Research has shown that for every eight enda clients, at least one new full-time salaried job is created, meaning over 25 000 jobs have been created by enda micro-entrepreneurs. 90% of enda employees are from the low-income neighbourhoods enda works in across 65 locations around the country.
Essma is a founding member and former chair of Sanabel, the microfinance network of Arab countries, and was recognised by the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2010.
Ogunte: How did you come to found enda, the first microfinance institution in Tunisia?
Essma: If you asked me back in 1987: Are you planning to start a big NGO like enda? I would have laughed. My vision back then wasn’t for this – it was to find a position from which I could give back to my country.
I left teaching to become a journalist – I dreamt of changing the world. At the UN, I wrote about the big political questions of the century – Rhodesia, South Africa, Palestine, Lebanon – all the colonised countries trying to become free. But I was disappointed because nothing changed; we were not solving any problems.
Still, I moved to Rome and wrote about development, food and agriculture for the UN. I travelled to visit projects and what I saw shocked me. When you are in big conferences in beautiful hotels, you hear grand speeches and you believe they are really improving the situation for the poor. But when you visit and talk to the poorest people, you realise that nothing much is happening. Governments can often talk the talk, but lack any effective action.
During my trips, I discovered that NGOs are doing something. They are motivated and efficient. They don’t do big projects, but they do something.
An article on why farmers in Tunisia were not paying back their loans brought me home. I talked to a lot of people, a lot of women - the situation was very bad. Suddenly, while talking to a woman, something struck me very significantly. In Tunisia, we call it ‘maktoub’ - it was a moment of seeing my destiny, my purpose. I was sent to do this article so that I can reconnect with my country, and do something to help the women of Tunisia.
At that time, I met my husband Michael who was also disgusted and frustrated by the ‘all talk’ nature of the UN. We thought maybe we could start something – not something big and global, but small and at a local level, perhaps in Senegal, or in Malaysia.
Finally, my boss said: ‘Why not do it in your country?’. This had never occurred to me. We met with the founder of enda, figuring we could start something from there and work together. So, in 1990 we decided to create an environmental protection NGO, despite everyone advising against it.
I never intended it to become such a big organisation, working with 700,000 people – I was ambitious but I never imagined this. We were lucky and our work paid off – we have created something that we are very proud of.
Ogunte: How did you come to microfinance as a way to empower women?
Essma: I first heard about microfinance when I was in Rome. I wrote about Mohammed Yunus’ work, and his founding of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, but I never thought I would be doing it in my own country.
One day, the French Embassy came to enda inter-arabe with some money for a project in an urban area, the poorest neighbourhood in Tunis. Friends were horrified – they said: ‘You can’t go there, it’s far too dangerous.’ Anyway, we went, and fell in love with the area. It turned out that the area was a fundamentalist cradle, and that youths were being radicalised.
I was a bit of a stranger when I came back – I had been living abroad and I missed a lot of what happened in Tunisia. I didn’t know about what the fundamentalists were doing in the country.
These areas were the result of the rural exodus. Many were farmers who came to settle in the city – they were not working. They had no skills and no opportunity to work. We discovered a lot of unemployment, cafés full of boys and men doing nothing. The women either did nothing or worked as cleaners and maids.
We opened up a community centre for them, with very little funding. It was a beautiful space for young people to come and be – to sing, dance, learn something. Mothers of the youths used to come along to the parties we threw. We asked them why they weren’t working. Most said it was because they had no money, some said they didn’t know what to do, they had no skills.
At that moment, I remembered Grameen Bank and thought: Why don’t we try microcredit? So I started the process, and applied for a grant from the Ford Foundation. They asked whether we knew how to manage microcredit; we said no. So they told us to go and learn, and gave us $50,000 to visit small associations doing microfinance in Egypt.
We pursued microcredit because, if you want to develop people, you need to give them capital. If you want them to recover their dignity, you need to give them loans and not donations. In Tunisia, as in many countries at that time, the government was trying to distribute money through benefits. I feel that this only keeps the poor, poor and develops a mindset of the people as charity cases. They lose their dignity, and have to beg for money all the time. I thought: My God – I can’t accept this for my country and my people.
Microcredit came in as a magic solution. One of the ways we define success is seeing people recover their dignity. They are empowered by the process and no longer ask for money.
For women, it means they can develop their own business, make their own money and not have to suffer the indignity of asking their husband or male relative for money. Women are not free until they have ownership of their own money, choices and lives. This is the magic of microfinance - I wish I had invented it!
Ogunte: How did the women respond initially?
Essma: We said to the women: ‘If we give you a loan, will you do something?’ They said: ‘Of course we will!’ So we started, and gave them the first loans, and then by the second loan, they started believing in us and began to do business.
Most women in these poor neighbourhoods have no education, only basic skills like weaving, but they started opening shops to sell what they produced. They started travelling to Turkey and Libya to buy materials and goods. Then, we discovered that Tunisian women are entrepreneurs by nature (like all women in the world, by the way).
During my childhood, I never saw women out of the home, trading in the markets. It’s not like Sub-Saharan Africa, or Asia – you don’t see women doing business on the street. It was amazing to see women outside and busy in the world. They were entrepreneurs!
Ogunte: What motivates you to make a difference in the lives of others?
Essma: Our experience and what we see of the world shapes and motivates our actions. I think my experience as a child growing up in pre-independent Tunisia was key to my journey. I was born in 1951, Tunisia was colonised at the time.
When I was a girl, people came to our house for food and help because my grandfather was a lawyer, and a generous man. He used to tell us to give them everything we had, that we had to share with these people. This teaching shaped the way I see the world and my role in it.
Women motivate me. As I was growing up, I saw the suffering of my mother and the women around me, and would always be thinking: How can I help women be free and make decisions for themselves?
I’ve seen Tunisia move through independence, and rights of women improve steadily. My grand didn’t go to school at all; my mother went to school but was not allowed to finish her education; my mother sent her five girls to school and to university, after my father died. I’ve seen my mother take off the veil. I’m witnessing a lifetime of change - I see the struggle of women and how they are slowly liberated.
At the end, when I finished my studies, made possible by a scholarship from the government, the first question that came to my mind was: What can I do to give back to my country?
My experiences travelling have shaped my work and my thinking. I have seen countries where women are free. In the back of my mind, I formed a model of what I wanted for my own country – which features of other nations I would take back, which I wouldn’t.
Day to day, working in an NGO allows you to see the impact you are having and that motivates you to work harder and do even more. I can see exactly what I am doing and I know what to expect.
Ogunte: What are some of the practical challenges you’ve faced at enda inter-arabe?
One silver lining is that you do see a dramatic change in them. It’s funny - I left my teaching career because I was tired of educating people, only to find myself educating continuously for 28 years!
2. The second challenge: Regulation, regulation, regulation. It’s tough when you bring forward a new idea: you might be sure that it will work, and want to test it, but you are stopped in your tracks by regulation. Regulation puts the brakes on innovation.
I imagine there are many Tunisians who have ideas to improve the country, but they are put off by needing a license from here, permission from there – the bureaucracy never ends. For instance, we’ve been trying to introduce mobile banking for 10 years, but the central bank has resisted. We also want to work on bringing financial education to all schools, but they block our progress.
I wish we could offer our clients all the financial services they need. But we are not allowed to offer savings, micro-insurance, transfers, or mobile banking. It’s a pity because we could progress so much further if the central bank were open to change.
Ogunte: What advice do you want to pass on to fellow and future changemakers?
Essma: One of the things I have learnt is that it is important to draw upon personal struggles and breakthroughs. These show us what it is possible and what we can help others overcome. I firmly believe that we should help others as we have received help. Few people achieve their full potential on their own – I definitely had people who helped me to where I am today. So I see it as only fair that we should give back.
The happiest, most content people I know work in NGOs and social enterprises. It feels good to think about other people and how to improve lives. A focus on others improves your own self too; it gives purpose and meaning to your life. In the Schwab Foundation, there is a community of social entrepreneurs, and you notice it - they all share the same deep happiness from giving and sharing something with others.
Finally, remember this: You can’t change everything, but you must keep going changing small things where you can. If everyone makes small changes, together we will eventually change something big.
Ogunte: Who inspires you?
Essma: Over the years, my inspiration has been constructed through many, many encounters and influences. Here are a few:
Muhammed Yumus has been a key figure for me in my thinking, the father of microfinance, as I am drawing from what he started with Grameen Bank.
Wangary Maathai (∞) the Kenyan activist who started the Green Belt environmental movement.
As I’ve mentioned, my mother was a model for me - she was the engine of all this. Her life, her struggle, her efforts to empower us pushed me to do what I’m doing today.
My grandfather taught me to help the poor, not by charity, but by working together to make a better life.
I am inspired by women throughout history, too. My grandfather used to read us lessons from the Quran, and the example set by the prophet’s wives – Khadija, Aisha. In our civilisation, we have great women. People don’t see that when they look at Islam so much. Though I am not a great believer today, I took in the beautiful values of the religion and now I use them in my work.
Going back further... to Carthage – a city founded by a woman, Dido! Today, I tell my clients and colleagues that we succeed as a microfinance institution because we help Tunisian women rediscover their talents. These women are the daughters of Dido: something in our blood is entrepreneurial. The Phoenicians were the best traders of their time, and we carry that history. Unfortunately, after that time, oppressive rules confined women to the home.
For me, this is the beauty of what we are doing. Tunisian women were dormant entrepreneurs: what they needed was the spark to come back to life.
Ogunte: What’s next for you?
Essma: I am 66 years old now, and I am still learning and finding new ideas! The major problem today in Tunisia is that the fundamentalists are destroying everything we’ve worked for in women’s empowerment. We have had to start again, to fight for our region. The fundamentalists represent the opposite of what enda is doing.
We must use every tool we can: microfinance, education - anything that will help women develop and evolve, and become great citizens.
So, the next stage is to work for political empowerment for women. My wish is for women to become involved in politics and to take part in the decision-making process. Once this begins, the country will change and, I believe, the world will change.
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