business as a woman, as you are bound to face a lot of difficulties. She adds, “The moral support given by their surrounding social circle helps women a lot in overcoming these challenges.”

Mu’jam didn’t stop at opening her small business; she went further and set up festivals to support women who own small businesses. As Mu’jam explains, “To date I have organized four festivals that aimed to empower women who own small businesses to display their work and products in order to gain clients and get their businesses attention on a large scale.”

According to her, more than 150 women participated in every festival that was held, and more than 50 of those were able to expand their small businesses after that.

Yemeni women are mostly active in making clothing and food materials, as well as handicrafts, gifts and incense, and working in healthcare. Many small and medium-sized stores that are managed by women have spread in Sana’a and other cities in Yemen, including sweet shops, henna beauty salons, tailors, and incense and perfume shops, alongside clinics and pharmacies.

Economically empowering women

Yemeni women have been able to actively participate in business and have achieved remarkable successes. To build on these achievements and provide Yemeni women with the necessary skills to run their own businesses, the Women Business Owner Training (WBOT) program was put in place to develop their skills and economically empower them.

WBOT is a program tailored for Yemeni women – funded by the German Agency for International Cooperation, organized by the International Labor Organization, and executed by The Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS). It was developed by Yemeni experts to raise the managerial and entrepreneurial capabilities of Yemeni women.

Buthaina al-Subahi, the project officer implementing WBOT for SEMPS, says that Yemeni women need to be empowered, encouraged to know that they can achieve their goals, so they can support their families and provide for their financial needs. With encouragement and training, women can develop and improve managerial skills to sustain their businesses, and eventually achieve a better life that can guarantee them and their families a brighter future. 

She points out that this program contributes to the development of opportunities that raise women’s incomes and enable existing women business owners and women with low incomes to switch to profitable business activities.

 Photo Courtney of SMEPS  

Photo Courtney of SMEPS  

The program aims at refining managerial and entrepreneurial skills that are appropriate for a woman business owner to develop her business. As al-Subahiexplains, “The program targets women business owners and those who want to freelance: these are the women who want to open a business but lack the skills to achieve that.”

She adds, “Some women have the desire to open their own businesses and have the skills but don’t know how to start. We work on training them to create the business idea, study the market, the competitors, and the clients’ needs, and execute the business with all of its details.”

She explains that the main problem facing women is their inability to pay the loans they take from financing institutions, “because they don’t have enough managerial experience: they open a business and don’t work on developing it which leads to the failure of the business”.

Al-Subahi also confirms that WBOT follows up with all the targeted women to develop their businesses and give the necessary advice (online or through meeting with a consultant). The program has trained 1,735 women in more than 15 governorates since the beginning of the war in 2015 until March of this year.

A sustainable strategy has been put in place with the collaborating institutions to continue training women. The classes and curriculum are now available to all women; they can join the training like any other course with very little money.

Despite the difficulties Yemen is experiencing, because of the war, bombings, and armed conflict, al-Subahi confirms that women attended the program’s training with a 99 per cent attendance rate. She adds, “There is a desire and persistence in these women to work and gain information that will enable them to execute and develop their businesses and improve their socioeconomic conditions, and this in itself is an achievement and a source of pride for Yemeni women.”

Overcoming difficulties

As well as wider society’s rejection of the notion of women entering the world of business, due to traditions and customs, Yemeni women face other challenges: mainly poverty and the difficulty of finding funds. In order to access funds, women must obtain the national ID card if they don’t already have one, which presents further logistical hurdles.

Samih al-Hakimi, Small and Micro Enterprise Funding Program Manager at AlAmal Bank, explains: “Demanding that women provide us with their national IDs presents one of the biggest challenges for women because some of them don’t have it, and their families are more often than not unwilling to help get that ID.”

However, he makes clear that AlAmal Bank had tried to help women overcome this problem by adopting different processes to help women get a loan even if they don’t have a national ID card: “We can accept an identification document from the neighborhood committee leader, so we provide the women with the loans they need, but between the specified limits of 30,000 Yemeni Riyals (almost $100) and 10 million Yemeni Riyals.”

He also explained that they provide non-financial services through the AlAmal Foundation, by running literacy courses and financial courses that aid clients in managing their economic activity, after which financial services are provided for them.

According to al-Hakimi, Yemeni women were able to achieve a lot in business and entrepreneurship, with this year in particular marking many successes. There are 129,000 beneficiaries receiving funding from the bank, 35 per cent of whom are women.

 Photo Courtney of SMEPS  

Photo Courtney of SMEPS  

It is also worth pointing out that due to the current conflict in Yemen, government and public sector salaries have been reduced or not paid for months, many institutions have ended their operations, and it is increasingly difficult to find and secure jobs in the private sector. All of this has pushed more and more women to open up small and micro enterprises.