Foto: Simon Læssøe

Digital marketplace gives talented woman access to the world’s consumers

Jordanian entrepreneur Sami Hourani is scared that Jordan's most vulnerable groups will not achieve their full potential. So he set up an online shop to help talented craftswomen earn the money they deserve.

Huda Jabour did not work for the first 30 years of her life. Well, that is not quite true. She was just never paid for her work.

She cared for her and her husband’s two children. Changed diapers. Kept the house spotlessly clean. Prepared meals. Washed all of the family’s clothes. Day after day she carried out the unpaid work that is expected of many Syrian women. Meanwhile, Huda’s husband worked as a driver in Kuwait and made sure that he sent money back to the family.

It has really given me self-confidence. I am actually really proud that I earn my own money now.”

Huda Jabour
Manufacturer of handmade soaps

But in 2013 the situation changed. The Syrian army intensified the bombardment of the city of Daraa and its nearby villages – the region that saw the start of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad more than two years earlier.

“Our village was bombed. My son used to hide under the table when the planes came,” says Huda.

“Many died. It was time to get away.”

It typically takes two to three hours for Huda to make the soap. She often makes them in the evening when her children have gone to bed. Photo: Simon Læssøe

Huda and her two children fled to Jordan where Huda’s brother already lived. They found an apartment just south of the border in Jordan’s second-largest city, Irbid. Huda’s husband still sends money to cover the rent. But the money doesn’t go as far as it did out in the Syrian countryside.

“In Syria, we did not have many expenses. In Jordan, it is a completely different matter. It is expensive here and the money disappears quickly,” says Huda.

Her eldest son has been diagnosed with asthma, and the medicine swallows up a large part of the monthly budget.

Education kicked off the soap production

A Syrian friend in Irbid encouraged her to find work. But how do you go about it when you have no education or experience? And what if a full-time working week is completely unrealistic because of all the duties at home?

“I was often bored at home. But now I’m busy and constantly learning new things.” Photo: Simon Læssøe

Huda found the answer in a talent she did not know she had. And also thanks a new online shop supported by the Danish-Arab Partnership Programme (DAPP).

It started when her friend convinced her to take part in a course organised by the Jordanian organisation Jahoud ­– an Oxfam IBIS partner. She learned how to make jewellery and soap – and impressed her trainers with her talent for the latter.

She continued to learn at home in the evenings, watching YouTube videos from Saudi Arabia and Turkey with tips and tricks on how to make homemade soap.

She now makes soap in her kitchen every day. She melts small pieces of glycerine in pots and pans on the stove and mixes the fluid mass with dried seeds, natural oils and extracts of cocoa, shea butter, lemon juice, and nigella seeds. She pours the colourful blends into small moulds and decorates them with roses, flowers or herbs. After a few hours, the pretty pieces of soap are ready.

Huda often gets ideas for new soap variants. She is inspired by watching YouTube videos from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, where soap makers show off their creations. Photo: Simon Læssøe

They were popular with her family and friends, and each month she could earn around 15 Jordanian dinars (140 kroner). Huda had greater ambitions, but she struggled to sell more.

“I tried everything that was possible. But I can’t stand in the market all day. I put the soaps on Instagram and Facebook. It helped a bit, but it was difficult to find customers,” she says.

Online marketplace delivers handmade products right to the door

A couple of months ago, Huda’s business suddenly got a boost thanks to the launch of the online marketplace Souqfann.com. It’s the work of celebrated 32-year-old entrepreneur Sami Hourani and his organisation Leaders Of Tomorrow. They had spent more than a year building the marketplace with support from organisations such as Oxfam IBIS.

The website offers a large selection of handmade quality products from talented craftsmen in Jordan. There are paintings, furniture, jewellery, bags and much more for sale on the site – including Huda’s handmade soaps, which can be purchased for approximately 25 to 50 kroner a piece. Buyers in Europe and throughout the Middle East can order the products directly to their door – Souqfann makes sure they are delivered.

Souqfann may prove to be a game changer for Huda and other female craftswomen in Jordan. Social norms make it difficult for women to leave home and sell their products in Jordan’s market places. But Souqfann provides them with access to an international market directly from home.

Merging business and social responsibility, Souqfann is the kind of solution that has made Sami Hourani and Leaders Of Tomorrow a cherished collaboration partner for OXFAM IBIS and other international civil society organisations – and a model for other Jordanian entrepreneurs.

It is not an emergency relief website. It is a marketplace for talented people who need help to achieve the success they deserve.”

Sami Hourani
Entrepreneur and director of Leaders Of Tomorrow

According to Sami Hourani, Souqfann was created to clear their barriers to the market for craftsmen like Huda so that they can focus on what they are good at.

“Syrian refugees are rarely experts in digital marketing. They do not have experience in launching products online or handling payments from abroad. And we can’t honestly expect this,” says Sami Hourani from his office in the centre of Amman, Jordan.

“So these are the tasks that we help them cope with.”

On Souqfann’s website you can read about the craftspeople and discover more about their backgrounds. Many of them are refugees and live in some of Jordan’s poorest regions. But while Souqfann wants to support those with the fewest opportunities, it’s not enough to simply have a tragic story. According to Sami Hourani, all of the products on the website are thoroughly tested to ensure that they are high enough quality.

Sami Hourani is a trained doctor. When he first told his parents his vision for the Leaders Of Tomorrow, they shook their heads in disbelief. Today, they are proud, he says. Photo: Simon Læssøe

“It is not an emergency relief website. It is a marketplace for talented people who need help to achieve the success they deserve,” he says.

“I have nightmares when I think about how many people in Jordan and the region lack opportunities because of inequality and social injustice.”

Danish aid supporting entrepreneurship in Jordan

The online shop has only been active for a few months. To help Souqfann grow and reach even more people in Europe and the Arab world, the Leaders of Tomorrow are receiving support from DAPP through their partner Oxfam IBIS.

According to Oxfam’s programme leader in Jordan, Davide Costa, Souqfann is an excellent example of how to solve one of the challenges that Oxfam and other organisations have long been struggling with in Jordan and other Arab countries.

The organisations are already helping people to acquire new skills and talents through training and courses. But what’s the point if new jobs are not created too?

“Then you have not made any progress. Then there are just 100 applicants for 10 jobs instead of 10 applicants for 10 jobs,” says Davide Costa. “However, Souqfann solves this problem using modern technology.”

Sami Hourani and the Leaders of Tomorrow have already demonstrated that they are capable of setting up major internet successes that help to combat inequality in Jordanian society. In 2011, Sami Hourani started the blog For9a, which is pronounced ‘forsa’. Here he posted opportunities for scholarships at Western universities or internships with companies in Europe that Jordanians could apply for.

In Jordan and the Middle East, there are so many opportunities that require networks and ‘wasta’ (influential connections, ed). It is not fair. And with my ideas, I try to fight this.”

Sami Hourani
Entrepreneur and director of Leaders Of Tomorrow

With the help and support of DAPP and Oxfam IBIS, the Leaders of Tomorrow have now transformed For9a.com into a highly popular website among ambitious young people throughout the Middle East. The site helps young people find study programmes, internships, jobs and courses around the world and has more than half a million users. For9a also offers online courses on how to write applications and a good CV, learn new languages and how to code – and much more.

“In Jordan and the Middle East, there are so many opportunities that require networks and ‘wasta’ (influential connections, ed). It is not fair. And with my ideas, I try to fight this,” says Sami Hourani.

A couple of years ago, For9a.com had only two or three daily visitors. But thousands of people are now logging on every day. Sami Hourani expects that Souqfann will also grow in the same way.

Many of the employees at Leaders of Tomorrow work on several projects at the same time. They spend time on both the Souqfann marketplace and on For9a.com. Photo: Simon Læssøe

Huda also hopes that her sales will improve as more people become aware of Souqfann. She already earns between 50 and 100 dinars (470 to 950 kroner) a month through Souqfann.

“Now I can pay for my son’s medicine myself. And I can send my children to extra private lessons in English and to Taekwondo,” she says.

“It has really given me self-confidence. I am actually really proud that I now earn my own money.”