At first glance, Bassant Helmi could easily be mistaken for one of Berlin’s first tourists after relaxing the city’s coronavirus closure while heading to a park bench near the River Spree with a coffee in hand. But his quick pace doesn’t really match the pace of a relaxed vacation. The 48-year-old Egyptian, who has chosen Berlin as her home, is one of the best-known networks for Arab women entrepreneurs in Germany and the Middle East.
Helmi speaks quickly and finishes the coffee quickly; obviously he is a city person.
“When I moved to Berlin in 2000, I realized that it could be an incredible opportunity to use my new position as head of the Berlin liaison office of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce as a platform to support also to women entrepreneurs in my country, ”she explains to DW in Berlin. Professional conditions were ideal and contacts already existed, as Helmi had headed the business department of the German-Arab Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Cairo before marrying a German and moving to Berlin.
Helmi has never been someone who just talks: she is too passionate about improving conditions for women entrepreneurs. Consequently, already in 2001 she founded the association “Global Project Partners eV”, initially with 20 female members. Since then, it has become two of the most important German-Arab networks, with more than 4,000 members: “Women in Business MENA” has been a cooperation project to support (possible) women entrepreneurs in Tunisia, Egypt , Lebanon and Algeria since 2016 and, in 2017, the “Digital Arabia Network” (DAN) was created to improve key technologies in the Middle East.
Bassant Helmi’s networks connect more than 4,000 women entrepreneurs in the Middle East and Germany
At the moment, Helmi is busy preparing for the Rakameya online conference, organized by DAN. The conference is best described as a kind of publication for the Middle East and will take place from 15 to 17 June 2021. The talks will deal with diversity, data protection, digital freedom, fake news, citizen participation and the fight against corruption. , among other topics.
“Everything is happening online, not so much because of the pandemic, but because it allows us to protect our speakers and participants,” Helmi explains, adding, “We are aware that issues are especially sensitive in some countries.”
Helmi thinks a lot about the benefits of living in an EU member state and dreams of an Arabic version. However, so far, despite their motivation, support and good luck, networking for Arab women entrepreneurs has not been an easy journey, and things are unlikely to change quickly.
Career or children
According to recent World Bank data, only about 20% of the workforce in Egypt is female. “Arab women have always been active in the economy, but the big problem comes with family planning,” says Helmi in the unaccented German she first learned in kindergarten and the German school in Cairo. .
One of the main reasons is that children and careers are not yet considered compatible. In other words: for Egyptian women, there is still the traditional triple burden of work, family, and extended family. This is underlined by a report from the American University of Cairo which states that there are only approximately 12,500 child care centers in the country of 101 million people.
However, a positive signal could be the country’s “Egypt 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy,” a political development plan that lists women’s empowerment as one of the key goals.
For Bassant Helmi, however, the birth of his daughter in 2008 was no reason to consider ending his career. “My husband and I took a parental leave, but in Egypt there is nothing like it,” she says.
A long way to go
“I’m still amazed that people in Egypt and Germany ask me why we need a networking association for women,” Helmi says with a laugh. The question is almost always asked by men.
Still, the answer is obvious. This network is necessary because women in the network are more likely to face the biggest problem of starting a business: funding. “In Egypt, business money still comes from family and friends and only after the banks,” Helmi says.
The main reason for this is an ambivalent relationship with institutionalized banks. According to current World Bank data, just under 40% of young people over the age of 15 in Egypt have a bank account. This is 20% less than the world average. There are programs dedicated to women’s empowerment in Egypt, but they are still rare, despite a paradoxically high presence of women executives in the Egyptian banking sector and a thriving local FinTech scene.
Looking towards Germany
Upcoming networking projects will take Bassant Helmi to a new but familiar field. “I would like to start using my contacts for projects with Arabic-speaking migrant women in Germany,” she explains to DW. To do this, she would like to work with women from the Middle East who have been here for a generation or more.
Going back to her network where it all started 20 years ago makes her a complete circle. “So far, all my networking projects have been abroad, and now it’s time to support Arab women here in Germany as well,” Helmi says, as she grabs the keys and throws the empty cup of coffee into the bin. This busy urbanite has to leave in time for her next appointment.