Women entrepreneurs showcase their products during an event at the ADGS WES Center in Gafsa, Tunisia

Today, the international community celebrates women’s achievements around the world with International Women’s Day, “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality. WES is proud to advance economic opportunities for women in Tunisia by equipping women entrepreneurs with the skills necessary to participate as innovative leaders in their communities, and by building the sustainability of local women-focused Tunisian organizations. On this International Women’s Day, we invite you to celebrate the many ways Tunisian women entrepreneurs are blazing the trail to a sustainable future.

In addition to boosting economic growth, investing in women produces a multiplier effect, as women reinvest a large portion of their income in their families and communities. Women also play key roles in creating peaceful and stable societies – important factors for economic growth. However, women are often not allowed equal opportunity for personal and professional advancement as their male colleagues. Despite higher rates of education for women in many parts of the world, this is not reflected in the workplace. Women are not on equal footing with men in terms of salaries and decision-making positions, despite having the same or better qualifications in terms of education. In Tunisia, for example, women represent 60% of all university students and graduate at higher rates than their male counterparts. Yet in 2012, only one in four women was active in the national labor market. Given their higher educational attainment, the relatively low numbers of women in the formal economy represents a significant loss for Tunisia. Over the past four years, WES has worked to address this barrier by training more than 2,400 women, supporting over 325 women to launch or expand businesses, and creating a network of peers and partners to support women’s economic empowerment.

One such entrepreneur, Fathia Arfaoui, is a talented baker and cook who enjoys making food products for her family and friends. Looking to turn her passion into a profession, Fathia sought the support of the local WES Center for Women’s Business Development in Tozeur to launch a business making and selling artisanal food products. The Center encouraged Fathia to align her business with the region’s development goals, which include expanding the use of organic dates, one of the primary agricultural outputs in the region. Using seed funds from WES and her personal savings, Fathia launched her business using date nuts to make coffee and the fruit to bake various desserts. Furthermore, through the professional network of the WES Center, Fathia was invited to participate in a press conference focusing on the importance of the organics industry to Tozeur’s regional development. Fathia is paving the way for women entrepreneurs on an international scale.

Similarly, recent WES Business Award winner, Rim Belgayed, launched a sustainable packaging business in Gafsa that meets the needs of the growing economy while reducing pollution. Ecopalme’s innovative model is the first of its kind in southern Tunisia and uses dried palm leaves, an otherwise wasted product that is an abundant resource, to create eco-friendly packaging for fragile items, such as fruit, to be shipped both domestically and internationally. The staff at the local WES Center supported Rim to develop a business plan and launch Ecopalme this month! With the funds she received from the WES Business Award, Rim plans to purchase a second hydraulic press to more efficiently press shredded palm leaves for greater product output. Rim’s business model addresses a market need with a sustainable solution.

Furthermore, the WES Center in Tataouine organized a round-table with local government representatives and WES entrepreneurs to discuss the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in the region and the role of local government to support women. As the WES Center Director explained, “We wanted to analyz[e] the situation and diagnose the issues that… concern women entrepreneurs in Tataouine and how much they are willing to participate in improving their actual situation.” This event resulted in the participants’ commitment to advocate for a regional development plan that addresses the specific challenges of women. Going forward, this women-focused lobbying group will continue to consult with the local government on policy decisions specifically affecting women entrepreneurs, further opening doors for women’s opportunities.

As we reflect on the great strides women have made towards equality in their local, regional, and the global community, it is imperative that we continue to look forward, building momentum to achieve gender equality. On this day of celebration, WES is proud to honor the women entrepreneurs who have impacted communities through the power of sustainable enterprise and are continuing to march forward, calling on their communities to act in favor of women’s equal opportunities. This International Women’s Day, let us celebrate the business achievements of entrepreneurs such as Fathia and Rim, while recognizing the leadership of advocates, such as those in Tataouine, to demand equal opportunity for women. Today is a time to honor the achievements of women around the world. Our future depends on tomorrow’s call for complete gender parity. Please join us in celebration – Happy International Women’s Day!