In 2010 I set out to build a sheep farm on land that my family owned near the West Bank city of Nablus. As a young sociology student who did volunteer work with children in her spare time, I had no obvious credentials for this project. My gender also worked against me. Farming is considered a man’s job in the Palestinian Territories, as it is in many parts of the world. Nor did I come from a farming family. Although I grew up in a rural village, my father is an electrical engineer and my mother has a degree in Arabic and works as a schoolteacher. My early interest in agriculture was sparked not by milking cows or shearing sheep but by watching Arabic cartoons about farmers on TV.
A chance meeting with Cherie Blair, the wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair, gave me the confidence I needed to start realizing my childhood dream. One day Mrs. Blair visited the local office of Tomorrow’s Youth Organization, an American nongovernmental organization that helps children, young adults, and families in disadvantaged areas of the Middle East. I was volunteering there at the time, and Mrs. Blair and I talked for more than an hour about my aspirations. I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but at that time I had not yet settled on a career in agriculture. In addition to farming, I was also thinking about launching a career training center for Palestinian youth. Mrs. Blair asked me a very simple question: “What is it that you wish to accomplish?” In that moment I knew that I wanted to help my people by starting a sheep farm based on the latest principles of scientific agriculture.
How does fattening sheep for sale help the Palestinian people? Although life on the West Bank is never easy, 2010 was a particularly difficult year to start a business in our part of the world. The year was marked by a violent power struggle between Fatah and Hamas. That is why I chose the name “Al-Ikhwa,” or brotherhood, for my new farm. I wanted to build a successful business that would create jobs on the West Bank. I also hoped that my work would set an example of harmony and brotherly cooperation for all Palestinians.
With encouragement from Mrs. Blair, I enrolled in a training course for women seeking to launch small businesses, sponsored by her British organization, the Small Enterprise Center, and Tomorrow’s Youth Organization. I wrote a five-year strategic plan, incorporated Al-Ikhwa Farm as a family cooperative, and raised $7,000 in seed capital from my relatives to build breeding and feeding sheds and to buy feed and other necessary supplies. I obtained my first 11 sheep as a prize when I won a business-plan competition sponsored by the local chapter of the YMCA.
I learned how to raise sheep by consulting with experienced farmers in my area and by scouring the Internet for information. I also got good advice from business experts at Indiana University, where I participated in a program at the Kelley School of Business. From the beginning I fed my sheep an all-natural diet that is free of hormones and other chemicals. Eventually, I hope to convert my farm to fully organic production, but that is still a dream at this stage, as organic agriculture does not yet exist on the West Bank.
Three years later, I operate two small farms in Beit Fariq, the village where I grew up. I am currently raising 40 sheep, both for breeding stock and animals that I fatten for sale to local butchers, livestock traders, and individual customers. Last year I won another business-plan competition, this one sponsored by the Business Women Forum, a local organization dedicated to strengthening the role of businesswomen as leaders in the Palestinian economy. The $5,000 first prize helped me to start building the second farm and buy more livestock. I have five employees, and our revenues are growing at an annual rate of 80 percent.
There have been many challenges, of course. It’s not easy to be the only woman farmer in my area. As with any small business, cash flow can be a problem. I have very little cash on hand, because I have been investing all my profits in the business. When I started my farm I was a young woman with very little experience of the world. I’ve had to learn how to deal with many different kinds of people, from butchers to bankers. Sometimes it is difficult to know who to trust, and who not to.
I have so many dreams for the future. This year I plan to finish building my second farm and pay off all the financial obligations that I incurred getting my business off the ground. I want to create a new marketing program that combines individual and group sales, and expand my business to other Palestinian cities. I would like to start an e-commerce operation for Al-Ikhwa Farm and perhaps even a foreign subsidiary, as it is currently impossible for me to export livestock from the West Bank. Someday I would also like to establish a nature reserve for the Palestinian people.
None of this will be easy, but I have a strong will and determination that cannot be contained. I am looking to reach my goals, and am focused on nothing but them.
Ayah Mlatat is the founder of Al-Ikhwa Farm, an agribusiness based outside Nablus on the West Bank. She is currently sponsored by SPARK, a Dutch nonprofit that works to promote entrepreneurship in fragile and postconflict states.
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