Jordanian social enterprise Sitti scents success

A social enterprise in Jordan is betting on the soap business to boost income for Palestinian women refugees

A social enterprise in Jordan is betting on the soap business to boost confidence and provide reliable income for Palestinian women refugees, in a region where need outstrips charitable supply.

Sitti Soap Company began selling artisanal, olive oil-based soaps this summer in a bid to create an income stream for women in the Jerash refugee camp in northern Jordan. The project is the brainchild of two women, Jackie Sofia and Noora Sharrab, who realised traditional nonprofit models weren’t working.

“[In the original programme] we had a lot of donor commitments that one by one moved on to something else. At that time a lot of Syrians were coming into Jordan, so money was not going to the Palestinians anymore,” said Sofia. “We both also saw a real downward spiral in the general morale among some of the camp’s women. They were upset no one entrusted them with a more business-like model. They were always being given things – blankets, food, clothing – but it was just handouts.”

Unemployment for the 24,000 inhabitants of Jerash “Gaza” camp, so-called because its residents hail from the strip, is rife. The UN set up the camp for Palestinians displaced by the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. Refugees who arrived from Gaza after this time do not get a Jordanian identity number, restricting the jobs they can do.

Unemployment in Jerash reached 39 per cent, according to a 2007-2008 UN study – some 2.8 times higher than for other Palestinian refugees in the country. Women are particularly affected by joblessness, according to the UN.

The social enterprise currently employs two women part-time in Jerash camp to make the all-natural soaps, using a traditional cold press method from Nablus, Palestine. The women earn a monthly stipend, which is above the camp’s minimum wage; but almost as important is the boost to the women’s self-esteem that they can contribute economically to the household and community, said Sofia.

“There was a real desire within the community of women to have more purpose,” she said. “The [value of Sitti] is also that their families will have a better quality of life. Children will see their mothers working and providing for the family.” More household income also reduces the pressure on children to drop out of school to work, she added.

As part of its sustainability mantra, Sitti aims to support other areas of the Jerash economy. The company uses olive oil produced by local farmers and Sitti’s wooden soap dishes are made by a donor-funded carpentry workshop in the camp, which until Sitti’s orders “lacked business”, said Sofia.

Sitti - meaning ‘from my grandmother’ - sells the soaps in bulk at JOD1.50 ($2) per bar to shops in Amman and for special events, such as wedding favours. The social enterprise has sold around 500 bars since it started trading a few months ago.

Apart from $15,000 raised through crowdfunding platform, Afkarmena, Sitti has not received any outside investment. The money from the online campaign is helping to complete a women’s centre in the camp, where Sitti’s workshop will be, and additional soap making equipment. The company hopes to have five women producing soaps and skincare products in the next 12 months.

Once revenue flows expand, the company will plough all the profits back into Sitti’s beneficiary programmes, slated to start in 2016, according to Sofia. Among these is Banaat Connect, a programme to link female university students in Jerash and the US in a language exchange via Skype; and contribute donations to cofounder Sharrab’s first non-profit, Hopes for Women in Education, which provides scholarships for female Palestinian refugees in the Middle East.

Still, building a business that is completely self-sufficient takes time, said Sofia. She anticipates it will take “up to a decade” for Sitti to reach full sustainability.

Social enterprise is a slow moving process, which isn’t a bad thing,” she added. “In the nonprofit field you often see a lot of new projects, in places like a refugee camp, which ramp up very quickly and suddenly they want to replicate it everywhere. The problem is that just because [that programme is] successful in one place, it doesn’t mean it will be everywhere.”