A growing number of women in Somalia are going into business. And for some in the traditionally conservative Muslim country, this is an opportunity to attain financial independence and upward mobility.
By Abdurrahman Warsameh, Mogadishu
In Hamarweyne, Mogadishu’s largest market, 24-year-old Maryama Yunis can now turn a decent profit. The young Somali entrepreneur has been in business for two years, selling everything from soaps and shampoos to lipsticks and eyeliners from her tiny cosmetics shop.
The university graduate studied nursing, but opted to pursue her dream of becoming an entrepreneur instead.
“With my mother’s help, I managed to convince my father to allow me to follow my dream and start the store. With the money I am earning, I am becoming more independent by the day and I’ve become an inspiration for many young women,” says Yunis.
“Times are changing”
According to Hawa Dahir, a social activist in Mogadishu, even educated women in this Horn of Africa nation have been expected to focus on raising families, though attitudes are shifting.
“Times are changing in Somalia and people are now more aware of the entrepreneurial potential of women and are more accepting of the role women can play in the economy of the family and the country as a whole,” she says. “Despite all the challenges that women entrepreneurs face in Somalia, the country’s womenfolk are showing that they are up to the challenge of being shrewd business operators, while maintaining their roles as mothers and wives.”
Today Somali women are involved in a range of small businesses, selling clothes, cosmetics, fruit and vegetables, or khat. Women can also be found selling fuel in open-air markets and on street corners in Mogadishu. Dahir says that while there are no reliable statistics on Somali women entrepreneurs, their presence in the country’s small business scene is “palpable”.
Not a choice, but a necessity
According to Dahir, for many women, entering the world of business is not a choice, but a necessity, forced on them by the death or unemployment of their husbands.
Faduma Maow has a shop in the Bakara market in Mogadishu, where she has been working as a clothes trader since the death of her husband three years ago.
The mother of four says that she takes her children, aged between seven and 15 years, to school before heading to the market.
“It is tough being a working parent, but it can also be rewarding. I am financially independent and pleased to say I am making progress towards my goal of raising a family and building a stable future for myself and my children,” she says.
Somali businesswomen say working as an entrepreneur has its challenges. For one, it is nearly impossible to raise capital to start a business. Local and international financial institutions closed down following the collapse of the central government in 1991 that marked the beginning of two decades of civil war.
A couple of local banks have been established, but one handles only savings and remittances from Somalis in the diaspora. The other does offer loans, but only to those who can put up collateral, which few women have.
“It is not possible to get money to start up a business – even more so if you are a woman,” says Aisha Guled, a khat trader in Mogadishu.
Guled got her start thanks to support from a relative. She says that she has been struggling to make ends meet since she started selling khat.
“Most of us have started with the little we could get and struggled up the ladder. Some don’t make it, others remain stuck in the beginning, but some are lucky enough to break even and make a profit soon and expand,” she says.
Though the Somali government says it is trying to do all it can to help businesswomen working to support their families, one official said that the government cannot at this stage offer financial support to businesswomen.
“The provision of a secure environment for women to operate in is a key priority in supporting women in business,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.