Huda Sarhang, 27, was sitting at one of Erbil’s most iconic tea shops, the Macho tea shop, nearly five years ago, sipping the store’s famous cardamom-infused tea.
She wondered if the classic istikaan glass that held her tea could withstand the heat of something else: melted wax.
Sarhang began making candles for her family and friends after researching the science behind candle-making through online classes and experimenting with different products. Soon after, Lala Candles was born – handmade candles rooted in Kurdish heritage and culture.
“I wanted to create a product that would make the ideal souvenir for both foreigners and locals to give to their loved ones,” Sarhang explained to Al Jazeera.
She is part of a growing wave of female entrepreneurs in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, but her enthusiasm is dampened slightly by a lack of infrastructure to support young entrepreneurs.
“The Kurdistan region is a great platform for starting any business because there are many gaps in the market that can be filled with creative ideas like Lala Candles,” Sarhang explained.
“However, it lacks the necessary tools for start-ups to function smoothly.”
The Kurdish region of northern Iraq has a population of six million people, with the government employing 1.3 million of them.
However, reliance on government jobs is gradually fading, opening the door to entrepreneurship. “Despite the obstacles, there are signs of a shift in the Kurdistan region’s economy from a centralised planning model to an economy with spaces for the private sector,” Niaz Najmadin, an assistant professor at the University of Sulaimani’s College of Administration and Economics, told Al Jazeera.
“For example, 15 years ago… many goods and services were imported from outside the country.” They are now manufactured in the United States.”
This change is especially significant because it opens up new opportunities for women and provides an opportunity to increase women’s labor force participation in the Kurdish region, which is currently one of the lowest in the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated young people’s dissatisfaction and increased unemployment, contributing to thousands of young Iraqi Kurds fleeing to Europe in 2021.
Government support, in addition to internationally funded programs to assist entrepreneurs and start-ups, is a step in the right direction.
And for women like Sarhang, entrepreneurship has opened up new financial opportunities and a path to economic advancement without having to travel abroad or rely on men.
Financial independence may also reduce violence against women by allowing them to leave abusive relationships; in the first two months of 2022, at least 11 women were killed in Iraq’s Kurdish region, compared to 45 in 2021.
However, women entrepreneurs now require government assistance – not to create jobs, but to create the right environment for entrepreneurship.
“The Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] can do so much more for entrepreneurs and make things simple,” Sarhang said. “They have the authority to impose special rules and regulations on small businesses and start-ups.” [This can be] in terms of taxation, business registration, and providing small loans for creative projects that contribute to the region’s social and economic well-being.”
Analysts also argue that the government should do more to combat corruption and the ongoing efforts of Iraq’s elites to enrich themselves, which are impeding entrepreneurship.
Taffan Hamakhan, 30, is another young woman who has started her own cosmetics and fragrance line.
It is made locally and employs women to help reduce female unemployment in the region.
According to Hamakhan, her line was created in response to a “lack of locally produced cosmetics products in Iraq.”
Both Hamakhan and Sarhang are part of a growing group of women who are pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors in order to create jobs for their community and help reduce the region’s high youth unemployment rate.
The future of entrepreneurship in the Kurdish region is dependent on the ability of the local government to listen to the concerns of new and small businesses.
An entrepreneurial culture may take decades to develop, and entrepreneurs like Sarhang and Hamakhan say they need the infrastructure in place to support their dreams.