Business / #ForbesBusiness

July 2, 2018,   11:11 AM

This Startup Is Helping Middle East’s Female Refugees By Reviving An Ancient Craft

Nayera Yasser

Cairo-based fashion, culture and lifestyle journalist that believes in the underrated potential of regional craftsmanship and inspiring individuals who aim to create a better tomorrow. FULL BIO

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As dawn breaks, calls to prayers resound within the neighborhood followed by children buzzing between their homes and the UNRWA school.

In 1968 this neighborhood, which is better known as Gaza camp today, made global headlines as an emergency solution for 11,500 Palestinians, who were displaced from their homes one morning. Not so far from the historic Roman ruins of Jerash, thousands of families have since been living without a staple source of income and an average of five to ten kids per family.

That was the scene into which Roberta Ventura - an Italian investment banker -walked in to one morning in 2013. "I was advising an NGO on expansion plans for their after-school programs and I decided to fund the due-diligence work on Jerash “Gaza" camp." But when she reached there, Ventura understood that the needs of the camp were quite different. "Camp residents told me clearly that rather than see yet another NGO launching at the camp, they wished to get opportunities to work and lead a dignified life; while waiting to go back home."

Armed with the desire to change this ground reality, the Social Enterprise Project (SEP) became the first ever private company aiming to carry out a social-impact mission at the neglected camp. In order to provide a livelihood, Venture turned towards the skilled artisans to embroider various articles of clothing and home accessories to be sold.

But starting SEP was far from simple, with many discouraging her from working with refugees while some warned her that it would be difficult for her to meet deadlines to deliver to retailers and clients due to Jordan’s red tape. However, such comments only led her to structure the business well.

“Thanks to these comments, I did not take the project lightly; I set up a Social Enterprise in Jordan and I sought professional advice to fully understand what was possible and how to navigate the system. I worked with the core team in Jerash camp as peers. Once the solid foundation was in place, the ripple-effect started," said Ventura.

Meanwhile the new business was gaining more traction among the camp mates. Without having to advertise or actively recruit artisans, word travelled fast across the camp and women started visiting the workshop, seeking work. The company's business model was based on importing European high-quality materials, investing in the resident's talent and mixing both with contemporary designs and trendy color pallets – set by an Italian and local team of designers.

After smoothing out few logistical issues and developing a team of local advisors; SEP was finally able to export the camp's best works of art after a year. With regular weekly payments for work that has passed quality control and a multi-cultural aesthetic that appeals to an international audience, the residents of Gaza camp finally found the chance and funds to travel the world with their embroidery. According to Ventura, 10 boxes carrying over 100 kilograms of goods are sent on a monthly basis to Switzerland via SEP’s logistics partner Aramex and then sold online or sent to stores.

“At the beginning, there was huge skepticism," Ventura says. "But once we started selling our embroidered jute totes in Europe, a complete change in atmosphere took place. Now every SEP artist is proud to be part of the brand and the team. They started making plans again and many are working their way out of debts and other problems, which had been troubling them for years."

Ventura says that the project's international success and growing portfolio of global media praise have empowered the SEP artists and have made their story known across the world. With salaries that are three to six times higher than the minimum wage in Jordan's garment sector, the monthly income of each artisan can vary between $5 and $350 based on the amount of work she chooses. Meanwhile, SEP has doubled its income every year since its inception - sales were reported at around $120,000 in 2016.

The team has also grown significantly. In just five years, the team now consists of 300 artists between the ages of 18 and 56. Even though each of the artisans come from a long bloodline of embroiderers, they still have to undergo training at the SEP-Tamari Academy, which is financed through private investment. Since the company's inception in 2013, its growth plan has been partly reliant on grant funding and in-kind support; nonetheless, it is expected to become completely self-funded within the next two to three years.

Today, the SEP’s products are stocked at Harrods while it has its own shop-in-shop at the Marina Anouilh Showroom in Gstaad. Recently, the company celebrated an additional milestone as its products debuted on the silver screen through the Hollywood flick Mary Magdalene.

With that said, the team is currently focused on their next step. Along with their expanding presence in Jerash camp, SEP Jordan is set to venture into Azraq camp, where a group of Syrian refugees will certainly add new interpretations to the upcoming collections of fashion and home products.

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