At a time when countries in the MENA are struggling to create jobs for increasing numbers of job seekers, the success of entrepreneurs promoting small scale enterprises is worth celebrating! This past month, this happened with great fanfare for Moroccans who have combined business acumen with local resources to generate opportunities for workers with basic skills, mostly women, to make a difference.
The BBC did a special report on women who have built careers designing and promoting contemporary and traditional versions of the kaftan. Ilham Benami has always wanted to produce fashionable clothing, despite being limited in opportunities to study design in Morocco. She watched tailors and learned from them the basics of working with material, and began to make kaftans for friends and family at home. Her popularity grew, and now, at 33, she employs at least 10 women, and her kaftans have a broad range of prices depending on the quality of the material and work involved in each piece.
The article noted that “[t]he kaftan industry is rooted in tradition. It is a dress for women that dates back to at least the 16th Century. But it is evolving – ‘just like Moroccan women,’ says Ilham.” Her kaftans mix Moroccan and Western influences and are becoming part of a global trend towards kaftan-inspired fashions. Ilham is clear that she’s just beginning, in a country where 30% of women are unemployed. “For women’s independence these days, it’s a lot easier compared with when I was growing up,” says Ilham. “I wanted to work and fashion has always been a passion of mine, so I was going to still follow my passion no matter what my circumstances were.”
In Marrakech, the sister duo, Sana and Wafaa Redwani, have been running a kaftan business under the Vallasco Gallery label. It is an haute couture boutique with a store in the south of Morocco as well. “The kaftans have been modelled in Africa Fashion Week in New York and are exported to Portugal. Wafaa says the designs have a more Western cut with a ‘Moroccan touch,’ which explains why they are becoming more successful internationally.”
The president of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights, Fouzia Assouli, is optimistic about women’s opportunities in business, but says there is still a lot to be done. She points to Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, the president of CGEM, the premier business group in the country, as a stalwart force in opening doors for Moroccan women.
The BBC noted that “Fouzia believes that since Chaqroun was appointed it has opened doors for Moroccan women in the business sector. But she says there is more of an awareness of women’s rights among the elite than among the poor, who are still lagging behind. Many of these vulnerable women are now collaborating with businesswomen like Ilham, Wafaa and Sana to help make kaftans — work which can sometimes take months to complete.”
As the BBC reported, for Wafaa, the kaftan industry is a symbol of the Moroccan woman of today. “Our kaftans are like us. We are caught between the East and the West just like the designs, but we still have our Moroccan identity and we will still fight to move forward.”
Young Moroccan Entrepreneur Snares UK Prize
Another story highlighted 19-year-old Walid Ijassi from Morocco, who has won a global competition among young entrepreneurs. The annual competition was founded by 24-year-old UK-based, Queen’s Young Leader and social entrepreneur Adam Bradford, who started it in 2013. The competition supports young entrepreneurs by providing a start-up grant, mentoring, and networking opportunities. This is the first time the competition has gone international, with talent from 30 countries competing. Ijassi’s project focuses on creating consumer products from apple waste.
Adam Bradford got started by winning the BiG Challenge enterprise competition when he was just 14 years old. He is autistic and has used his experience to champion causes such as opening opportunities to autistic people and raising awareness of extreme poverty.
Upon being told the news of his win, Walid said: “It’s such an amazing opportunity that the #AdamStart Challenge has given me as a young Moroccan entrepreneur at an international level. Having received the call from the team telling me that out of more than 300 candidates I have been chosen as the winner of the challenge was just surreal and made me more confident and galvanized to take my start-up, with the help of the Challenge Team, to a global and more structured level.”
In addition to winning the competition, Walid is now the latest in the growing ranks of Moroccan role models for young people to embark upon entrepreneurship with determination and commitment. As Adam said in the article, “In light of the global youth unemployment crisis, we need more innovative entrepreneurs to tackle social problems and create an income for themselves. Walid is an exceptional young person and I am delighted to give him my backing. I can’t wait to see what he achieves next year.”