It can be hard for young Iraqi graduates to get a job – in Iraq’s oil-dependent, rentier economy, the government still provides most of the employment and as the population grows, there simply are not enough jobs to go around. It’s one of the main reasons for current anti-government protests.
One young Baghdad woman, Duha Mustafa Fadel, decided to forge her own path after graduation. She now has her own business, making natural soap and skin care products locally. She sells soap made with fennel, lemon, coffee, active coal, strawberry, honey and Moroccan clay, among other varieties, via Facebook and at drugstores and beauty clinics around the country. She told NIQASH how she got started, where she hopes to go and why there is hope for young Iraqis in the private sector.
NIQASH: How did all this begin for you?
Duha Mustafa Fadel: After I graduated, coming first in my class, I didn’t want to wait around for the government to offer me a job, as so many other people do. I worked for another company for a while and managed to save some money. Then I travelled to India with my husband – he was studying there - where I was introduced to all kinds of natural oils and where I joined a training on the manufacture of natural products. Upon my return to Iraq, I got started. I opened a small workshop in my own home and created two Facebook pages to market my products. One of the first people to contact me was a woman from Diwaniyah. She said she was interested in the products but couldn’t afford to pay to get them from Baghdad to Diwaniyah and asked if there was any chance I would open outlets in other parts of Iraq. So that’s what I did.
NIQASH: What was the budget for your project?
Fadel: Around US$3,400. That was what I could afford and I used the money to buy raw materials and workshop supplies.
NIQASH: When you first started work, what were some of your biggest challenges?
Fadel: Basically trying to build trust that it was a locally made product and that it was good. Shop owners that I tried to stock would ask me whether it was really made in Iraq, or if it was imported. When I told them it was made in Iraq, they were often reluctant. However when they did try it, they liked it a lot and would always order more.
NIQASH: Did you do any research on the market or whether Iraqis even wanted something like this before you began?
Fadel: Yes, I tried to do a feasibility study and when it comes to the tastes of customers, I started with what I liked first, and what people close to me liked. Then eventually, as the business grew, I began to get more insights into what customers wanted and I built my knowledge of the market that way.
NIQASH: What sort of plans do you have for the future growth of your business?
Fadel: I’d really like to open a proper factory in Iraqi Kurdistan to make soap and skin care products and then market them in Arab countries, and also internationally. I lived in Iraqi Kurdistan for two years and I have good contacts there. The conditions for opening a factory are easier up north too.
NIQASH: A lot of other Iraqis would be looking at your success with admiration and they might possibly also want to ask you for a job. Where do you find your employees?
Fadel: At first, a friend was helping me and as the business grew, I began to hire young female graduates. As our activities continue and grow, the number of staff should also increase. I’ve also been very lucky in that my husband and parents support my work unconditionally.
NIQASH: What advice would you give to other Iraqi women who might be thinking about starting their own businesses?
Fadel: I would advise them not to hesitate. I would advise them to work hard and to unleash their talents and creativity. The beginning is always hard but over time, things get easier and your business will grow, especially if you have done good advance planning and research. Women who become financially independent can be a source of pride for their families and, of course, for themselves too.