BEIRUT: Most of the women Boushra Bakeer is responsible for are older than her, but she feels her responsibility toward them keenly. Sitting on benches around the edge of the production room in the needlework workshop Shatila Studio, the women stitch patterns into fabric that will be used in bespoke textile products.
Occasionally, one of the women will hand her work to Bakeer, who will examine it, and either approve it with a ready smile, or suggest improvements. Times have changed, and they need to get this right.
Bakeer came to Lebanon from Hama in 2012, fleeing the Syrian conflict. She knew little about needlework at the time, although she had an engineering degree to her name. When she joined the newly established Shatila Studio six years ago, she learned embroidery, eventually becoming the embroidery room supervisor. Now she is taking a university course in management. She needs more business acumen with Shatila Studio having joined the small but growing number of organizations creating social enterprises to try to improve the living conditions for Lebanon’s many refugees.
In nearby Burj al-Barajneh late last year, Soufra, a catering business run by Palestinian women, looked to do the same: They built a rooftop garden in the crowded camp to employ local refugees and supply all the company’s food produce.
Shatila Studio, however, had started as a textile workshop as part of NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh. But when donor funding dried up at the end of last year, the project’s core team had to think of an alternative means of keeping it running or they, and the many women employed there, would be out of a job.
“They would have all lost their income, and I think that would have been a real disaster for many of them,” says Meike Ziervogel, co-director of the new business. “There are not really many opportunities in the camp to work, nor are they allowed to work outside.”
Now, Ziervogel says, 73 women are taking home a regular income from their work at the workshop.
Since moving to a social enterprise, which means operating from sales profits rather than donations, things are different, Bakeer says. “We have now become a business. Everything has changed - we now understand accounting and how we earn our pay,” she says. “My responsibility grew. Previously, the donor paid for everything, but not anymore.”
The advantage of social enterprise is that it should provide more stability to the workshop in the long term, Ziervogel says. “Being funded in my view ... doesn’t create stability,” she says. “If you want to generate stable incomes, I think you have to run as a business, because that forces you to look outside at what the customers want.”
What the customer wants, she adds, is a high quality product, and paying customers can be more difficult to satisfy than donors. As a result, “the quality needs to be absolutely top.” It’s labor intensive work, and Shatila Studio products are not cheap, often running into the hundreds of dollars for a hand-stitched jacket, for example.
Nevertheless, Ziervogel refuses to cut costs by reducing the wages paid to employees. “People always think that because our artisans are refugees they should be paid less,” she says. “We’re not a sweatshop. If you want to produce something really cheap, we’re just not the right place. If you want to have something bespoke ... you have to pay for it.”
The workshop is therefore going through a nervous period. Cumulative profits are down, as production is now funded by the workshop itself, but the team hasn’t yet established a strong network of sales channels.
Such difficulties are common in social enterprises, says Andrew O’Brien, director of external relations for Social Enterprise U.K. “The key danger is around cash flow and access to capital at the beginning of the entity. Like any business it takes time to build a market,” he tells The Daily Star. Nonetheless, he adds, if the workshop makes it through these tricky stages it could stand on firmer ground than before the transition. “The consumer market is less fickle than the aid market, where there are other factors at play,” he says.
Ziervogel, a German who had previously lived for some decades in the U.K., hopes that she can use her international background to find clients outside Lebanon - a task that is much harder for her colleagues, few of whom are able to travel abroad.
The workshop is also hoping to take advantage of Lebanon’s thriving fashion scene to encourage some designers to collaborate with it. In the meantime, an online campaign has raised over $14,000 in product sales, keeping the women in the workshop busy.
That work is vital to the employees. Sixty-one-year-old Amina has spent five years with Shatila Studio, and lives with her four children in one room, which costs $350 per month. Her work at the studio brings her LL50,000-LL100,000 ($33-66) per day, she says.
While she takes her instructions from Bakeer, she nonetheless has a matriarchal role in the workshop.
“These women are my daughters,” she says. “They are my second family.” - Additional reporting by Emily Lewis