Established in 2004, Alfanar is the first venture philanthropy organization working exclusively in the Arab region. Alfanar’s goal is to ensure that the poor and vulnerable, especially women and children, are able to access the education and opportunity they need to lead productive and dignified lives. They work to help social enterprises improve lives through financial stability, supporting grassroots organizations and helping them achieve lasting social change in their communities.
When Mariam Shaar approached Alfanar in 2014, she was already running the Women’s Program Association (WPA) in the Burj al Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut, which provides education, vocational skills training and microloans to women in the camps.
As part of her work with the WPA, Mariam had recently carried out a survey of women in the camp to find out what they like doing, and how they thought they could generate an income and found that the majority said they wanted to improve their cooking skills. Mariam could see the opportunities to market delicious Palestinian food while also building women’s skills and confidence, so she asked Alfanar to help the WPA set up a catering unit to manifest her vision.
After an initial pilot year that combined business support with seed funding to help cover the costs of launching the new catering unit, in 2014 Alfanar renewed their commitment to WPA, providing a new injection of funds aimed at professionalising its efforts. The catering unit was rebranded Soufra (meaning 'dining table' in Arabic), and in just two years, Alfanar helped the business recover all its costs, improve its offering and gain an edge in the highly competitive Beirut catering market.
Soufra is far more than just a catering business. It has had a profound impact on the lives of the women involved in it. Before, many of them say they felt hopeless, rarely leaving the camp. Today, they feel confident and excited about the future, and are leaders in their community.