A Yemeni woman improves lives and changes minds

Iman Hadi, an entrepreneur from Yemen’s rural north, is no stranger to the great poverty and misery that plagues much of the country’s remote villages where basic services are almost non-existent. But she felt a sense of responsibility and decided to do something about it. “I realized to what extent people in my area, women in particular, are suffering so I decided to go beyond social and cultural barriers and take action,” she says.

Iman leads a group of 10 women who installed a solar power plant to provide clean, energy for residents in Abss, which is in Hajjah Governorate. “The high cost of diesel-generated power has deprived many poor families of electricity access. But now, the solar power plant provides affordable energy for 43 households so far,” says Iman. “I can say with confidence, we could alleviate the suffering of vulnerable people and ease the economic burden.”

Recently, Iman’s groundbreaking work was recognized abroad when she was announced as one of the world’s 100 most influential women.

The list, compiled by the BBC, includes Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, actor Michelle Yeoh and climate activist Jane Fonda.

“Being featured in the BBC list of 100 Most Influential Women for 2020 gives great pride to me, my business partners, and Yemen as a whole,” Iman says.

When she first heard the news, she was taken aback. “I was in Sana’a accompanying a family member on a hospital visit. I got a call I was so surprised!” she says. “Four days later, I returned home and my family welcomed me warmly. They prepared a cake and congratulated me. Even my brothers, who were vehement opponents to the idea of me running a solar power plant, hugged me tightly.”

Her father was also opposed to Iman’s work in the beginning, but through discussion about the importance of her work, she was able to convince her family to give her the chance to run her own business. “This was the beginning of a journey of real change in society’s convictions regarding women, their role, their rights, and the importance of giving them an opportunity to prove themselves,” she says proudly.

Since she started her business two years ago, with the support of UNDP and the European Union, the number of customers has increased from 25 to 43 and her net profit has reached about US $2,070, a significant sum in rural Yemen.

“We have purchased five additional batteries to meet increasing demand and are currently working on expanding the plant to employ more women and extend electricity to more families,” Iman says. “In the near future, I plan to establish another solar power plant in one of the neighbouring areas where 47 families need power. In the long run, I dream to launch a large solar power plant to extend solar services for all 3,060 households in the Al-Ghadi area.”

Iman is also aware that situation for many Yemenis is not easy. One in four have lost their jobs and more are underemployed and barely able to make ends meet. To help her community and to pay her good fortune forward, Iman has an innovative idea. “I plan to give easy-to-pay loans from the net profits of the solar plant, to allow my business partners to open small projects such as grocery stores, bakeries and clothing stores. This will create employment opportunities and increase the number of services available to the community.”

Iman’s work has inspired and provided hope to her neighbours and friends. Faleha Mohammad, a resident of the Al Ghadi area, lives with her elderly parents in a hut. The family is mainly dependent upon their son who sells water for income. But the reliable power supply provided by Iman’s solar plant encouraged her to buy a sewing machine and sell women’s clothes. As a result the family were able to construct a new home made of brick.

Ibraheem Ali, a father of seven and a day labourer also wanted to improve living conditions for his family. He approached Iman to ask if it would be possible to buy a welding gun and run it on her solar power. Iman saw the merit in his idea and quickly encouraged him to bring it to reality. Now, he is welding two to three water tanks a day and has increased his daily income to US$14 from US$5.

“Women and men from my village came to me and asked for advice on how to improve their living conditions. This reflects how their views on working women have changed,” explains Iman. “Zahra, for example, a mother of four who lost her husband at the beginning of the war recently visited me.”

Since losing her husband, Zahra has endured great hardship. She is alone in a country suffering from the ravages of war. The difficult circumstances forced her eldest son, a mere 15 years old, to work as day labourer for very little money. But sadly, business slowed and has now come to a complete stop due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This has resulted in increased suffering for the family, who struggle to afford food and medicine.

“One evening, Zahra started complaining about the difficult life she is experiencing with her kids. I suggested that she might consider bringing electricity to her home, buy an electric mixer, and make incense that she could sell for a profit,” Iman says. Zahra liked the idea and quickly took action. “She has now started her own business and is a productive woman with a sustainable source of income for her and her family.”

Iman is delighted that the men in the village, who were once against women working outside the home, today offer support and encouragement. And she is determined to continue to inspire Yemeni women to seize to equal opportunities in all areas of life.

“Do not stand where you fail. Strive with determination and confidence, and your dreams will come true.”

UNDP and its partner the Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) have installed two solar power systems in two communities. 20 individuals were trained in solar power system installation, maintenance and business management to help establish local solar power businesses and ensure the sustainability of renewable energy systems in Yemen.

These activities were implemented as a part of the Supporting Resilient Livelihoods and Food Security in Yemen Joint Programme (ERRYJP II) in partnership with Sustainable Development Foundation and generous funding and support from the European Union.

Story and photos by UNDP Yemen.

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