Despite their high entrepreneurial spirit, Lebanese women have yet to reach their potential for participating in the labor force and starting their own businesses. Women in Lebanon’s work force are largely limited to wage-employment, and even there they are far behind men with a 26% labor force participation rate.
The Government of Lebanon, with the help of a World Bank regional project financed by the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), is determined to change this reality. The We-Fi project, "e-Commerce and Women-Led SMEs in Lebanon," launched in July 2019, is designed to help women entrepreneurs expand their access to domestic and export markets through e-commerce platforms.
The government of Lebanon is determined to make women's economic empowerment a priority of its economic development plan and has committed to increasing female labor force participation by 5 percentage points in the next five years. We-Fi aligns with this agenda through its focus on empowering women-led and women-owned small and medium enterprises (WSMEs).
World Bank Regional Director for the Mashreq region, Saroj Kumar Jha, teamed up with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to launch the "e-Commerce and Women-Led SMEs in Lebanon" on July 30, 2019.
"Technology is revolutionizing the way people do business and trade. E-commerce has opened up a new, more efficient way to connect producers to customers around the country and the world and has shown promise in helping small businesses in reaching regional and international markets," Jha told the E-commerce conference. In turn, the Prime Minister promised to ease red tape that constrains the business environment in general, especially for businesswomen and those working in e-commerce.
Women entrepreneurs in Lebanon face a variety of constraints including social norms, family care responsibilities, transportation issues, and access to finance. These exacerbate difficulties in physically accessing markets to sell goods or to participate in international trade fairs to promote their products. These circumstances point to e-commerce as a key way to overcome barriers to market access for women.
Dialogue brought about through the We-Fi project in Lebanon has already begun to point up ways to address these obstacles through e-commerce.
Aisha Habli, program leader at Antwork, a coworking space offering a wide range of amenities for entrepreneurs, stresses the importance of reaching women in rural areas where there are few if any programs that support them. "Decentralization of efforts and reaching women outside of Beirut is critical," she said at a We-Fi workshop.
Rana Salhab, who advises government ministries in Lebanon on gender equality as a board member of the National Commission for Lebanese Women, highlights the importance of developing programs that explain the opportunities available to women entrepreneurs and encourage them toward greater participation in the labor force and the economy as a whole.
Participants at the project launch identified many of the obstacles that entrepreneurs face when trying to reach new markets. These include high shipping fees, the cost of international payment solutions, slow customs clearance procedures, limited compliance with export requirements, consumer protection regulations and a lack of information and capacity to utilize available platforms.
Nada Ghazal, a jewelry designer, stressed the need to streamline custom procedures, and improve the return policies and regulations. "In Lebanon, we have to pay customs on returned pieces, which is not only costly but requires a number of procedures."
Aline Kamakian, founder of Mayrig and Batchig Armenian restaurants, and an angel investor in women-led startups, complained that a main barrier to export markets is the lack of compliance with standards and norms. "I cannot export any dairy product to Europe because Lebanese dairy products do not meet the European norms, and as such are not eligible to enter many countries," she said, calling for regulations to facilitate ISO accreditation.
The We-Fi project in Lebanon is part of a regional project in seven countries in the World Bank Group’s Middle East North Africa Region: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. It aims to provide women-led SMEs with access to markets through e-commerce platforms and improve e-commerce related business environment and infrastructure for women entrepreneurs. The We-Fi project complements the Mashreq Gender Facility in the Middle East, which was inaugurated in Beirut in January 2019 and designed to empower women in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.
The MENA We-Fi project aims to train and certify up to 75 e-commerce advisors and make 750 WSMEs visible online. In Lebanon, this new project will train and certify up to 20 e-commerce advisers and will make 125 women-led SMEs visible on e-commerce platforms. Women entrepreneurs will be connected to local and international e-commerce platforms and offered hands-on advisory support. The project is being implemented in partnership with IDAL, the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon.
The World Bank is one of the implementing partners of We-Fi, a collaborative partnership among 14 governments and eight multilateral development banks, providing financing to tackle the full range of barriers facing women entrepreneurs, including gaps in access to markets, networks and financing.