By Arabi Tobi
Photography by Arabi Tobi
Half of the world’s population consists of women and girls, representing half of all our futures. This evidently shows that the slow progress of gender equality translates to the slow realization of the world’s potential.
Although there is still a long way to go in achieving equal rights between the genders, the past decade has shown a considerable surge in women’s numbers in the work industry, including women-owned businesses. As these numbers are growing considerably slower in the Middle East, Romanian born Sara Banna, with a Palestinian father and Romanian mother, has joined the tide of the few women entrepreneurs rising in Amman, Jordan. Her journey to owning a business according to her started from a young age.
“When I was 18 years old, I decided to become independent by enrolling in a Professional school for Food and Beverages, so I got a diploma and started as a waiter. I later became a bartender, and then I became the manager of the place I was working,” she said.
The saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ applies to Sara’s life, as her traverse from a regular girl into an independent business owner has proven to be one that took enough time, dedication, patience and undying effort.
“After working for two years as a manager, I got an offer to manage another restaurant in Ischia, Italy, where I put in 14 hours work in a day, learnt Italian at the same time from workers under me, and because of the high calibre of the restaurant, I was in charge of thoroughly checking the plates, cutleries and tables for perfection, which made me spend more time with the chef, watching him make the famous delicacies, and along the way, giving me the quality needed to open my own restaurant,” she explained.
“After another two years working in Ischia, I had saved up some money and decided to move to Basilicata, where I finally opened my own vegetarian restaurant. From the day of the opening until after about two months, I was the chef, the bartender, the waiter and the cleaner; practically everything, because I didn’t have enough money to hire any help. I later hired a Filipino girl after two months, who I ended up teaching everything she needed to know because she had no experience whatsoever working in a kitchen,” she confessed.
In spite of the fact that she successfully started her own business and it was not as easy, the struggle to becoming a stable business owner was far from over. In March 2014, the European Commission concluded that Italy was experiencing excessive macroeconomic imbalances, requiring specific monitoring and strong policy action, which increased the taxes on private business, resulting in many of them closing their doors.
“My restaurant in Basilicata went great for about three years, after which the government, unfortunately, started asking for 65% taxes from private businesses, and even the small ones. For the first year after the tax inflation, I struggled to keep the business open. Having seven employees already, I wanted to believe I could still keep it running,” she said.
“It wasn’t too long after, I sold the business. I had financial losses from the sale, but I had no choice at the point. I left Italy right after and came down here to Jordan to visit my family.”
Despite the fact that Sara’s family resides in Jordan and might be a good next step in her journey towards stable entrepreneurship, the women in the Middle East and North African region have the lowest rates of Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) at merely 4% of the population. It just seems to get harder with every turn she takes.
“Getting to Jordan, my father advised me to move to Dubai, and for the first time since I became independent, I listened to my father’s advice and moved there for six months. Dubai for me was like a holiday because I knew from the moment I arrived there that I couldn’t really live there for too long. Six months was a very long stretch for the fancy lifestyle and bogus living, which drained my finances to a point I really didn’t like. I couldn’t adapt to the culture in Dubai because I came from a very simple lifestyle and I didn’t want to end up being an employee for someone else after so many years of running my own business. I called my father, and finally moved down to Amman for good,” she said.
Bayt Sara (Amman, Jordan)
According to an article by the Jordan times, Jordanian women face social, economic and structural challenges that reduce their chances of growing a business within the Kingdom’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The study showed there are several challenges experienced by women pursuing businesses in the Kingdom, reducing their chances of receiving benefits from opportunities, including Investor reluctance, entrepreneurial self-efficacy, access to finance, conflict between social values and career choice and legal liability.
“Starting business anew here in Jordan, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy because I had been through the new business challenges before. Although I had an idea of the patriarchy in the system here, I had the support of my family to an extent, which made things a little better,” she said.
“I spent the first eight months of trying to open my restaurant, building, investing and working on the place without opening the doors; keep in mind that I was paying rent through these times.”
As a society, we have an underlying social expectation that designates a woman’s role is in caring, nurturing and helping, while the men are the innovators and providers. This clearly suggests that when women enter the work industry, they need to put in the extra effort; and the way women go about their extra effort is always quieter than the way men do it.
After finally opening her restaurant (Bayt Sara) in Amman, Sara tells of the strains, extra sweat and persistence it took before getting to a comfortable position as a business owner in the Middle East.
“In the first year of opening Bayt Sarah, I didn’t make back the money I invested, but I knew giving up wasn’t an option, I kept working with so much love, passion and self-belief, even though I knew I could’ve just used my European passport to get a job that paid more than the minimum wage,” she said.
“Although it was very hard starting my business here, I think I feel more comfortable here than in the other places I had been. I think people here are blessed but they don’t seem to realize it. Jordan is a very beautiful country but the citizens don’t see it. Europeans and foreigners from all over the world pay thousands to come visit, but the people from here don’t really care about it, they just complain endlessly instead of working hard to build something for themselves.”
Bayt Sara is a vegan restaurant, and with Jordan being a meat-cultured country, Sara has had to get very creative with the meals and everything else her business has to offer just to keep it afloat.
Jordan has a big love for meat. Its national dish is Mansaf; a rice dish with lamb and Jameed (yoghurt). Sara’s father is Palestinian/Jordanian and asking her about how she came on a plant-based diet in her own meals, she explained it wasn’t a recent change.
“I had never been a meat lover even as a kid, but it got defined when I moved to Italy, living by the sea, having an abundance of seafood and fish in my meals, I felt like I didn’t need any more meat. From those years living by the sea, I built my intolerance to meat to a very strong point that it was no problem at all when I moved away from the sea-sides,” she clarified.
“So, I am not vegan, I eat seafood and fish, but I don’t eat [red meat]. I specialize my dishes in traditional Italian dishes; Pasta and seafood, and innovative vegetarian everyday meals.”
When asked about her thoughts on women owning businesses here in Jordan and the Middle East, Sara went ahead with comments about what she thought one of the problems were, and how she thought they could move forward.
”I think for women born here in Jordan to start a business, the first and most important thing they need is full support from their family because without the family’s support, it’s very hard for them to go get a normal job even, not to talk of starting their own business. Now, I’ve met many Jordanian women who own businesses, and I’m very proud of them. In the few years I’ve spent here, I see growth in the number of women investing in their own businesses every year and the change is obvious. When I arrived four years ago, it was a bit weird because I hadn’t met any woman owning the kind of food and beverage business I was about to start, but now I see many Jordanian women own shops, selling food, clothes, running a private kindergarten and many more,“ she concluded.
Sara Banna is a Jordanian/Romanian entrepreneur based in Amman, Jordan with her very own vegan restaurant Bayt Sara. She introduces various Romanian dishes into her menu, hoping to introduce a part of her culture into the Jordanian community. She believed women were capable of starting their own businesses and following their goals and was happy to see the rise of women entrepreneurs everywhere.
If you want to learn more about Sara’s restaurant and what she does, check out Bayt Sara’s Facebook account.