Fidaa El Tunky has created the first grassroots venture capital project for rural women in the whole of the Arab region.

Fidaa grew up in Hebron, Palestine, a city in the West Bank that has been subjected to intense curfews, and that suffers tensions and attacks from an Israeli settlement built in the middle of the city. Growing up, Fidaa experienced harassment and intimidation from settlers on her way to school and back home. She was particularly affected by a shutdown of Hebron following a massacre at a popular mosque when she was 11 years old. For 60 days, the entire community had little access to food, supplies, or money. This experience—seeing how her community, and women in particular, suffered—pushed her to seek a career where she could help empower others.

At university, she founded the Palestinian Center for Communication and Development Strategies and the Network of Rural Development Committees. Since then, she has focused on women in rural areas of Palestine, one of the most vulnerable sectors because of their remote location and their inability to travel easily.

Through field studies, Fidaa found that despite their relatively high literacy rate, women’s inclusion in the formal economic market is limited. In Palestine, the Labor Force Survey 2003 showed that the literacy rate is 96.3% for males and 87.4% for females, while women’s secondary and tertiary enrollment exceeds that of men. However, according to the United Nations Development Program, 90.5% of women in Palestine remain outside the formal labor force, working as unpaid family members or in the informal sector, where they do not enjoy the benefits and protections provided by the Labor Law.

The situation of women—deprived of economic opportunities despite their qualifications—stems from several factors. First, prevailing patriarchal and male-gendered values in society view women as dependent on men; as a result, men take priority, both in access to work and the enjoyment of its returns. Second, laws concerning personal status restrict women’s freedom by requiring that they get permission from a father or husband to work or travel.

These factors act together to prevent women from entering the formal labor market. In response, microfinance programs were established to address the lack of access to traditional sources of capital for women. But Fidaa and others from Palestinian communities have become critical of many microcredit initiatives implemented by international agencies. The Bisan Center for Research and Development argues that while most microcredit projects in Palestine were regarded as a success, this success has been measured predominantly through repayment rates; today local agencies suggest that women were actually selling their own gold as a way to repay these loans.

Fidaa has taken a different approach: Her enterprise focuses on incubating businesses, and it receives a share of the business revenues. To ensure success of the projects, women must go through an application process in which the Palestinian Center for Communication and Development Strategies (Fidaa’s NGO) assesses each project and provides financial assistance, technical assistance, training, and consulting as required. In contrast to traditional microcredit programs, where there can be difficulty following up and monitoring projects, Fidaa ensures constant monitoring and evaluation of her beneficiaries’ projects through a vast network of rural organizations. She also relies on local, community-based organizations, adapting the business incubation model to cultural and social contexts.

Fidaa’s clients receive seed funding, technical assistance through a pool of experts to ensure the quality of the products, and marketing services to guarantee the sale of the products in local and regional markets. To ensure that Erada (one of Fidaa’s NGO’s business ventures that exclusively targets women) is financially sustainable, Fidaa takes 20% of the profits. This is subsequently reinvested in the Erada brand, operations, and other micro-projects. By providing services and incubating businesses at women’s houses, Fidaa has managed to engage her clients in the production, packaging, and marketing of their own goods. She has also expanded their markets from limited local street shops; some products are sold in the central markets of Hebron, others in Dubai.

Despite daily harassment by settlers and travel difficulties, Fidaa has managed to establish a grassroots business incubation model that creates jobs for women, encourages entrepreneurs, and diversifies local community economies. Erada has already provided seed funding to more than 1,200 women.