When a wet summer left her family with figs they couldn’t sell, Semra Unal went into the dried fruit business. Now she sells all over Turkey and employs women who otherwise might not have access to work.
by Aynur Tekin
AYDIN, TURKEY – Like most people living in the district of Kuyucak, in western Turkey’s Aydin province, Semra Ünal and her family rely on two major sources of income: figs and olives.
Both need long, dry summers to produce the best yields, so when an unusually rainy summer in 2017 damaged Kuyucak’s fig crops, traders temporarily stopped buying produce from farmers in the area. For three days, Ünal’s husband, Ali, would harvest figs that he couldn’t sell.
Looking at the crates of fruit that nobody wanted, Ünal, 41, wondered if there was a way she could make sure they wouldn’t go to waste. She decided to try cutting them into thin slices and drying them in the sun for three days. Once they were crispy, she gave some to friends and relatives to try. They declared her fig chips “delicious” – and Ünal’s experiment gave birth to a business.
As far as Ünal knows, she was the first person in Aydin to make and sell sliced, dried figs. At first selling the chips to people she knew, she soon began to take orders from other parts of Turkey and then abroad.
But in a part of the country dominated by patriarchal attitudes, where husbands make most of the decisions for their wives, Ünal’s business venture made her a target for criticism. Neighbors told her, “You can’t do it, you can’t achieve it,” she says. “But women can achieve everything if they want.”
Ünal named her company Tastes of Paradise and ran it with her eldest daughter Gizem. Since that first summer, it has become so successful that they have started employing other women in the area. And their success is motivating still more women to break through cultural barriers and launch their own businesses.
Helping Others Achieve
It wasn’t long after Ünal first started making fig chips that demand grew so high, she couldn’t keep up. She was able to keep Tastes of Paradise going thanks to a grant from the Women Farmers Project run by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock.
Launched three years ago, the project is open to any woman with at least one year’s experience of farming and aims to provide economic and social development in rural areas. As a successful applicant, Ünal got a grant of 30,000 Turkish lira ($8,000) and entrepreneurship training.
Ünal and Gizem used some of the money to branch out into dried persimmons, which she imports from the nearby province of Denizli. Ünal says she wasn’t the only person to come up with the idea of drying the potassium-rich fruit, but she was the first person to sell the product in Aydin.
Ünal hired between five and eight employees over the course of the summer, all of them women. She says her husband was supportive from the start of her effort to launch a business, but that kind of relationship between couples is rare in a region where “most women are restricted by their husbands.”
“There are many women struggling and they can also be very successful, if they are not restricted,” she says. “We have women in the mountain villages who do not leave their houses. So I think about them when I say I can achieve things. It would be more difficult for me without my husband’s support.”
She says that many women in the area are denied even the most seemingly simple freedoms, such as traveling to the city center and back on their own. And that severely restricts their opportunities to pursue their interests and find jobs or start their own businesses.
“When looking in from the outside, it seems that women in Aydin live very freely. However, there is no such thing,” she says.
According to the latest data from the Turkey Statistics Institution, the employment rate for women over the age of 15 in Turkey is just 27.1 percent – the European Union average in 2015, the most recent figures, was 60.4percent.
The women who work for Tastes of Paradise slice figs, peel persimmons and pack the products for 60 Turkish lira ($15) a day. But for now, Ünal only needs their help during the summer. Her goal is to establish a solar-powered drying facility to allow her to make fig chips all year round and provide regular work and income to the women working for her.
A Future in Fig Chips
Ünal is also banding together with seven other women living in Kuyucak to establish a cooperative where they can sell various local products under one roof. The aim of the cooperative, named Kuyu-Ka – a word that combines the name of the town with the word for woman – is to allow women living in the district to participate in the economy by carving out a space for themselves in the market.
Ünal says she sometimes sees other people selling homemade fig chips in the marketplaces and feels proud that what started as her small hobby to avoid wasting fruit has inspired others to find the money-making potential in the region’s resources.
“We brought a new idea to the region, and the people here accept it. I want other people to produce fig chips as well,” she says. “When people speak of fig chips, I want Kuyucak, Aydin to be the first place that comes to their mind.”
Originally appeared in The Conversation | Photo Credit: Aynur Tekin