Ambition vs. Tradition: How Egypt’s Widows Are Claiming Their Future, 1 Business at a Time

Small Business
In Egypt, starting a small business is no small undertaking.

Every day in Egypt, smart women — aspiring entrepreneurs — face challenges that would shred most people like a dry leaf in a wood chipper. For starters, most women there contend with crushing sexism and soaring inflation.

But Egypt’s widows face even huger challenges. Traditions restrict how they dress, who they speak to, where they go. Often, they can’t leave the house to work and put bread on the table. That’s even if their children are malnourished.

B’edaya is a microfinance initiative designed to handle exactly these hostile conditions — the everyday life of a widow in Egypt. It tailors small loans to the needs of the mothers of orphans. The aim is to give them an income, more ability to feed their children, and more control of their lives.

Of the 30 women now taking part in B’edaya, from mid-January to October 2014, only one (because of severe illness) was unable to make her monthly loan repayments. In the harsh climate I just described, how is that possible?

In answer, I want to share the story of one of these women. Some details of her life are unique among the B’edaya widows. But her fighting spirit and will to secure a better future for her children are not.

Warda is a 30-year-old who lives outside the city of Sohag. In this region, where the searing-hot desert is split by the Nile’s waters, her husband died on the roads while transporting stone.

Since 2012, she’s run a grocery out of her house — since tradition dictates that she can’t leave it. She feeds her two children with the profits she makes selling sugar, rice, cheese, oil, and some canned goods to her neighbors.

Warda started her grocery with a loan of 1,700 Egyptian pounds that predated B’edaya. It came through Coptic Orphans, with the encouragement of the volunteer representative who mentors her children.

So far, the income she sought is arriving — not all she hopes for, yet, but enough to put food on the table. Today, she’s part of B’edaya, and makes regular payments on her loan through the program.

Why has her business succeeded so far? Warda attributes it to her own:

  • Courage and lack of fear of the situation surrounding her
  • Ability to take into consideration the culture of the people and their needs
  • Selection of a project that fits the nature of the restrictions imposed on widows in her region
  • High ambitions and desire that the project become her main source of income
  • Basic knowledge about reading and writing
  • High level of organization and awareness of her business environment

Michael, the B’edaya staff member who works with Warda, says her success is a function of her:

  • Drive to secure a sustainable monthly income
  • Courage and determination to change her status as a widow
  • Ambition to use her personal abilities to become self-reliant
  • Flexibility in the face of shifting conditions
  • Ability to search out alternatives and solutions
  • Awareness of how to properly manage her project

To these factors, Michael adds the encouragement Warda has received from both him and the Coptic Orphans “rep” who helps meet her children’s education, health, and other needs.

Lastly, mixed into Michael’s list, among many other factors, is the B’edaya loan. In other words, this is so much more than “take one entrepreneur, add loan, watch the results.” The widow herself must bring positive qualities to the table.

At the end of the day, this last aspect of B’edaya is what sets it apart from so many other approaches to charity and development.

Unquestionably, the loan and the income it generates are good things. But the loan is only a catalyst — a means for Warda to harness her inner drive and latent abilities, and in the process, be transformed.

This aimed-for transformation from helpless, house-bound widow to self-sufficient businesswoman is the opposite of traditional charity, which (even if well-intentioned) creates a dependency on handouts.

Which brings me back to the question posed at the beginning of this report: “How is it possible that 29 out of 30 widows made their B’edaya loan payments over almost a year?”

I would say the critical answer is this: The loan program does not focus on these women’s weaknesses — instead, it harnesses their strengths. It unlocks what’s within them. And that’s the key to success.

*Image and names changed to protect the privacy and dignity of B’edaya participants

About Nermien Riad

Nermien Riad founded Coptic Orphans in 1988 after volunteering for an orphanage in Cairo. When she saw that most of the children had living widowed mothers who simply couldn’t afford to feed them, she gathered family and friends to sponsor children in Egypt. Today Coptic Orphans works through a network of 400+ church-based volunteers in Egypt, who visit fatherless families in their homes and make sure they get everything they need to unlock their full potential. That way, they don’t have to get married off as child brides, work as 10-year old family breadwinners, or go to live at an institutional orphanage.