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New business council to provide network, funds for Rafah's budding businesswomen

Palestinian women have started small businesses to make ends meet, but a new council aims to lead them to fields such as electronics or high-end products.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Women of the Gaza Strip have long battled economic difficulties and unemployment by making and selling handicrafts. A new incubator for women entrepreneurs in the Rafah governorate aims to make these projects sustainable and to lead female entrepreneurs to new fields, such as mobile and computer repairs or fabricating high-quality products.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry in the Rafah governorate in the southern Gaza Strip announced Jan. 9 the establishment of a council for women entrepreneurs. The council, the first of its kind in the governorate, will be a business incubator for women with different skills.

Najah Ayash, the director of women's programs at the Rafah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was appointed head of the newly established council. “Rafah governorate needs a business incubator to empower and train women so that they can improve their grim economic situation,” she told Al-Monitor.

According to official statistics, the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip exceeded 50%, and the poverty rate reached 53%. It is worse for women, with the rate of unemployment at  74.5 % in 2018, with a 5% increase from the previous year.

“The Chamber of Commerce decided to form and launch the council," she said. "The first event organized by the council was the first marketing exhibition in Rafah. It enabled a group of women entrepreneurs who exhibited their products and services.” In the shopping exhibition from Jan. 7-10 in Rafah city, dozens of Palestinian female entrepreneurs showcased handicrafts, embroideries, fashion design, food products, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, drawings and sculptures, and phone and computer repair. The shopping exhibition is the first activity of the center.

Ayash said there were also more unorthodox fields, including maintenance of computers and mobile phones. “The exhibition opened horizons and markets for the participating women,” she said, noting that a pizzeria accepted to sell the products of one of the participants and a boutique agreed to market the products of another.

Female entrepreneur Abeer Abu Armaneh, who owns al-Wafa for handicrafts, told Al-Monitor, “I sell folkloric embroidered items. We inherited this handcraft from our ancestors, but we are giving it a modern touch. I have a section for woodwork, beadwork and fabrics.”

She noted that this is the first time she participated in a shopping exhibition and she would like to do it again.

Abu Armaneh said she started her business in 2018 to provide income for her family. “I have not received any prior training and I learned to make my products online,” she said.

Noting the difficulty she had in the financial management of her business and in marketing her products, she expressed hope that the newly established council would help her and others in a similar situation. “It should offer training and programs that contribute to the development of women’s business projects and help them market their products and services,” she said.

Abeer al-Hams, another Palestinian female entrepreneur, owns the AfkarArt project, which creates unique books for children. “I make interactive and educational books for children under the age of four," she said. "I draft, design and publish tailor-made books for each child after I discuss what he or she needs with parents.”

She said she designed her first book for her own son. “But my sister, whose son has autism, asked me to design a book that would help him learn. After a while, with the encouragement of people around me, I decided to develop this idea into a business project in 2017,” she said.

Hams explained that this is the second exhibition she has participated in and she was happy because such events are rare in Rafah. “Exhibitions have always been limited to Gaza City. Decision-makers should show female entrepreneurs more care and provide them with financial guidance and marketing support,” she said.

Regarding the obstacles she faces, she said, “I use expensive paper to make my books. Low-income families cannot afford to buy them. The average book price ranges from $20 and up. This is a high price for a book for the residents of the Gaza Strip.”

Seed money for startups often proves to be an obstacle for Palestinian female entrepreneurs. Traditions and customs of the patriarchal society may also stand in their way when they want to launch their own businesses.

Moin Rajab, an economics professor at Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor that the establishment of such gender-specific councils and economic gatherings is very important for advancing women’s labor. “This step is important to revive women’s potential and encourage their creativity. This is an opportunity for these women to cooperate with the competent authorities,” he said.

Rajab confirmed that entrepreneurial projects have a strong impact on the national economy. “These projects are part of the national product and benefit the society,” he said. “The council must take into account the challenges women entrepreneurs face and try to solve them. It is important to stimulating and encouraging the ecosystem for these women.”

He explained the importance of diversifying projects offered to women, which he said must not be limited to traditional ones such as handicrafts and embroidery. “Women should be oriented toward technological, engineering, medical and agricultural industries,” he said.

Rajab also called for encouraging women's participation in various economic sectors and enhancing their role in the investment sector, as well as furthering the cooperation between women business owners and the local, regional and international bodies.

Ayash, from the council, pointed out that the event exposed women entrepreneurs to buyers, developers and even investors. “The exhibition aimed to highlight the professional skills of women, to provide the opportunity to market their products, showcase their projects and develop their businesses. This will not be the last exhibition,” she said.

She also promised to find investment opportunities. “The council will also search for available financing outlets for female entrepreneurs. Women’s entrepreneurial activity contributes to developing the national economy,” she said.