Arab female entrepreneurs defy the odds by getting into activewear

  • In conservative MENA, women are finding a niche in activewear
  • From Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, women-led businesses are springing up
  • Economic hazards, the pandemic tests fledgling businesses

BEIRUT, March 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nathaly Daou weaves through an underground fabric store in Beirut, pulling rolls of neon lycra and patterned polyester before settling on a roll of white cotton.

Finding affordable fabric for her budding sportswear line during Lebanon’s economic crisis has been a challenge for the 36-year-old entrepreneur, one of many women making strides in the sportswear business in the Middle East and North Africa.

“We had all these imported brands, but I wanted to do something special, something different,” said Daou, who is also a professional photographer and pole dancing instructor.

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She launched her ‘Nat-Usual’ line in August 2020 – weeks after the devastating disaster in Beirut harbor breath and nearly a year after financial collapse which has placed more than three quarters of the Lebanese population below the poverty line.

The currency has lost more than 90% of its value in the past three years, which means that the price of imported fabrics has increased fivefold or is no longer available.

Widespread power cuts across the country delayed production for months, and the banking sector effectively collapsed, cutting off potential funding for his fledgling business.

“It was impossible to create a business plan. I kept thinking, should I do it? But I’ve had this idea for 10 years, and I didn’t want to wait any longer,” Daou told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

She scouted for affordable fabrics across the city, spread news of her line through her pole dancing network, and initially priced her pieces in Lebanese pounds to keep them affordable.

“I had a vision of a Lebanese brand that was priced in pounds, but in the end even my tailor asked to be paid in US dollars because his own expenses had also increased. I had no choice .”

SMALL MARGINS, BIG AMBITIONS

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), only 5% of formal businesses are run by women. For every female entrepreneur, there are six other women who want to start a business but can’t achieve their goal.

Small and medium enterprises run by women in the region have long struggled to access sufficient financing, according to the World Bank, which said the situation had become “even more serious” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tunisian business owner Fatma Ben Soltane, who launched her sportswear line Fierce in 2019, has struggled to grow due to a credit crunch during the pandemic.

She accessed funding through Flat6Labs Tunisia, an accelerator program and early-stage venture capital fund backed by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) arm of the World Bank and backed by the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative ( We-Fi).

“It’s so much harder to access financing than before COVID. I’m trying to get credit to open a two-level flagship store for Fierce, but it’s taking too long,” she said. declared.

Fierce emphasizes sustainability – its best-selling leggings are made from recycled plastic bottles.

Other items are made from reused Tunisian cotton, and Ben Soltane insists on producing in smaller batches to reduce textile waste.

“It’s much more expensive for us because it’s not an economy of scale and to promote this environmentally friendly product, we have kept the margins on these products low to encourage people to buy,” she said.

The leggings cost 85 Tunisian dinars ($29.60) – far less than brands imported from abroad, on which Tunisia charges tariffs of up to 150%.

It seems to have worked: Ben Soltane said the company’s revenue tripled last year.

‘GO GIRL!’

For Saudi designer Eman Joharjy, inspiration came from her love of outdoor exercise.

The former finance professional said she wanted to be able to run and cycle outdoors, but conservative Saudi standards require women to wear loose dresses called abayas and cover their hair, which makes the difficult exercise.

The usual tight-fitting leggings and t-shirts sold in malls wouldn’t do, so Joharjy designed a “sports abaya” for herself in 2007.

The loose, one-piece cotton garment had long sleeves, pockets, zippers and cinched legs – and came in blue, instead of conventional black dresses.

The first time she wore it for a jog, she got stares and lots of laughs.

“Little by little, I went from city joke to city trend – and the sports abaya became a new niche,” said Joharjy, speaking via video call from his studio in Jedda, in Saudi Arabia.

They now come in cotton and dry cloth and cost up to 650 Saudi Riyals ($173.23).

“When I see a woman jogging or running in my abaya, I’m like, ‘Yes! Go ahead, girl!'” said Joharjy, who is mentored under the Saudi 100 Brands fashion program by Vogue Arabia.

She then designed pieces for Saudi professional women – architects who had to be on construction sites or photographers who needed big pockets for their lenses.

“I wanted to give women more access to the public space to say, we’re here, and we can do anything,” she said.

Other designers in the region have started producing sports abayas – but Joharjy is not fazed.

“It’s beautiful to be a trendsetter,” she said.

($1 = 2.8709 Tunisian dinars)

($1 = 3.7523 riyals)

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Reporting by Maya Gebeily; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which spans the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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