How are women entrepreneurs in developing countries addressing unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic? We reached out to our We-Fi network and spoke with women in business who are braving the storm in their own way. This is the second article in our series about web-based entrepreneurs who are still seeing opportunities for growth.
JERUSALEM: Suna Zoabi-Othman, Tawazon: Keeping up with peak demand while ‘juggling 3 children at home’
Suna Zoabi-Othman is brimming with energy: she is handling a record demand of her company’s meditation app, and trying to recruit new online content creators whilst shuffling the home-schooling of her three young children. Over the last two weeks, she has seen the number of downloads of her app Tawazon double from an average of 2,000 downloads per month to 4,000. “We provide scientifically-based meditation and mindfulness lessons to the Arabic world and there seems to be a great need out there now. People are looking for some peace to deal with the current situation. A lot of people are asking for information, asking for new online videos, for example”, says Suna Zoabi, from her home in Jerusalem.
The entrepreneur feels fortunate that her team of 9 staff and 10 free-lancers were already working remotely from home. “Our team is spread out and this has been our situation for the past two years. I always wanted a head office with our logo on the door, but it seemed such a waste of time for me to spend hours in traffic. It means that the current situation of lock-down doesn’t really affect us; we have our deliverables, and we have our weekly deadlines.”
Now more than ever, she and her team, two-thirds of which are women, find themselves challenged with balancing the company’s needs and the needs at home. With a big smile, she calls the online learning of her children ‘mama-line learning’. “The most productive hours of my team were during the school hours of their children. Now, with families at home, I still see more women jumping into household chores than men.”
With a sharp increase in demand for new online content, she is desperately looking for creative content writers who are hard to find in her immediate vicinity in Palestine. “I will lose this opportunity if I cannot find creative marketing content providers”, Zoabi adds. “Right now, we are doing well, but I cannot say what it will look like in a few months. If there will be a recession, it will affect us all.”
The startup founder will use a recent investment from the IFC-supported investment fund Ibtikar for marketing purposes ‘as this is the right time to do an awareness campaign’. Her firm will be conservative in spreading out the budget; Zoabi has cut her salary in half and has asked her staff to work part-time as she is expecting that harder times will be ahead.
BEIRUT: Manal Hakim, Geek Express: More online marketing and ‘trying to keep an amazing team’
Manal Hakim of edu-tech hub Geek Express in Lebanon feels it is her personal duty to try to stay as positive as possible. Her company is going full speed ahead with online innovation & coding classes but admits it is a very tough time for everyone. “Even if we go back to a normal situation in six months, things will not pick up immediately. I have an amazing team and if I lose any of them for financial considerations, it would be a big loss for the company”, she says.
Hakim’s core team of 10 staff and more than 50 freelancers are “working around the clock” to create content for the online academy and online coding camps in the Easter and Spring term breaks. She is significantly ramping up her online marketing efforts. “We had 200 children in ages 5 – 17 coming to our physical tech hubs which became impossible from one day to the next. We managed to transition about 90% of these students to our online academy which we had already launched in late December. So luckily we had a structure in place.”
Large projects, such as the development of a ‘Maker Bus’ to encourage innovation in schools in Africa, sponsored by a mobile telephone provider as well as the delivery of tech courses and innovation programs to schools in the Gulf region, have abruptly stopped. Although salaries are her largest expense, Hakim hopes to avoid any salary cuts and potentially demoralize her team, at a time when they’ve each stepped up their efforts. She is uncertain if a planned move of the firm’s main office to the United Arab Emirates will go forward. For now, she has also paused a Series A foreign investment round planned for the summer “as so many things have come to a halt” due to the prevailing uncertainty.
On the positive side, if there ever was a time to launch online education services, it is now. “We were doing this anyhow, and now that the parents are at home, they can provide some assistance to their children’s online engagement. Also, the already ongoing trend to online learning made our task easier. That’s a good thing.”
*Manal Hakim of Geek Express was one of the 20+ women entrepreneurs who were invited to the We-Fi MENA regional summit in Dubai and was recently featured in a video dedicated to International Women’s Day.