Landing at Algiers airport on March 8, 2022, a traveler would have been greeted over the public address system by a woman’s voice welcoming passengers and wishing them “Happy International Women’s Day.” Algerian women are celebrated on that day every year. This year, women figured prominently in the government’s statements and publicity campaigns. Driving west from the airport, one would have passed a giant billboard bearing the photograph of a woman. The English-language caption read, “She is not a woman. She is an engineer.” There was a lot to unpack here.
Leader in Women’s Education, Straggler in Women’s Entrepreneurship
According to a 2021 UNESCO report entitled “To Be Smart, the Digital Revolution Will Need to Be Inclusive,” Algeria has the highest proportion of female engineering graduates in the world, with the figure having reached 48.5 percent of the country’s total engineering graduates. Compare this with 26.1 percent in France, 19.7 percent in Canada, and 14 percent in Japan. Yet while Algerian women may have broken men’s monopoly over the study of engineering, the profession itself remains dominated by men. Unsurprisingly, women entrepreneurs are also underrepresented. They are held back by two sets of constraints. The first consists of deeply rooted sociocultural mores such as traditional conceptions of gender roles and lack of family support. The second comprises financial barriers such as a lack of capital and of institutional support to obtain such capital through bank loans or investment.
In the Arab world and beyond, Algeria is a leader in women’s education. The literacy rate for women rose from 62.2 percent in 1987 to 97.3 percent in 2018. In tertiary education, total enrollment reached 52.5 percent in 2020, with a higher ratio for women, who accounted for 66.4 percent. Mass education has led to women’s workplace access. Women represented 8.1 percent of the total labor force in 1987; three decades later, the figure stood at 20 percent. However, despite such progress, women remain underrepresented in the workplace. In 2019, adult female employment in Algeria was only 13.8 percent, as against 60.7 percent for males.
Women are also underrepresented in the business sector, even if the premier association of Algerian women entrepreneurs, Savoir Et Vouloir Entreprendre(SEVE), presents a somewhat rosy image of women’s progress. SEVE was created in 1993 to help integrate women into the national economy by guiding them in establishing businesses and facilitating their dialogue with economic institutions. According to SEVE, women in business is a rising trend that increased by 25 percent from 2013 to 2018. Yet even SEVE states that, without counting liberal professions and agricultural activities, Algeria had no more than 150,000 women entrepreneurs in 2018. This meant that out of 1.96 million entrepreneurs in the country, women accounted for a mere 7.6 percent.
According to the 2020 Mastercard Index of Female Entrepreneurship (MIWE), the picture is even less encouraging. Algeria is near the bottom of the list of the 58 countries measured, with 37 index points. Only Bangladesh, with 36 points, ranks lower. Noticeably, other countries in Africa, such as Ghana and Uganda, fare well, with 60 and 56 points, respectively. Indeed, women’s business ownership is 36.5 percent for Ghana, 39.6 percent for Uganda, and barely 6 percent for Algeria.
There is another element to this issue that is worth noting. According to investigative journalists, among them Naïma Benouaret, figures cited by SEVE (and even MIWE) are misleading because many men use the names of their wives, mothers, and sisters when obtaining a license to establish a business. They do this to reduce their declared personal assets and thus avoid additional taxes, or because they are civil servants and therefore are not allowed to own a business in the first place. Benouaret maintains that the figure of 150,000 women entrepreneurs is inflated, and that the real figure is around 5,000. On an anecdotal level, she points out that this underrepresentation is apparent when Algerians participate in regional and international business forums—their delegations include precious few women.
Tradition Standing Athwart Change
When discussing obstacles in the way of Algerian women’s advancement, particularly in the realm of business, sociocultural constraints figure prominently. In interviews, several entrepreneurs explained that with each and every business-related step they take, they have to weigh the potential for backlash.1 For example, activities should preferably take place during the day—in other words, business lunches instead of dinners—because evening encounters between men and women have unwanted connotations. Also, many interviewees noted that the widespread societal view of women as engaged largely if not exclusively in child-rearing, along with the perception that men are better suited to entrepreneurial success, stymies change.
Those interviewed often recounted that, at first, many people, especially their male counterparts, did not take them seriously. Take Amira Hamdad, founder and CEO of Jurex, a consulting firm: “At the beginning,” she recalled, “they used to refer to Jurex as a ‘small firm led by a girl,’ and when the firm succeeded and became big, they did not give me credit, but instead gave it to my husband. . . . The narrative was that he was the brains behind the company [laughs].”2
Another entrepreneur, Malika S., had a particularly trying experience. She is a specialist in the agriculture industry who used to have a small date farm near an oasis in southwest Algeria, before leaving to launch an olive farming business in the Kabylia region. She recalled:
When I started, it was hell. Nobody took me seriously in that region or wanted to deal with me. I had a hard time hiring. My husband stepped in to help, but it was too late. People did not take me seriously, just because I was a woman. . . . One day, one of my employees told me, ‘I have to tell you. The colleagues, the men, do not want to take orders from you. They prefer to deal with your husband.’3
Some women, especially those from Algiers or other big cities such as Oran and Constantine, spoke of the support they received from their family. Leila Akli, founder and CEO of Pi-Relations, one of Algeria’s leading public relations firms, said, “My family and husband were my safety net, both financially and emotionally. I was not worried at all. I could rely on them.”4 Myriam Fournier-Kacimi, founder and CEO of SunGY, a solar energy company, had a similar experience. “Some family members were skeptical,” she recounted, “but my father was a great support. He was an entrepreneur, so he understood me and supported me.”5
Other women, however, had to contend with displeasure or opposition from their family. For Majda Nafissa Rahal, founder and CEO of ShiftIn, a communications company, “Family support was very limited.” In the case of Atika B., owner of a pastry shop in Tlemcen, it was nonexistent. “My mother and husband tried to sabotage my project because they did not agree to my working outside the house.”6 Many women without familial support, like Atika herself, have had to take their infant children with them to work.
Tellingly, whether the entrepreneurs interviewed for this article received family support or were given the cold shoulder, all insisted that one factor was critical to their success. This was the backing of already established entrepreneurs, both women and men, whom they sometimes referred to as “the community.” Those interviewed drew particular attention to the support this peer group extended to them during their initial forays into business. The community offered much-needed advice, provided coaching and short-term training, and brought to bear their expertise in the marketing, legal, and financial domains.
Hamdad, the Jurex founder, summed it up thus: “My family was present, but my peers were even more present. The entrepreneurship community is where I get my energy, motivation, and best ideas because we talk together and can understand each other.”7 The founder and director of a biological horticulture company in Constantine, Sihem B., echoed this sentiment: “My experience as an entrepreneur was facilitated by the support I got from my family, but above all, the one I received from my peers and collaborators.”8
All those interviewed cited the advantages of entrepreneurship’s autonomy. For many, it was an appealing career move. It made them feel “independent,” “free,” “more flexible,” and “able to be creative and innovative,” in addition to giving them a better work-life balance despite initial hurdles. They all insisted that their previous jobs, whether in the public sector or in big multinational companies, obliged them to have longer workweeks where taking time off and showing initiative was frowned upon and could result in penalties. Entrepreneurship offered them freedom, independence, and the latitude to run things the way they wanted.
Besides these sociocultural barriers, women entrepreneurs suffer from restricted access to financing. This is the case despite the existence of the National Youth Employment Support Agency (ANSEJ), the National Unemployment Insurance Fund (CNAC), and the National Agency for the Management of Micro-credit (ANGEM), all of which were created to help entrepreneurs, especially those who are young. Benouaret and others attribute the problem to institutionalized sexist attitudes. This helps to explain why, according to a report by the International Labor Organization in 2016, only 10 percent of women entrepreneurs in Algeria obtained funds from the main support agencies, including ANSEJ or CNAC. All the women interviewed for this article ended up self-financing their businesses. In November 2020, ANSEJ, previously geared toward youth, was rebranded as the more broad-based National Agency for Support and Development of Entrepreneurship, but it remains to be seen whether this will have a positive impact on aspiring women entrepreneurs.
Those interviewed cited the conditions, deadlines, and delays in processing their requests for funding as the most significant factors working against their obtaining approval for loans. Several women also pointed out that such excessive bureaucracy takes a bigger toll on them than on men, given that they continue to bear the lion’s share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities, and as such are always more pressed for time. They also maintained that, more often than not, the banks were not interested in helping them. In Algeria, banks do not simply make it difficult to obtain a loan for ventures revolving around digital technology, public relations, and consulting, which are viewed as risky and less likely to generate solid returns on investment, but also seem to have a dated view of entrepreneurship as applied to women.9 Female entrepreneurship remains synonymous with hairdressing, artisanal crafts, and childcare. A former employee at ANGEM, Ali A., explained that banks and agencies dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship prefer to grant loans for the purchase of raw materials.10 For young women, this would benefit those who wish to launch ventures centered on processing food products, creating textiles, or offering services such as hairdressing, but not much else.
Additionally, all the women who were interviewed lamented the banks’ high interest rates. For instance, banks offer one the possibility of requesting credit in the form of an advance on an invoice. If a person seeking such credit has a high production cost, she can ask the bank for an advance on the amount corresponding to the sale cost to the end-user. For such a service, which is called “factoring,” the banks take a commission of no less than 9 percent. This is very high. In France, for example, the figure is between 0.5 percent and 2.5 percent. As a result, women often have no choice but to self-finance their projects. This sometimes necessitates their funneling their own savings into the project or borrowing from family and friends. In such circumstances, the risks are great and failure can mean financial ruin.
Despite the state’s efforts to guarantee funds for entrepreneurs, including women, its efforts have often fallen short. In 2019, then minister of industry and mines Youcef Yousfi declared that several measures had been taken to offer more opportunities to women to launch their businesses. This was meant to meet the requirements of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030, particularly SDG no. 5. The latter urges governments to, among other things, “undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.” Yet the fledgling program has already faced criticism. Entrepreneurs have taken its administrators to task for not paying particular attention to their projects, or giving them attention but no tangible assistance. Those interviewed cited two concomitant issues. The first was the difficulty of gaining access to land. The second was dealing with the vagaries of the rental market.
When it comes to land, Sihem B. of the biological horticulture company is a case in point. She had to abandon her initial project, creating handbags out of organic materials, because of a lack of access to land needed to grow the plant necessary to make her product. The government had promised her land for free for the first ten years, provided she entered into a partnership with the state. She did just that—but was never allotted the land. Eventually, she gave up, launched her current company, and paid her own way. Hers is not the only such example. Worse yet, women who have similar experiences cannot necessarily pick up and start again the way she did.
The second issue is that of the rental market. Small businesses oriented toward services, particularly those created within the framework of public mechanisms such as ANSEJ and CNAC, require a title deed for land/premises or a rental contract for a period longer than two years. This is a difficult hurdle to surmount because, when it comes to commercial space, landlords customarily require rental payment one year in advance. Many entrepreneurs do not have such funds on hand. Moreover, even if an aspiring entrepreneur manages to secure the sum and pay the rent up front, she may still have her request for a bank loan turned down, meaning that the payment for the commercial space would have gone to waste. Finally, the rental market is not regulated, and owners often raise rents without notice or negotiation.
Fella, a middle-aged entrepreneur in the field of childcare in Annaba, faced just such a situation:
I wanted to open a daycare for toddlers and infants. In my first year, I had to rent a place, and I needed a contract that had my name on it saying that I had the place for three years in order to reach out to the banks. Then I had to spend even more money arranging the required certificate of conformity and hygiene for the premises, as it was for childcare. Then you have to wait months for an answer from the bank, the municipal authorities, and other institutions after they make sure you are in compliance with safety requirements. During that time, I was renting the place. I had to wait fifteen months to get an answer. Then, once that was done and I launched the business, my landlord decided to raise the rent. . . . I finally started to have clients and parents trusting me, so I was not going to rent another place. Instead, I stayed and paid.11
There is no question that, since Algeria gained independence in 1962, the country’s women have come a long way. In essence, they have moved from the periphery of entrepreneurial life closer and closer to its center. Algeria began demonstrating an interest in establishing support programs for women’s entrepreneurship and empowerment in the 2000s, launching several one-off initiatives. For this, the state deserves recognition and encouragement.
Yet much can and should be done to institutionalize such initiatives, enhance their effectiveness, and streamline the country’s byzantine bureaucracy. Additionally, Algeria needs a cultural awareness campaign. Such a campaign would combat the harmful influence of outdated and misogynistic notions concerning women’s roles and limitations. Not only women, but the state itself would benefit. Indeed, the women interviewed for this article demonstrate, as do others besides, the commercial viability of female entrepreneurship in Algeria. And their triumph in a largely inhospitable environment proves that there is nothing that women cannot achieve if they are given an equal opportunity to compete.
1 Twelve women entrepreneurs were interviewed. Names and other identifying information have in certain instances been changed at the request of the interviewees themselves.
2 Interview conducted phone, February 25, 2022.
3 Interview conducted by phone, March 25, 2022.
4 Interview conducted by phone, February 24, 2022.
5 Interview conducted by phone, March 25, 2022.
6 Interview conducted by phone, March 26, 2022.
7 Interview conducted by phone, February 25, 2022.
8 Interview conducted by phone, February 22, 2022.
9 Interview with banker from the Crédit Populaire d’Algérie, Algiers, March 20, 2022.
10 Interview with Ali A., a former employee at ANGEM, Algiers, March 13, 2022.
11 Interview with Fella, owner of childcare facility in Annaba, conducted by phone, March 26, 2022.