UN forum in Bahrain closes with calls to support women entrepreneurs in conflict areas

The bi-annual UN forum on entrepreneurship and innovation wrapped up its work in Bahrain on Thursday focusing on women entrepreneurs from conflict zones, who stressed the importance of investing in their activities as a means of building peace, security, and stability in their communities.

5/18/20245 min read

The bi-annual UN forum on entrepreneurship and innovation wrapped up its work in Bahrain on Thursday focusing on women entrepreneurs from conflict zones, who stressed the importance of investing in their activities as a means of building peace, security, and stability in their communities.

Hailing from Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan and Gaza, women entrepreneurs were in the spotlight at the closing of the 2024 World Entrepreneurship Investment Forum (WEIF), which has been running since Tuesday in Bahrain’s capital, Manama.

During a panel discussion on ‘Women, Peace and Security’ and later in exclusive interviews with our UN News team that has been reporting from the forum venue, the businesswomen shared moving stories of how their projects inspired them to help others, and of the need for more funding.

Gaza conflict hampers women-led projects  

Tahani Abu Daqqa, a Palestinian businesswoman from Gaza has been in the enclave since the start of the most recent conflict, about seven months. She left three weeks ago and was about to return, but the crossing was closed, giving her the unexpected opportunity to attend the WEIF.

Ms. Abu Daqqa said she was “the first Palestinian woman to work in Gaza to create job opportunities for women such as clothing and biscuit factories, so that they could…remain in Gaza because many Gazans were going to work outside the Strip.”  

However, her work towards women’s empowerment has faced challenges. Recurring conflict in the Gaza Strip since 2007 has impeded the progress of her projects.  

By example, she said: “I established the Damour Foundation, focusing on environmental initiatives, like water-attracting devices and sewage treatment units powered by solar energy. I also created ‘Gaza Life for Renewable Energy,’ while facing financing challenges. Eventually I succeeded, only to see the project destroyed before completion.”

After the outbreak of the current conflict, everything changed.  

“Suddenly I became displaced in an area near the sea. I could have rented a small place to stay but the women and children were staying on the streets in the rain because they had been displaced and I had to do something to help them. We had nothing, no banks, no money.”  

Ms. Abu Daqqa said she completed a recent project but fell into more than $2.5 million worth of debt, yet “I forgot all the problems I was going through...I started thinking about the women who stay with their children in the rain [without shelter], so I began collecting money from friends and relatives to build camps.”

Unfortunately, she continued, there were no tents because international institutions were not prepared. “So, for this work in a time of emergency, I started buying wood, gathered relatives and volunteers, and started building tents day and night.”

“Jewish friends raised $5,000 for me to get out of Gaza, but I allocated the money to build tents for the people,” she explains to UN News.

‘Sudanese lives and dreams matter’

Alaa Hamadto, a Sudanese mother of three daughters, is the CEO and founder of Solar Food, a clean tech startup and a pioneer in the dried foods industry in Sudan.  

“Solar Food uses a solar drying process to produce a variety of organic dried food products which are packaged in environmentally friendly packaging, catering to both the retail and wholesale market.”

Ms. Hamadto’s factory was destroyed amid the conflict in Sudan. “We used to export our products to seven countries, including the UK, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar. My business was located at the factory premises in Sudan,” she explains.

She went on to say, “My ultimate vision was to have a good impact on people’s lives. This can be achievable by helping smallholder farmers. I’m also trying to spread the concept of solar drying and how it’s beneficial to the people.”

After war broke out a little more than a year ago, Ms. Hamadto says she lost everything.  

“Sudanese lives matter. Sudanese dreams matter. We have faced horrible things. Sudanese people lost everything. Their factories have been destroyed. We lost our valuables. We lost our people. Women have been raped.”

“Everybody says what is happening in Sudan is a... civil war, but that’s not true. It is a war over resources that has [become] an ethnic [conflict].”

When the conflict erupted, Ms. Hamadto at first fled to Egypt, but later decided to return to Sudan.  

“I chose to go back again to establish a drying factory, but it’s really difficult to operate again in Sudan,” she said, citing such challenges as inflation, equipment scarcity, communication barriers, frequent power cuts, and security threats like bombings and drones.

Despite all this, she stated: “I think we’re building resilience. We know that nobody is coming to save us, and it is up to us to get up again.”

Empowering Afghan mothers 

Malalai Helmandi, Chief Operations Officer of the solar energy-producing organization Helmandi Solar in Afghanistan, and her husband Hamid Helmand are implementing projects to empower women in the Asian nation.

Over the past two and a half years, their company has been setting up greenhouses for women affected by conflict and crises, she explained and added that 47 years of war in Afghanistan have weakened the role of mothers as the backbone of the household.  

“[A mother] spends most of the time in the most important years of a child’s development. And in a culture like Afghanistan, where the family unit is so strong, I find that those families [are more stable] where the mother is empowered, has knowledge, and is given an opportunity to either bring in her own income, or at the very minimum, be part of a decision making through something that might be... income generating.”

For his part, Mr. Helmand said that after three days at WEIF, he will return home believing that “with our efforts, ideology and thoughts, I think we can restore those responsibilities and jobs to women because 80 per cent of those women have lost their jobs due to war and due to what has been happening in that area.”  

‘Conflict in Iraq could not stop me’

In 2018, the Iraqi Government was combatting the ISIS militant group, but these conditions did not deter Basima Abdulrahman, Founder and CEO of the KESK company, which seeks Greentech energy solutions through technology.

“I decided to build a sustainable business because I loved sustainability, [but] I didn’t know that it would end up a climate action business,” Ms. Abdulrahman told UN News.

She added: “I was not afraid of the ongoing conflict because climate change is as big a threat as ISIS, so actions to counter [both] must go together and not be fought in a specific order, so I decided it wasn’t too early, but it could be too late."

Ms. Abdulrahman believes that for Iraq, the transition to renewable energy is not just a strategic plan or a luxury but a necessity. There is a 50 per cent shortage of electricity in the country, and this gap is currently being filled by generators that pollute the environment and which do not actually close the gap. Above all, they are expensive.  

She urged women entrepreneurs in conflict areas or in areas where there is peace, but where patriarchy is entrenched, to “start a big business and grow it. You can always be resilient and strengthen your business and move forward despite any challenges you face.”

Entrepreneurs’ voices have been heard  

As the curtain fell on WEIF2024 here in Manama, Dr. Hashim Hussein, Head of the UNIDO Office for Technology and Investment Promotion in Bahrain, which facilitated the forum, said he was proud that “we have been able to ensure that entrepreneurs raise their voices.”

“We have seen that entrepreneurs within the United Nations system had the opportunity to speak. And, young people, we are listening to them now; they used to be just listeners.”

“I think the greatest achievement of WEIF 2024 is that we have...involved the international community in recognizing and understanding the problems and hardships of women in conflict and how we can help them,” he went on to say.

He told UN News on the margins of the forum that such support should be through economic development, to ensure that they sustain their families “and, of course, the communities and the countries which they are living in. I think this is going to be our major achievement this year of the World Interference Investment Forum 2024.”