Improving livelihoods for displaced Syrian women through trade
Around the world, over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Two-thirds of them remain within the borders of their country of origin. Internally displaced persons confront many of the same challenges faced by the refugees who have crossed international borders: the loss of jobs, businesses and networks, as well as of property that might have served as collateral for financing new ventures.
Since the start of civil conflict in Syria in 2011 more than half of the country’s population of around 18 million people has been displaced, 5.4 million as refugees and over 6 million within the country. For most of them economic life is severely disrupted but it does not stop: they run down whatever savings they were able to retain and seize whatever work opportunities they can, often on the fringes of the informal economy.
Peace and stability are prerequisites for the kind of sustained economic growth that transforms societies from relative poverty to prosperity. Even in more fragile settings, however, economic opportunities make a major difference to individual livelihoods and family well-being. Better jobs and wages mean improved nutrition and education, and skills that will stand workers in good stead in the future. Connecting to international market demand, while especially complicated, can expand economic opportunities for people in regions affected by conflict. Social entrepreneurship can make these market connections possible.
ITC has since 2016 been working with Rania Kinge, a Swiss-Syrian designer and entrepreneur, to bring jewellery, bags and other accessories hand-made by internally displaced women in Syria to international buyers. ITC has helped Kinge’s social enterprise, Damascus Concept, and its I Love SYRIA brand, connect to new international customers through e-commerce as well as a series of pop-up stores in Europe.
Kinge, a former computer programmer, recognized that traditional Syrian crafts offered a route for the women she employs – many of whom did not have jobs in their hometowns – to make goods that international customers would want to buy.
Increased demand has led to higher incomes as well as job creation. Having started out working with 20 women in Damascus, Rania Kinge’s social enterprise now employs the services of over 130 women in the capital as well Latakia.
ITC partnered with Kinge to bolster her businesses’ online presence through advisory services on preparing online listings and using cloud-based tools for inventory management and order handling. At the same time, ITC organized a series of events where potential buyers could discover and purchase products made by I Love SYRIA and Damascus Concept, and share customer experiences online. From a 2016 souk in Geneva for Syrian products to a stand at the United Nations Office in Geneva for ITC’s e-Caravan for Peace in 2017, the pop-up events generated in-person sales worth over $40,000, increased online traffic and demand and allowed Kinge to receive direct feedback to refine future product design.
Despite enormous obstacles ‒ the economic disruption resulting from the conflict, the social barriers facing women in Syria’s economy and practical problems importing raw materials as well as physically moving products to international markets (all merchandise is transported through neighbouring Lebanon) – Kinge’s social enterprise is approaching profitability. Having started out working with 20 women in Damascus, her business has added a second workshop in coastal Latakia, and now employs the services of over 130 women. Their online presence is flourishing – I Love SYRIA’s community on Facebook counts over 27,000 members, while the figure for Damascus Concept is over 18,000. Since July 2017, Tokyo department store 109 Shibuya has stocked products from Kinge’s businesses.
The Japanese government has committed to continue working with ITC in Syria. A new project will work with a group of 15 artisans, most of them women, to develop new handicraft products and sell them to international buyers. To deliver this technical assistance, ITC experts will work with local consultants and international organizations operating on the ground.