Small women-owned businesses in Lebanon fight to stay afloat amidst a crisis

Date: Monday, December 21, 2020

Lebanese hairdresser Suzan Mallas. Photo: UN Women/Dar Al Mussawir.

Suzan Mallas, 52, a hairdresser living in Beirut, is one of many Lebanese women trying to keep their small businesses afloat as the country’s economic crisis fast slips out of control — against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut Port explosion.

Suzan was on her way home on August 4 from Beqaa, in the west of Lebanon, when she saw pink smoke emitting from Beirut, the Lebanese capital. “My daughter was with me, but my husband and son were home. We first thought it was an aerial bombing and we assumed the worst.”

Although her son and husband were traumatized by the explosion’s sound and impact, they were safe, and her house suffered only minor damage in the kitchen. After inspecting her home, Suzan rushed to the salon she manages, not far from where she lives. While the salon was thankfully unscathed, the damage she witnessed on her way has stayed with her. “On my way, I saw a lot of wounded people being rushed to the hospitals nearby; I saw broken glass and the scared faces of people running everywhere,” she recalls.

Small and medium enterprises like Suzan’s salon represent 95 per cent of all companies in Lebanon, accounting for 50 per cent of national employment, and according to the 2019 World Bank Enterprise Survey, 9.9 per cent  are owned or co-owned by women.

A recent brief by UN Women, including the findings from an online survey with 90 micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), found that 51 per cent of female business owners said they could not reopen without receiving assistance. 54 per cent stated a need for support in rebuilding the physical infrastructure of their businesses and 36 per cent requested financial support to rebuild and/or replace lost or damaged stock.

UN Women partnered with UNDP’s Accelerator Lab and UNICEF to conduct a telephone survey with 136 women-owned MSMEs impacted by the blast, with findings expected to be published by the end of 2020.

Meanwhile, UN Women, in partnership with NGO Live Love Beirut and social enterprise Stand for Women, has been providing in-kind support to 10 women owned-MSMEs in the aftermath of the blast, in the form of equipment such as machines and computers, and stock, tailoring to the specific needs of each business in order to continue operations. Additional support is in the works for 2021, including intervention at the macro, meso and micro levels to enhance women’s presence in the Lebanese labor market as well as connecting these businesses to the international market, through local online and offline platforms, with the aim of increasing sales.

Highlighting one of UN Women’s priorities, Rachel Dore-Weeks, Head of UN Women Lebanon, says, “As Lebanon works to rebuild and recover from the port explosion and the current deep economic crisis, support to women’s employment must be at the heart of its strategy. Without a specific strategy to support women’s retention in the economy, women will continue to leave the labour market in rates higher than men – rolling back hard-won gains on gender equality and putting them and their families at risk of poverty and violence.” 

The challenges facing the MSMEs have intensified due to Lebanon’s multiple crises, particularly following the recent port explosion. While Suzan does not live or work near the explosion site, she feels the impact of this traumatizing event, which is already pushing many to leave Lebanon. “I have to pay the rent [of the salon] and the salaries of my two employees,” she shares. “Also, hair and makeup products are now very expensive. It can be overwhelming.” Her husband, a musician with a local band, used to tour the world every year, but now with the COVID-19 travel restrictions, he has been unable to work for months.

Suzan attending to a client at her salon. Picture UN Women/Dar Al Mussawir

Yet, Suzan is determined to continue providing for her children’s upbringing. “I want to offer my children a better future. I want them to stay in Lebanon and not have to leave.” With the help of her son, who works as a clerk in a Beirut Hospital, Suzan is sustaining the family and paying the university expenses of her 18-year-old daughter, a business student.

To further enhance her skills as an aesthetician, Suzan recently completed a professional makeup training at the Social Development Center (SDC) in Beirut’s Tariq El Jdide, hosted by UN Women.

Following the training, Suzan is now hosting apprentices in her salon after they complete the same SDC programme, training them, two at a time, in customer service and hairdressing skills in a real work environment. “The SDC has given me so much with the training; I really enjoyed my time and the people there, so I consider [training these apprentices] a favor and a payback. I also enjoy training the women who come to my salon, and I feel like they help my business prosper with their newly acquired skills.”

Suzan today enjoys a renewed confidence about her future.Now I can pursue two careers: hairdressing and becoming a makeup artist. If I ever decided to leave my job as a hairdresser, I can work on becoming more focused on makeup using the skills I took from the training.”