A woman for women: a Berlin networker supports Arab women entrepreneurs | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW


At first glance, Bassant Helmi could easily be mistaken for one of Berlin’s first tourists after the city’s coronavirus lockdown eased as she walks to a park bench near the River Spree with a coffee in take away by hand. But her fast pace doesn’t quite match the pace of a relaxed vacation. The 48-year-old Egyptian, who has chosen Berlin as her home, is one of the best-known networks for Arab women entrepreneurs in Germany and the Middle East.

Helmi speaks quickly and finishes her coffee quickly; she is obviously a city person.

“When I moved to Berlin in 2000, I realized that it could be an incredible chance to use my new position as Head of the Berlin Liaison Office of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce as a platform to support women. entrepreneurs in my home country too, “she tells DW in Berlin. The working conditions were ideal and the contacts already in place, since Helmi had headed the business department of the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry. -Arabic in Cairo before marrying a German and settling in Berlin.

Helmi has never been someone who just talks: she is far too passionate about improving conditions for women entrepreneurs. Therefore, in 2001, she founded the association “Global Project Partners eV”, initially with 20 female members. Since then, it has become two of the most important German-Arab networks, with more than 4,000 members: “Women in Business MENA” is a cooperation project aimed at supporting (future) women entrepreneurs in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Algeria since 2016, and in 2017, the “Digital Arabia Network” (DAN) was established to improve key technologies in the Middle East.

Bassant Helmi’s networks connect more than 4,000 businesswomen in the Middle East and Germany

At the moment, Helmi is busy preparing for the Rakameya online conference, which is hosted by DAN. The conference is best described as a sort of re: publika for the Middle East and will take place June 15-17, 2021. Discussions will focus on diversity, data protection, digital freedom, fake news, citizen participation and the fight against corruption. , among other topics.

“Everything is happening online, not so much because of the pandemic, but because it allows us to protect our speakers and participants”, explains Helmi, and adds: “We are well aware that the subjects are particularly sensitive in certain countries. ”

Helmi is very attached to the advantages of living in an EU member state and dreams of an Arabic version. However, so far, despite her motivation, support and a lot of luck, networking for Arab women entrepreneurs has not been an easy journey, and chances are things won’t change quickly.

Career or children

According to recent data from the World Bank, only around 20% of the Egyptian workforce are women. “Arab women have always been active in the economy, but the big problem is with family planning,” Helmi says in unaccented German she first learned in kindergarten and German school. from Cairo.

One of the main reasons is that children and careers are not yet seen as compatible. In other words: For Egyptian women, the traditional triple burden of work, family and extended family still exists. This is underscored by a report from the American University in Cairo which notes that there are only around 12,500 childcare facilities in the country of 101 million people.

However, a positive signal could be the “Egypt 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy”, a political development plan that makes women’s empowerment one of the key goals.

For Bassant Helmi, however, the birth of his daughter in 2008 was no reason to consider ending his career. “My husband and I have both taken parental leave, but there is nothing like it in Egypt,” she says.

a long way to go

“I am always surprised that people in Egypt and Germany ask me why a networking association for women is necessary,” Helmi laughs. The question is almost always asked by men.

However, the answer is obvious. Such a network is necessary because networked women have a better chance of tackling the biggest problem in starting a business: financing. “In Egypt, business money still comes from family and friends and only then from banks,” Helmi says.

The main reason for this is an ambivalent relationship with institutionalized banks. According to current World Bank figures, just under 40% of over 15s in Egypt have a bank account. This is 20% less than the world average. Programs dedicated to the empowerment of women in Egypt exist but are still rare, despite a paradoxically high presence of female executives in the Egyptian banking sector and a thriving local FinTech scene.

Looking towards Germany

The next networking projects will bring Bassant Helmi into a new and yet well-known field. “I would like to start using my contacts for projects with Arabic speaking migrant women in Germany,” she tells DW. For this, she would like to work with women from the Middle East who have been here for a generation or more.

Bringing its network back to where it all began 20 years ago allows it to come full circle. “So far all of my networking projects have been overseas, and now is the time to support Arab women here in Germany as well,” says Helmi, as she takes her keys and throws the cup away. empty coffee in a trash can. This busy city dweller has to leave on time for her next meeting.

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