Nicky Blackburn
February 25, 2007, Updated September 13, 2012

There’s nothing particularly appealing about the Bedouin town of Tel Sheva in the Negev desert. Founded in 1968 as part of a government project to settle Bedouins in permanent communities, the town is poor, run-down and neglected. Unemployment among the town’s 30,000 inhabitants is running high, crime is widespread, and there is little urban or industrial infrastructure. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, only 43% of grade twelve students are eligible to graduate from high school.

So why has this dusty underprivileged settlement been attracting so many visitors? The reason is a new project to help Bedouin women turn native plants and flowers into remedies for the skin.

Set up two years ago, Asala Desert Nature is nearing its commercial launch, with a range of unique skin care products based on traditional Bedouin herbal lore due to reach the Israeli market in the next four to six months. Sales to Europe will begin next year, or the year after.

The Asala project was founded when the local community center in Tel Sheva approached the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development (CJAED), a non-profit organization founded in 1988 to promote economic cooperation between Israel’s Jews and Arabs, with the idea of setting up a training program for women using desert plants found in the Negev.

Initially 48 Bedouin women passed the first selection process, but the number has now been whittled down to 10. The CJAED’s Women’s Empowerment Unit undertook to train the women from scratch, teaching them everything they might need to run a successful business in this field.

“The first thing we wanted to do was to prepare them to work in a group and to examine all the possible obstacles they might face,” says Kiram Baloum, the director of the Women’s Unit. “After that we went into the business training, helping them prepare a feasibility study and business plan, and giving courses in entrepreneurship and business management.”

To learn more about the plants and their role in Bedouin life, the women interviewed their mothers, grandmothers, and other elderly female relatives.

“We discovered that many of the women have a great love for the desert, and they appreciate the knowledge their ancestors have of desert plants and life,” Baloum told ISRAEL21c.

To strengthen this folk knowledge, the women underwent a training program in medicinal plants.
Though the group plans eventually to create a line of medicinal, nutritional and skin care products, they decided to focus at first on skin care.

“If you live in the Negev desert, the conditions are very harsh on your skin, and you have to look after it,” explains Baloum. “That’s their niche.”

Originally the women of Asala planned to build their own laboratory, but they discovered it was going to be too expensive. Instead they contacted Hlavin, an international cosmetics manufacturer and exporter, which agreed to let Asala use its laboratories in Ra’anana. Hlavin carried out a feasibility study of its own, which showed a promising market for Asala products in Europe.

The goal now is for the women to grow the plants, and condense them into a formula of either olive oil or alcohol. Hlavin will take these formulas and turn them into a range of products that Asala will then market under its own name.

While each of the women at Asala comes from a different extended family in Tel Sheva, they are united by a common goal.

“The main motivation of these women is that they want to work, and to earn their own living,” says Baloum. “These women are different from their mothers and grandmothers. They want to influence family life. They have a dream that they want to fulfill.”

Most of the women involved in the project are married with children, and all have the support of their husbands.

“This is a very important aspect,” explains Baloum. “The husbands must be supportive. We always make sure we work with men at the same time, otherwise we won’t reach our objective.”

Interest in the project is running high.

“This has captured the imagination,” says Baloum. “We have help coming from many different sources.”

This includes a lawyer and an accountant who give their services voluntarily, and the local community which has provided Asala with premises rent-free. Asala is now in negotiations with the Ministry of Agriculture, which plans to provide the group with five dunams of land to grow the plants. The women must also raise capital of their own, $5,000 each in the first stage of investment, and $6,000 in the second stage. Many have applied for loans from CJAED to help them make this investment.

Outside investors are also keen to get involved, says Baloum.

“This isn’t just a project for women and their families. It’s for the whole community where they live,” says Baloum.

The women’s unit of CJAED was set up in 1997, and Baloum was bought on to run it. Funded by the Hadassah Foundation and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York, it’s dedicated to helping Israeli Arab and Jewish women entrepreneurs, offering a combination of training, mentoring and support designed to help women identify and overcome the obstacles that make it difficult to succeed.

Much of the unit’s work is devoted to Israeli Arab women. Today only 14 percent of these women work, compared to 57% of Jewish women, and many now recognize that the best way to increase standards of living in the Israeli-Arab community, which suffers disproportionately high unemployment, poverty and income equality compared to the Jewish community, is for more women to enter the workforce.

This is not easy, however. Women in the Arab population are marginalized, and while their education levels and professional capabilities are rising, their low rate of participation in the workplace remains unchanged. Their own towns lack industry. But family responsibilities and poor public transport prevent most of them from traveling to potential jobs in neighboring Jewish towns.

“Israeli Arab women are no longer forbidden to work outside of the home,” explains Baloum. “These days there is such an economic need that everyone realizes, including the husbands, that you cannot allow yourself the luxury of a woman who doesn’t work. It’s not a choice any more. This is just as true for the Jewish population. Arab women cannot, however, go to work in Tel Aviv, so starting a small business in the hometown is a really good option. It creates many opportunities.”

Baloum also believes that cooperative group businesses are a good model for women. “They share the risk in the business, give support to each other, and together have much greater potential for establishing a large business, or one with impact like Asala can have, than one woman working alone,” says Baloum. “It’s complicated to create a group business, but if you choose the right women, have the right idea, and put in resources, the potential for that business to go on to employ more women is much, much higher.”

Over the last years under Baloum’s leadership, the women’s unit of CJAED has given assistance to 3,000 businesses opened by Arab women, helping them to contribute financially to their households, and decreasing unemployment figures. Aside from Asala, projects include a pickle factory in Tamra, computer-programming facilities in Nazareth, and a women’s loan-fund specially designed to help women embarking on a career who cannot receive credit from the bank.

CJAED has also founded a number of business forums. The biggest of these is Jasmine, a national association of Arab and Jewish businesswomen, which began operating in September last year. The association has been a long-term goal for CJAED for many years. It was set up as an umbrella structure uniting all the 30 or so women’s organizations in Israel to lobby for women from all ethnic communities in Israel who manage or own registered businesses.

“There are a lot of organizations working at the moment on economic improvement and business for women, but none of them are lobbying at a national level,” says Baloum. “It was our goal to set up a national organization that could lobby for women all over the country, strengthen their voices in Israel’s mainstream economy, and present a unified voice to the government.”

In the months since Jasmine was set up, the organization has established eight regional forums of between 70 to 100 Jewish and Arab businesswomen. There have been events, meetings and business forums that sometimes take on the characteristics of regional trade fairs. Over the coming year, a national network of women’s forums will be set up to link the members in each one, and Jasmine activists plan to establish a lobby in the Knesset to advance the rights of self-employed women.

The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot included Jasmine among the top 12 projects of 2006, saluting the organization and individuals involved in it.

Baloum believes that one of the key strengths of the women’s empowerment unit of CJAED is that it not only gives invaluable financial, entrepreneurial and educational support, but it creates an informed and knowledgeable network of women. “We always make sure that the women we work with stay in touch, get involved and pass on their experience to other women just starting out,” explains Baloum. “We create continuity and a circle of support where everyone contributes. If business women come together and work together, we can have a huge impact.”

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