Women-run businesses have become more and more the norm here in the U.S.—just look at Glossier CEO Emily Weiss, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, and Orangetheory Fitness co-founder Ellen Latham for examples. But that change has been slow to arrive to other parts of the world—particularly Libya.
Libya has long struggled with women’s rights—during the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, women were largely excluded from politics and often couldn’t get an education outside the traditionally gendered realms of healthcare and administration. And although women played a large role in the revolution of 2011 that ended Gaddafis rule, continued conflict and instability (including the rise of Isis in some areas) has made it hard for women in some regions to gain a foothold in society without facing threats and violence. There are also traditional cultural norms at play prohibiting many Libyan women from leaving their homes or interacting with other men, unless they have permission from their male guardian.
This context helps explain why only one out of four Libyan women is legally employed, according to The World Bank. But that may change soon, in part thanks to a new food app called Yummy. The app, founded by two Libyan women, hopes to give more women a way to grow businesses from home by selling food they make themselves.
Here’s how it works: Anyone—man or woman—looking to sell their homemade food applies to be a vendor on the app. They send samples to Yummy HQ, located in southern Libya, where the dishes are taste-tested and professionally photographed. Once Yummy approves the seller and gets them up and running, customers can place orders through the app. Drivers hired through Yummy pick up the food from the seller and drop it off to customers. Basically, it’s the Seamless of home-cooked food.
“There’s a positive movement for being a woman right now in Libya.” —Fattoum Nasser, co-founder of Yummy
Behind the culture-changing tech company is 21-year-old Fattoum Nasser and her business partner 32-year-old Azeeza Adam, who met during a tech workshop in March of last year. “You know how when you meet someone and you know instantly that they’ll be in your life for a long time? That’s how it felt meeting Azeeza,” Nasser says. Both Nasser and her business partner grew up in homes where their families encouraged them to start careers, and they say having that support is a large part of what’s helped them succeed—starting with going to university and attending innovative tech workshops.
Yummy, Nasser reveals, was born from a very simple idea. “We came up with the idea when we were preparing for a digital workshop and we got hungry,” she says. “We were joking around how we wished there was an app where we could order homemade food. But as the months passed, we actually started to think about it more seriously.”
Nasser says the official stat of 25 percent employment is deceiving because many women run their own businesses from home, which isn’t usually documented. “They sell things they make, like clothes, jewelry, or food,” she says. Nasser and Adam thought about how many women were making food at home, something engrained in Libyan culture, and wanted to give them a way to grow their businesses.
“Women who have a low income tend to work as food providers, and lower-income families often have more restrictions than higher income families,” Nasser explains. “So if a woman starts working as a food provider at home, she will have limited access to her clients.” She adds that many women also usually prefer to deal with other women rather than men, which can also hinder business growth.
“And that’s where Yummy comes and works as a mediator,” Nasser says. “She doesn’t have to have direct contact with men, it’s socially safe, and at the same time she can expand her business.”
Nasser and Adam entered a Libyan business competition, Enjazi Startup Competition, in June 2017. It spurred them to create a plan and get developers on board to design it. The duo made the top three, and Nasser says the competition was really what ignited their momentum.
“We’ve grown to three teams—of 11 people total—in the eastern, western, and southern parts of Libya, all in major cities,” Nasser says. Still in the beta stage, Yummy has 50 users and later this month it will be going public, with the goal of 3,000 users.
Even though the culture in many parts of Libya restricts women from many things, like driving (though legally, they are allowed, cultural norms have proved difficult to change), Nasser says earning money is typically seen as a positive. “Most men see that if the wife works it creates more money for the family, so they see it as a positive,” she says, as long as it’s from home. Yummy, therefore, is helping women seek out more financial freedom while still operating within socially-acceptable confines—a tricky, but crucial balance.
When people first started hearing about Yummy, Nasser and Adam received a lot of criticism from men who were threatened by the freedom it was giving women. “There was a lot of backlash of people talking nonsense about me,” Nassar says. “I was really mad, but I talked to my mom about it and she told me not to worry about them. You can’t make this kind of social change without upsetting some people.”
Nasser’s great hope is that Yummy will continue to grow, helping more women across Libya develop successful businesses that they can run straight from home. “Things are changing with the new generation, which is more open-minded,” she says. Despite the very real societal challenges women face in that country, Nasser says, “there’s a positive movement for being a woman right now in Libya.”
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