Leveling The Field

STORY OF: Amal Hadid,
WRITTEN BY: Syed Hassan Alsagoff

Targeting the most vulnerable segment of Egyptian society, the Ard El Khair program provides support, resources and training in raising livestock to young rural women as a path to sustainable employment. The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) provided restricted mudaraba financing for the program through its Youth Employment Support (YES) program, which offers USD 50 million to provide unemployed active youth with opportunities to become more self-sufficient through income-generating activities. Although the YES program focused on youth employment, the challenge was to ensure that the most vulnerable segments within this population were included. The Ard El Khair incubator, which was financed through the YES program, aimed to address this challenge.

In the vast golden fields of El Wadi Farm, situated 500 km away from the old city of Cairo, herds of cows roam freely, grazing the 30 acres of lush fertile pasture that surround them. A soft breeze passes through, rustling the leaves of trees nearby and the smell of freshly cut harvested hay lingers in the balmy air. Along the fields, a winding dirt road leads to a small concrete building on a farm, where a group of local women from a nearby village gather for a morning training session on cattle fattening.

The women have different reasons for being here. One is the sole breadwinner of her family and is struggling to make ends meet, while another lacks sufficient knowledge on how to run her own business. I myself, a recent medical graduate who had hopes of becoming a doctor, am in the room, both urgently and unexpectedly. Like many young women living in El Wahat el Bahariya, one of the poorest governates of Egypt, my life hasn’t exactly gone the way I had planned.

The 2009 financial crisis, and the turbulence of the subsequent Arab Spring, sparked a political crisis and led to some decline in economic growth in Egypt. 

"By treating us in a dignified manner, and as potential business partners, the program created an environment that helped us to maximize our potential."

Young Egyptians continue to struggle with employment, with women impacted the most. A survey conducted by UN Women shows that economic activity among female youth in Egypt is strikingly low compared to their male peers: 82.1% of non-student female youth are out of the labor force, compared to only 13.6% of non-student male youth. 

The survey also found that the average duration of unemployment among youth in Egypt is 120 weeks, or more than two years. Among young males, the average is 109 weeks while the average for young females is significantly longer at 141 weeks. Of these, young women from rural areas face a particular set of challenges. Due to being geographically farther from the city, our economic opportunities are significantly limited. Upon graduating, I struggled to find a job near my village and couldn’t afford to commute. 

After almost a year of looking for work, my family encouraged me to get involved in agriculture, a high-risk sector, especially for those who do not have the capacity or experience to mitigate risks. I had already heard the stories of hardship experienced by my neighbors who worked out in the fields. Faced with gender-specific obstacles, such as lack of access to land, financing, markets, good working conditions and equal treatment, these women were at a significant disadvantage before they even sowed a seed or plowed a field. 

This was precisely what led so many of them to sign up to a nine-month training program. Run by Ard El Khair, a livestock production company, and financed by IsDB, the program provides young rural women in Egypt with the training, support and resources they need to raise livestock as a means of sustainable employment. Upon acceptance into the Ard El Khair incubator, we received a murabaha loan, which was used by Ard El Khair to purchase cattle for us to fatten. Since they purchased in bulk, the cost of the cattle was significantly lower t han if we were to purchase them ourselves. 

We attended classes four days a week for three hours, allowing us to balance our work with our family commitments. We also received an allowance, which helped to support us while we learned. During our training, we were taught about best practices in cattle fattening, such as nutrition, sanitation and veterinary activities. I quickly grew fond of my adorable cattle, though initially I could only recognize them from their tags, which indicated they were mine. But soon enough, I knew which ones belonged to me immediately and could tell they recognized me too. By working on our own cattle from the start, we received an accelerated, hands-on learning experience. 

At the end of the training, Ard El Khair sold our fattened cattle to its clients, including hotels, schools and wholesalers, and distributed the residual income to us after deducting the cost of production and marketing. On average, we earned about USD 166 per month, in addition to the training we received that enabled us to start a small cattle-fattening business of our own. Importantly, the training has increased our self-confidence and ability to successfully run our own ventures. 

"From the outset, we were trained and treated as partners and not as debtors."

What I particularly enjoyed about the program was that we were never treated like underprivileged segments of society, or as useless and incapable. Providing vocational training without any financing or providing financing without any training would not have generated positive results. By treating us in a dignified manner, and as potential business partners, the program created an environment that helped us to maximize our potential.

Since graduating from the program, the other women and I have all become self-employed and started our own small cattle-fattening businesses from home. We are now bringing in a good income and able to provide a better life for our families. We can also still rely on Ard El Khair for advice and veterinary services, and we can always ask the company to purchase and sell cattle on our behalf to markets we would otherwise have difficulty accessing. 

From the outset, we were trained and treated as partners and not as debtors. As such, each one of us graduated as a partner of Ard El Khair. Coming from a poor background, it was very important for me to be properly trained while being protected from unknown risks and costly mistakes. Through successful completion of the program, each one of us graduated as a partner of Ard El Khair. 

I believe supporting the empowerment of women involved in livestock production is an important end, and a promising instrumental pathway to reducing household poverty and enhancing household nutrition. Now when I wake up every day at dawn to start work on my own farm in the rural village of El Wahat el Bahariya, I realize the vast expanse of pastureland around me brings with it an abundance of new opportunities.