By Ulf Laessing
Inflation started reducing the value of Libyan assistant professor Seham Saleh’s state-paid earnings. So, she started selling drawings over the internet to help pay bills.
Saleh joins a growing number of Libyan women launching businesses in the conservative Arab nation. Limitations on personal and family earnings and years of political chaos have forced many women to look for more work.
Libya has a market for locally-produced goods. The economy is mostly controlled by the government. It employs most adults under a structure set up by Gaddafi, who was removed from power and killed in 2011.
Men are the traditional main earners. But, a United Nations study reported that, as of 2015, about 30 percent of women were in the labor force.
Saleh told the Reuters news service that she cannot live on her expected earnings of about $256 from her job as an assistant professor.
So she has been selling drawings of people in Libyan clothes or other objects she created on a computer.
“Thank God…people wanted to buy the products,” she said. She also does freelance work as building designer.
Libya was once one of the wealthiest countries in the region. But the chaos and civil war that took place after the fall of Gaddafi has caused the country’s quality of life to worsen.
Little is now produced in Libya other than oil. Even milk is imported from Europe.
Growing inflation over the last four years has seen real earnings lose more than half of their buying power. And the country’s money, known as the dinar, has sharply lost exchange value since last September.
A severe lack of cash means public workers often do not get their earnings paid out in full.
Lenders have no cash deposits because many people prefer to hold their cash themselves, rather than deposit it in a bank.
Jasmin Khoja is the head of a Libyan women’s business support organization called the Jusoor Center for Studies and Development.
Khoja says women rarely had jobs outside of fields such as teaching, although the need for greater family earnings has changed the situation.
The center has trained about 33 would-be businesswomen and provides legal advice. It also offers office space to women who are unable to pay for their own.
Seham Saleh’s “Naksha” art business is in its early stages. But others, such as Najwa Shoukri’s business, are growing fast.
Shoukri started designing clothes from home in 2016. Now she is selling them over the internet.
Together with five other women, she has a workshop selling 50 pieces of clothing a month. She plans to open a store next year on Jaraba Street. That is the main clothing sales area in Tripoli.
To make the store a success her production would have to rise to 150 pieces a month. Her brother and family have added to investments worth 10,000 dinars.
The biggest difficulties for new businesses are legal barriers and the lack of an electronic payment system.
Some Libyan business laws go back to the 1960s and are aimed at big corporations such as oil companies, not small businesses. Under these rules companies need to deposit thousands of dinars.
“Banks do not give loans, which stops projects and makes them unable to grow or employ other women and young people,” Khoja said.
Still, this did not stop Mayaz Elahshmi from starting a business recently. She is training women to fix computers and other devices.
“There is big demand as many women are reluctant to go to a phone shop where men work, as they have personal files on their phones,” she said.
Six people came to her first training meeting, each paying 30 dinars.