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North African Women and SMEs: A Hidden Opportunity


According to Leila Farah El-Mokaddem, the African Development Bank’s new Resident Representative in Egypt, “the economic empowerment of women is a hidden opportunity for our continent. Women constitute what we call ‘smart economics.’ By expanding income generation to both women and men, families are collectively better off, while the economy is more productive resulting in an overall win-win situation.”

Her remarks came during a meeting on 20 March at a high-level dialogue in Cairo on promoting women’s employment through small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) in North Africa, where she talked about the importance of addressing impediments to women’s employment to unleash the untapped potential of female participation in North African economies. The same event is also scheduled for Tunisia and Morocco in April.

More than 50 experts and practitioners on micro, small and medium enterprises attended the event entitled “Promoting North African Women Employment through SMEs”. As its name suggests, it offered a comparative analysis on women’s employment through SMEs in the Middle East and North Africa.

Hadi Asfahani, Professor of Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States, spoke about the impact of factors such as perceptions, cultural norms and the level of education on women’s employment in North Africa. “Small and Medium Enterprises in the MENA countries employ few women,” he said. “However, in women-led SMEs, more women are hired than in other SMEs.”

Alia El Mahdy, Professor of Economics at Cairo University, pointed out that Egypt’s labour law “includes too many benefits that it encourages firms not to hire women,” a condition that he said needs to be addressed urgently.

Heba Handoussa, Managing Director of Egyptian Network for Integrated Development, stressed the importance of technical and vocational training and the apprenticeship system as a means to improve the skills of women towards employment. 

Prominent academics, experts and leaders in the field of development on the panel included Hanaa El-Hilaly, Acting Managing Director of the Social Fund for Development; Alia El-Mahdy, Faculty of Economics & Political Science, Cairo University; Heba Handoussa, Egyptian Network for Integrated Development; Jean-Pierre Marcelli, Head of the Agence Française de Développement in Egypt; Amany Asfour, Head of the Egyptian Businesswomen Association and Fatemah Khafagy, National Council for Women.

In her closing remarks El-Mokaddem emphasized the need to make the concept of financial inclusion, with a particular focus on creating an environment conducive to women’s economic empowerment, much broadly accepted and said that the Bank stands ready to support the Government of Egypt in this regard.

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