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Small, Medium Enterprises and Microfinance Lead To Economic Empowerment for Women

Mutabak and Maasoub

A tiny simple place that welcomes you and invites you to enjoy hearty food. A place designed to show a passion to change the perception of a country where the owners and hosts came from. This is what Amal Al Olaian and her partner Hawazen Al ammari intended when they started their restaurant, and named it after two famous Saudi meals "Mutabak and Ma'asoub."

Amal and Hawazen said they wanted to promote their traditional food because it is rare to find Saudi Arabia cuisine anywhere outside their country. Amal and Hawazen wanted to change people's notion about the culture of food in their country.

It is not usual for women from Saudi Arabia to run a restaurant, but their passion for KSA local food and desire to present a glimpse of their beautiful traditions inspired them to make the idea a reality.

Amal and Hawazen started by conducting surveys; going to the malls and streets and asking people if they supported the idea and would come to such place? Many people showed interest and said they would. Supported by their families the two women searched and planned for the best ways to run the restaurant. Both owners and chefs, Amal and Hawazan cook meals themselves to add a homey flavor, and most of their staff are women. Amal and Hawazen concentrate on the quality and freshness of the meals they prepare. The main courses in their restaurant are Mutabak, layers of thin dough stuffed with meat or chicken and onions, and Ma'asoub which is a healthy desert made from brown wheat, banana and sugar. Other ingredients like honey and cream can be added to Ma'asoub. The menu has other Saudi traditional meals like Kabsah, spicy rice with chicken and meat.

Although they have received negative messages and comments telling them that the kind of job they are doing is "inappropriate" they have also received support and encouragement from many people for giving a bright image and participating in changing the viewpoint of women from KSA. Amal says that everyone around her is proud of her creative project and she feels empowered. What Amal has is a small business.

World Bank has shown that increasing women's access to quality education, good jobs, and other resources contributes to inclusive growth, sustainable development, and long-term prosperity. Limited access to land, prosperity, housing, credit, technology, markets and extension services have undermined women's livelihood and restricted their ability to benefit from growth they help to generate. SMEs are not an exception. It seems clear that women's economic empowerment in society stands side by side with education. Women's economic empowerment will reduce poverty and support economic growth.

We might take a general look at the definition of SMEs. Small and Medium sized projects are businesses or firms that a small number of people work in, that are privately owned and managed, and the revenues are not that high. Sometimes what might be considered and small-scale business in one country can be seen as microfinance in another, where only a few people work. SMEs can affect a country's economy, stimulating local economies by securing jobs for local communities, as well as services and products. The power of SMEs lies in their diversity and development of industries. Small businesses allow women and minorities to contribute significantly to the economy. Small-scale enterprises include every single idea, craft or expertise in the world, such as: privately owned cafes, bakeries, rural businesses, dry cleaners and the business of making and selling pickles and jams.

SMEs are also creative and authentic. In UAE a woman called Fathia Othman started a business of drawing with Henna, (an herb used to dye skin which disappears after a while), by putting a tent and simple drawing tools near the sea. In some countries like Syria, small and medium enterprises play a role in exports, though many Syrian SMEs faced a major drop in the last 10 years due to government's prejudice policies.

In 2004, the 2nd Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a conference of ministries responsible for small and medium-sized enterprises, stated that SMEs contribute to over 55% of GDP and over 65% of total employment in high income countries, while in low-income countries SMEs contribute to 95% of total employment and 70% GDP. However, there are not enough statistics, provided of women’s enterprises because many women-owned businesses are unregistered, especially in developing and transitional countries. 

In May 2009, a study made by Oikocredit, called Women's Empowerment - Comparing Concepts and Assessing Implications for Microfinace, results showed that women and girls are more disadvantaged and poor than men. Because of lack of access to education, property and economic rights, many women have scarce opportunities to get out from under poverty and achieve self-determination and empowerment. The study added that gender inequality promotes women's vulnerability, with the result that women make up around 70% of the world's poorest people. Here, we can see the necessity of empowering women in economy.

Women's prominence in SMEs is due to the easy entry and simple execution of self-run businesses. Some women start small-scale businesses because of their economic need and the lack of other employment opportunities, other women want to increase their family income. Because of their need to multitask at home, many women choose to start small businesses that can be run from home. Women’s entrepreneurship changes their societies, resulting in political and economic empowerment and increased access to financial resources, which then provide women with education and training, enabling women to make autonomous choices and lead independent lives, affect community decisions and change stereotypical images of women in society. Thus women become more optimistic, have higher self-esteem and are respected by their community. The Oikocredit study showed that 41% of women are more independent financially and economically, while 18 % said their families' financial position improved. However, some women are not able to enjoy the benefits of their work because the men in the family take the profits and make the important decisions on behalf of the women business owners.

Women usually prefer to work in sectors dominated by women, e.g. some branch of clothing or traditional crafts, especially in low-income countries. The Handbook on Women-owned SMEs (published by the International Organization for Knowledge Economy and Enterprise Development-IKED) states that "Usually women entrepreneurs are more likely to employ women which will help to reduce the effect of discrimination against women in the labor market. In addition, reducing female unemployment assists in fighting the trafficking of women. Finally, female entrepreneurs serve as role models for the younger generations, demonstrating new employment (self employment) opportunities." One-third of women included in the Oikocredit study work in small-scale trading and market vending, while other typical "female" businesses are beauty-related enterprises and embroidery. 36% of the men included in the study work in agriculture. Other typical "male" businesses are transport and construction. The study searched the reasons of this classification and asked men and women about it. Men responded that women are not able to carry out male businesses because they lack the physical strength, security and cultural factors, and also lack access to capital, knowledge and property ownership. Men also said that women worked shorter hours because of their need to do care-taking tasks. Female responses came as follows: 13 out of 18 found that women's and men's businesses were the same. 16 out of 18 women said that there is nothing they could not do as women. Women face a number of challenges when starting a new business, some common and some faced by women only. A study made by the UAE National Human Resource Development and Employment Authority called Small Enterprises: Women Entrepreneurs in the UAE said that the majority of women in UAE were supported by their families while about 12% faced discouragement from their fathers, brothers and husbands. The study also found that women who own businesses see that lack of family support to women restricts them from starting their own business. In many societies women are expected to look after their homes and children which limit women's access to vocations outside the home. A study made by International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Center for Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) showed that the balance of work and family is usually one of the major issues faced by the women. In addition, there is the issue of financial management skills. Women also face difficulty in accessing capital to start their businesses, so most women must start their projects using personal resources. UN-Women have said, "As far as the economic development of countries in transition is concerned, women tend not to benefit as much as men from the development partners’ SME programs. There is still a dose of fear among development partners who feel that women are still not able to implement larger programs and manage larger funds and therefore cannot be entrusted with any tenders. Although there is no concrete data on women’s entrepreneurship, the analogous experience of the countries of the region shows that women have scarcely benefited from such programs, when compared to men."

The latter study also suggested some solutions to enable women to overcome difficulties in starting small-scale businesses. Policy makers can issue policies that encourage greater access to capital especially for women. Women’s business organizations can offer financial and management training and skill building and can offer training in new technologies. Some countries aware of the importance of SMEs install full programs to support their citizens' aspirations. Dubai SME installed a full training program supported by the government to accompany the entrepreneur from the idea phase to reality. Every step of the way there is a person ready and willing to assess the entrepreneur. The Dubai SMEs trainers weigh the applicant's level of education and experience in order to provide the applicant with proper training, help with planning and financing the idea, study best location and support, and finally help in marketing and selling. However, because not all countries have such programs, policies could support the development of small locally based banks specializing in lending to SMEs.

NGO's can also play a vital role in supporting SME projects, especially those of women. Suggestions made in the Oikocredit study to empower women through small-scale businesses were 41% supported financial-product innovation to fit women's specific needs, followed by awareness-raising programs by 19%, while 48% supported training and capacity building (on financial, legal and gender issues, technical, entrepreneurship, personal development and health issues). Participants in the study said that equal rights and opportunities, increased welfare, financial independence, education and decision making in households all contribute significantly to women's empowerment. 

Starting an SME business requires planning, even if the business will be run by one person. Idea innovators and parties that will participate in a loan, partnership or ownership, must have a good plan for how the business will be operated and how it will become profitable. Assessing risks and targeting buyers or users will also help, as well as contacting a bank, NGOs or governmental programs that offer a small loan as a start-up for the planned project. Family members or friends interested in the project can help with project financing.

The economic empowerment of women is essential for sustainable development and combating poverty. Major transformations in states' policies and spreading awareness are crucial to the success of SMEs for women. Women usually invest a greater portion of their earnings in their families and communities than men, which is why reinforcing the role of women in the economy will be a factor in eliminating economic crises and supporting growth in societies.

Finally, the United Kingdom for International Development in its 2010 agenda reported that "Higher female earnings and bargaining power translate into greater investment in children’s education, health and nutrition, which leads to economic growth in the long-term. The share of women in waged and salaried work grew from 42% in 1997 to 46% in 2007. In India, GDP could rise by 8% if the female/male ratio of workers increased by 10%. Total agricultural outputs in Africa could increase by up to 20% if women’s access to agricultural inputs was equal to men’s. Women-owned businesses comprise up to 38% of all registered small businesses worldwide. The number of women-owned businesses in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America is growing rapidly and, with that growth come direct impacts on job creation and poverty reduction." 

Amal and Hawazen's small restaurant changed lives and perceptions. Some women might choose to start a business at home with several jars of pickles or jams, other women might start a beauty business by putting a tent beside the sea shore for Henna drawing. These women's passion and unique small business ideas made them a moving force in their country's economy to achieve sustainable development, strengthen women's rights and pave the way for equitable societies.



Stella Paul's picture

And now I am hungry

Dear friend

Look what you have done: I just had lunch a while ago, and after reading this piece, now am hungry again :)

I am curious though: why did some people oppose the idea of a traditional eatery?

I feel sorry that this is the last of the writing assignments; I was enjoying learning of your country through your articles.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Hummingbird's picture

I am sad too

Dear Stella,

Thank you Stella, I always admired your energy in the group. I am sorry too because this is the last of the writing assignment, I leaned to push myself and be committed.

In some middle eastern societies, it is not usual for women to work in some professions like chefs, or as Amal and Hawazen's case, running and working in the restaurant by themselves. To tell you the truth, their food is really good. Wish them luck.

A drop of rain can revive the earth, be the drop.


emilybrews's picture

Another fantastic piece

Dear Hummingbird,

I enjoyed working with you on this piece so much. Once again, you have widened my world by teaching me more about lives and experiences in other places. This may be the last writing assignment, but I look forward to continuing to learn from you in the months and years to come. And I have no doubt that the world will hear more from you. This is just the beginning!


PS It's my lunchtime here in the UK right now! I'll probably just be having a sandwich and an apple, but I'll be dreaming of mutabak and ma'asoub...

mrbeckbeck's picture

Well researched, well written

Great work again, Hummingbird! Very interesting piece.

I am confident that if people invest in women's entrepreneurship we will be able to quickly build the new global economy. For too long women have been on the sidelines, but you show us here that they are ready to play the game! I appreciate how you tell the personalized story but connect it to much larger issues.


Scott Beck
World Pulse Online Community Volunteer

Frances Faulkner's picture

Getting Ready

Dear Hummingbird,

This is not only a wonderful call to action, but a reminder of what women can do as well as a good rundown on the various steps and statistics to support the process. Somebody could almost write a business plan simply by reading your piece! More women owned businesses would definitely make the world a better place.

Thanks for your work,

Celine's picture

Dear Hummingbird, Thank you

Dear Hummingbird,

Thank you for writing on this topic. All over the world, issue of SMEs has been seen as important to women's empowerment and economic growth and dependence. Yet, it does not go without buttressing that empowering a woman is empowering a nation. The innovative spirits of Amal and Hawazen has touched so many lives. What's more? Women are changing lives and changing their communities.

I look forward to visiting your country one day and I will be glad if given the privilege to be at 'Mutabak and Ma'asoub' to enjoy.

Well done Sister.


MaDube's picture

Wonderful post

The Minister of Women Affairs in my country would just love to have a conversation with you on this because this is one of the areas that she is putting her energies, the availability of credit for women to venture in SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises). Indeed this enable women to gain financial independence ad really once women acquire that independence (without meaning to make it as simplistic as all that) then we greatly reduce their dependance on their male counterparts, we ensure the availability of basics in the home because women will almost always prioritise their family's well being above all else, we also reduce the prevalence of gender based violence which is often a reflection of the unbalanced financial status of women and men.

Great job!


Odessa's picture

Inspiring and Provocative!

Dear Hummingbird,

Loved how you personalized SME's and their positive effect on women and society. Also appreciated the considerable statistics you gathered to support the importance of SME development, and reminding us that so much can be done with a little money and support. What was interesting to me was realizing that the support is just as important as, if not more so than, the money!
Your article raises the issue of how to enable women who start SME's to keep their profits vs losing it to men in the family. Would love to learn more about your ideas around this.
Thank you!

I believe we are all on a journey to understand ourselves and our destiny in the world.
May we walk together in beauty on that path!
- Odessa

Dear Hummingbird,

What could be more fulfilling than good food AND economic empowerment for women!

This is another terrific article; informative, helpful and uplifting . . . not to mention appetizing!

It's wonderful to hear the stories of how women create their own SMEs, and what they choose to offer. In addition to the featured women and their Saudi restaurant, how creative, economical and environmentally gentle to create your business in a tent at the seashore, painting with henna!

In so many ways, these women are returning to the use of our innate, organic and valuable skills to make an honest, respectable living. I applaud each and every one of them!

And I applaud you.

With Admiration,

- Sarah

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby

Ellie's picture


Thank you for choosing to share your learnings and research on SMEs with our community, Hummingbird. You compiled a great deal of prior research, which is very informative, but more so - it supports what many of us believe in: economic empowerment of women is vital for sustainable development. And please send our best wishes of good luck to Amal and Hawazen!

Mukut's picture

Interesting and Informative

Dear Friend,

Thank You for sharing with us the story of Amal and Hawazen. Strong, inspiring women like them would help to make our society more tolerant and peace loving towards women. You have highlighted important aspects about SMEs and look forward to hearing from you more.

Mukut Ray

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