A study on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on female entrepreneurs in low-income urban communities of the Greater Cairo Region in Egypt, has revealed the challenges they face and how they can be overcome.
Restrictions on the free movement of women and the downscaling of work to contain the spread of the virus have had a tough impact on informal enterprises there, especially those owned by women.
The ‘COVID-19 transitions and transformations of economically marginalised women entrepreneurs within urban communities of the Greater Cairo Region in Egypt’ project interviewed 15 women who run small enterprises in the Asmarat area. Female entrepreneurship there has been hindered by the pandemic, with difficulties obtaining resources and supply chain efficiency among the challenges.
Professor Katerina Nicolopoulou, who specialises in Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Strathclyde, and Professor Ashraf Salama from the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde, along with Christine Samy from the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship carried out the research.
Professor Sahar Attia and her team from Cairo University and Dr Nancy Abdel Moneim from the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime also helped capture the challenges faced by the women, and what support they need.
The project, which ended in April, revealed the importance of understanding the role of resilience, as the women faced both persistent and substantial adversity over a specific COVID-19 period, from June to September 2020, and how entrepreneurial action became important to their ability to deal with adversity.
According to a UN report in 2020, although the COVID-19 measures have affected more than eighty per cent of the global workforce, women's economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately and differently than men.
The project identified that as micro, small and medium size enterprise owners, the women had to navigate curfews and spatial restrictions that limited them in how they could do their work, as well as the necessities of their everyday life, such as taking care of children and households.
Dr Nicolopoulou said: “My biggest takeaway from this project was that entrepreneurial identity is made up of several things – mindset, your own understanding of your place in the world, acknowledging that what you are doing has entrepreneurial value and being resilient.
The resilience of the women interviewed was evidenced in how they cope with change and come up with solutions, and how they navigate the challenges. An example was some of the women work in the textiles industry, and instead of making clothing, they turned to fashioning face masks with the advent of the pandemic.
“There is a need for the women to be more proactive and self-starting as if they aren’t given some prominence, they can be invisible in these type of communities. The other challenge is to be resilient enough to stay on the entrepreneurial path. Even training programmes in entrepreneurship need to address the importance of supporting women not only to get on the entrepreneurship journey, but also to stay on it.”
The women the project focused on started their businesses out of necessity, mostly from home, which makes it difficult to differentiate between their business and private life. They are also disadvantaged in terms of skills, education and work experience. As well as being reliant on self-financing, they have limited financial reserves to cope with emergencies such as a pandemic. Lack of a social network and a lack of entrepreneurial skills, as well as a dearth of business and technical knowledge were also found to hold the women back.
Professor Nicolopoulou added: “Further research is needed to understand the needs of the women in these areas, in order to design an infrastructure which supports them, including programmes that provide skills development opportunities as well as coaching and mentoring that supports their entrepreneurial mindset and resilience’.
Eight of the women interviewed went on to complete vocational training with the non-profit Egyptian organisation Ketharet Dawood Organisation for Development, which provides entrepreneurial and educational support.
The entrepreneurship program ‘Start your Business’ gave them the tools and raw materials to start their own small shoe businesses from home, with the organisation taking the first batch to encourage them to keep going.
Mamdouh Abdo, President of the Board of Trustees at Ketharet Dawood said: “We are honoured to be part of this inspiring program with our partners. We work to improve the quality of life of these communities through empowering women who are capable of being successful entrepreneurs and have the potential to learn new crafts and skills.
“We aspire to create real impact in the communities we work in through our programmes.”
Project co-investigator Christine Samy who has been working with marginalised women in Egypt for almost a decade, said: “Entrepreneurship and empowerment are entwined and the project was a success as it enabled the women to be more self-reliant and motivated them to control the resources they have and enabled them to act efficiently.
“The women were also encouraged to develop their own networks and capitalize on the resources they already have.”
Entrepreneurship and empowerment are entwined and the project was a success as it enabled the women to be more self-reliant and motivated them to control the resources they have and enabled them to act efficiently.
Global Challenges Research Fund
The project, which was funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund Scottish Funding Council COVID-19 Response Award, also examined how the women use and appropriate space in their homes and communities.
Professor Salama, added: “This project is a true example of trans-disciplinary research that integrates knowledge from innovation and entrepreneurship, women studies, spatial design, as well as urban planning and architecture.
“I looked at how the women use the home for their business activities – where the storage spaces are, are they putting the house at a fire risk if they are using lasers for example and how they have to adapt the spaces to create a living and working environment.
“The main difficulties are that there isn’t enough space as they have children and other relatives living with them, which means they can’t really perform what they want to do.”
Professor Salama and Professor Nicolopoulou have been invited to apply to take part in one of the ‘Centres of Excellence’ in Egypt, which fosters research, scholarships and innovation in water, agriculture and energy. These initiatives can impact on government policymaking and how it can improve the conditions in these communities.
The £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund was announced by the UK Government to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries and Dr Stuart Fancey, Director of Research and Innovation at the Scottish Funding Council said: "It is fantastic to see the hugely important impact that GCRF funding has had in supporting this project which responds to the needs and opportunities in the Greater Cairo Region.
"International research collaborations between Scottish Universities and institutions abroad are playing an important role in helping us to overcome the challenges of this awful Covid-19 global pandemic."
This project is a true example of trans-disciplinary research that integrates knowledge from innovation and entrepreneurship, women studies, spatial design, as well as urban planning and architecture.
Professor Ashraf Salama