Published on Arab Voices

#EmpowerHer: Using Technology to Help Women and Young People in Tunisia

It gives me great pride to continue supporting the mission of the World Bank Group to eliminate poverty in the World and empower disadvantaged people to leverage a limitless potential for advancement.
For me, one of the recent bright spots in this mission was seeing some of the brightest young people from poor regions in Tunisia come on stage last month to promote and launch their solutions to help reduce the economic exclusion of both Tunisian women and youth.
The sting of economic exclusion is being a young, educated, capable and unemployed person. It means being a woman in an underserved rural area without access to health services and to markets for her products.
But who could have imagined that these two groups of people could face down their economic challenges!
The World Bank’s EmpowerHer initiative did just that! It brought young, unemployed tech graduates together with rural women to create startups for apps that help provide services for women in the interior regions in Tunisia. These apps, which will be launched in the very near future, aim to help women sell their handicrafts by providing them access markets and materials, and connecting them to better social & health services. These apps will also provide much sought after high technology jobs and other opportunities for the young startup entrepreneurs.
“This initiative is impressive and it is only the beginning. We want to take this example from Tunisia and expand it to the entire MENA region,” said World Bank Vice President for MENA Ferid Belhaj at the launch event. “And we are trying to make sure that the work of the young people is acknowledged.”
How did EmpowerHer start?
In 2016, after an intensive listening tour through the interior regions of Tunisia to hear from women artisans themselves about the challenges they faced, the EmpowerHer initiative was born, originally called, “ Technology for Women’s Economic Empowerment.”
A workshop brought craftswomen together with tech experts, government institutions, women’s associations, and partner agencies to define and select the main problems to be tackled by tech-savvy youth. Then, the EmpowerHer project sent an online invitation to unemployed youth in Tunisia from the interior regions to compete to develop the best apps. From over 300 applications, 87 youth were selected to attend a series of “hackathons” to help designing and creating apps. Competing teams received training and mentoring throughout the whole process. All “hackathons” took place in the poorest interior regions of Tunisia, breaking all barriers of distance and connectivity.  
One challenge for the teams was to create apps that could be used even by illiterate women. In remote regions, many women receive no formal education – though almost everyone has access to a mobile phone. So, features such as voice-activation and the use of intermediaries such as women’s associations had to be strategically incorporated.
Five winning app ideas were selected, and an event held in Hammamet, Tunisia, in June 2018 celebrated the launch of these five startups. In addition to Mr. Belhaj, the event was attended by  Hafez Ghanem, World Bank Vice President for Africa, the Minister of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation, the Governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia, the Minister of Women, Family, and Childhood, the Minister of Social Affairs, the Secretary of State of Digital Economy, and other notable guests from the government, partner institutions, the private sector, and the civil society. This marked the beginning of the “launch phase,” where the apps created during the EmpowerHer hackathons will “go live,” and be marketed in the Maghreb region and to the world. The winners are:
Ahmini: Over 90% of rural women workers in Tunisia don’t have health coverage. Ahmini is an online service that enables rural women to enroll in social services easily by using a mobile phone, without having to leave home. It will be the first time many of these women will have access to the social services and health care to which they and their families are entitled.
Hand & Crafts: A web platform selling traditional craftworks of the Maghreb to a global community. It provides a fair marketplace for women artisans so their unique artworks and crafts can be preserved and shared with the rest of the world.
Carpet Plus: A web platform for the design and sale of hand-made personalized carpets. Clients can design and create their own one-of-a-kind carpets thanks to software developed by the Carpet Plus tech team.  Hotels, restaurants, companies, and individuals can add custom messages, names or logos.
Auction it 4 Her: An online bidding platform specializing in authentic Tunisian products handmade by skilled women artisans. Women from remote rural areas may auction their products to customers directly, without paying high fees to middlemen.
She Shares: A pooling platform enabling women artisans in rural areas to buy and transport the raw materials they need to make their crafts, such as wool, leather, skins, olive wood, and yarn. This online platform lowers costs by cutting out the middlemen. It also saves the women time and the difficulty of traveling to distant markets to search for materials.

Afef Empowerher 2
“This is development for the youth by the youth and for the women by the women. A new approach to job creation and economic empowerment”, Said Marie Francoise Marie-Nelly, Country Director for the Maghreb and Malta. 
What’s Next?
The next phase of the project is to ensure the transformation of the winning teams into entrepreneurial enterprises. A large investor has provided seed-funding for all five winners. Investors were attracted to the young entrepreneurs' innovative business models. The goal is to get more investors to take these startups to the next level. 
These new apps are economically viable and profitable products that go beyond the supplier-customer relation. They impact women's economic and financial autonomy, increase social inclusion, and help local cultures flourish.
But even the unemployed youth who competed but did not win have been transformed just by participating. Instead of waiting at home for a government job to materialize, they have been energized by the coaching and training they received, and by the challenge of helping others. Some of them have been offered paid internships that could result in permanent jobs. They know their skills can play a role that benefits society; they too have been empowered, and they have a new vision for their futures.
The next phase of the EmpowerHer Project will also focus on ensuring that women artisans learn about these new apps and receive the training needed to improve the quality and marketing of their products. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring each of these five winning apps and how they will make a difference for youth and for rural women.
Stay tuned for the series on World Bank MENA Arab Voices:
EmpowerHer is a result of close collaboration with the Government of Tunisia, the private sector, civil society, partners, the Global Practices and Global Themes (Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation; Transport and Digital Development; Gender) and the International Finance Corporation.   


Afef Haddad

Country Program Coordinator Deputy to the Director, Maghreb and Malta, World Bank

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