July 14, 2022

Back home, sellers are unwilling to sell to me because I am a woman.

For any business, making connections and establishing networks are crucial to access suppliers and potential customers. This is even more important for refugee entrepreneurs, who face many additional challenges. With financial support of the European Union, through the EU Regional Trust Fund, in response to the Syrian crisis, the ‘MADAD’ fund, SPARK supports business owners to better access market opportunities through exposition visits. The benefits of expos are strongly felt by female entrepreneurs, as Nesrin testifies during a visit to a textile expo.

The exhibition centre on the outskirts of Turkey’s fourth biggest city, Adana, appears as a giant grey block, only a shade lighter than the asphalt of the large parking lot that surrounds it. The building’s entrance is crowded by people lining up to get in, while a large banner hanging above explains the commotion below: Çukurova Textile and Ready to Wear Expo 2022.  

Adana sits north of Çukurova, a fertile area known for cotton monoculture crops. For nearly two centuries, the area supplied cotton to textile factories around the world. Now, annual textiles expo provides entrepreneurs opportunities to make new business connections and expand their businesses. 

A group of entrepreneurs and owners of small or medium sized enterprise (SME) are lined up to enter the expo. Group is made up of Syrian and Turkish business people who applied to SPARK and selected according to their business areas for visiting the expo, with the financial support of the European Union.  

Participants are led into a large hall where under the tall metal roof, several booths are set up by variety of textile suppliers. Contrasting with the industrial interior, booths are set up with elegant designs similar to apparel stores’ decorations. High-end products are centered to grab the attention of potential customers. These stalls offer the latest trends and materials, tipping off passersby about the sectoral trends. 

Two siblings, Nesrin and Zerdesht, walk side by side between the booths. If window shopping is compared to leisurely reading, theirs is a skim through a long document. They check the perimeter first, and narrow down their options. They are looking for a supplier with thicker weave t-shirts to print designs on. 

“I can shop for t-shirts online. It’s actually easy. But that doesn’t work for me, because I need to see the material with my own eyes, touch it and check the quality with my own hands. I can’t rely on an image at an online store alone. For that reason, coming to these expos are good for me” says Nesrin.

Nesrin and Zerdesht at the expo in Adana, Turkey © 2022, SPARK
Nesrin and Zerdesht talking with a supplier © 2022, SPARK
Nesrin and Zerdesht talking with a supplier © 2022, SPARK

Nesrin, 28, has been studying law in her hometown Aleppo before the war in Syria began. After she fled to Turkey and settled in Şanlıurfa with her family, she dropped her academic ambitions and started up a business. Now, she runs a company printing designs on t-shirts. Nesrin’s brother Zerdesht, 23, is a recent graduate in Business Management. With another sibling, he helps his sister in the workshop.

Nesrin works on the designs by herself. Her designs are colorful and vivid and include intricate patterns and illustrations with catchy slogans, one of which says ‘Success Depends on the Second Letter’. “I like this one a lot” Nesrin says pointing out to her company’s brochure which displays their products. “It motivates me, and reminds me that success of my business is all up to me.”  

People around the siblings walk in and out of the booths. Some checking the stacks of clothes to find something interesting, some directly talking to the company representatives making introductions and exchanging business cards. Stacks of business cards are visible in the palms of passersby. Sharing cards is tangible proof of new business connections. Siblings stop at one of the booths, study the company catalogue and exchange information about their products. 

“I need to make connections here in this expo. Connections I have in my city sometimes ignore me or tell me that my boss should come instead of me. Some sellers make it difficult for me to buy products because I am a woman. They are unwilling to have a woman operate in the same sector as they do.” Here Nesrin could bypass such attitudes and get down to business with sellers. Expos facilitate an increase in female entrepreneurs’ connections when their local environment inhibits them from making connections and grow their businesses. 

Sales representative answers Nesrin’s detailed questions: “How many weaves per centimeter? Is there nylon mixed into the cotton? What is the production schedule?” After the expo, Nesrin will use her connection with this firm to get more information about t-shirts. As a novice to the sector, technical information is very valuable to Nesrin. 

Going beyond the restrictive boundaries of one’s local environment is not always easy. “As Syrians, we cannot travel outside of our cities easily. I would like to travel to İstanbul to meet with t-shirt sellers. But I need to apply for a permit and go through a procedure. When sellers come near my city, such as in this expo, it’s an opportunity for me to make connections.”  

Temporary protection status provided by the Turkish government to refugees only allow refugee households a residential permit in an assigned city. Once assigned, refugees need to have a travel permit document to travel to other cities. The policy, geared to prevent the over concentration of refugees in metropolitan centers, limits the movement of Syrians in Turkey. 

Nesrin’s family is registered in Şanlıurfa. She requires invitations from suppliers to get the travel permit, which is not preferable when forming a new connection with a potential supplier. SPARK’s support enabled her to travel out of her city and visit the expo in Adana. 

One week later, Nesrin attended SPARK organised business networking event in her city. In that event Nesrin, along with others, joined panels about export opportunities to the Middle East markets. Representatives of banking institutions, government agencies and Şanlıurfa Chamber of Commerce delivered presentations to a crowd of Syrian and Turkish business people. It was here that Nesrin met with networking minded business people in her city and looked into export opportunities abroad.

Nesrin joined round table discussions at business-to-business meetings that took place in her hometown © 2022, SPARK

Now, Nesrin has her eyes on the World Cup in Qatar, informed about the opportunities it may provide her business. She expects an increase in demand for sports textiles. She plans to produce t-shirts to satisfy the needs of the football community. 

Better access to market mechanisms could be a challenge for young refugee entrepreneurs. With a little support, entrepreneurs such as Nesrin can make the connections that will pave the way for better products, that will compete well in export markets.