Firyal Kofahi, or Um Mohammad as she is known, is a jovial and hardworking woman. She exudes warmth and contentment and is widely loved in her local community for her kind and dignified manner. She owns a successful production kitchen in Irbid [a kitchen run by a group of women that work together to meet market demand] which makes traditional, authentic, home-style Northern recipes that are dying out in most urban areas.
“About twenty years ago, my husband moved to Oman for a few years, and I was left alone with the children,” says Um Mohammad. “Cooking was a hobby at first – I’ve been cooking since I was in the fourth grade for my family, friends and neighbors.” The dishes she made, which were almost universally praised, were various and mostly authentic and traditional: from appetizers to main dishes and sweets.
“I was known for my Gras el Eid [Eid cookies],” Um Mohammad says, “People used to praise them a lot. One professor in the village even told me once, ‘Um Mohammad! Keep making those cookies and go outside the village where the real market is!’” However, since Um Mohammad was from Hawar village near Irbid – and it is not easy for a woman to leave her village – she was always hesitant and had to wait until she had more customers.
“I was told it was shameful of me to leave. But I wanted to rely on myself” Um Mohammad adds. “Work was difficult, at first, and moving to Irbid was a strange and intense experience. But people were kind.”
Um Mohammad persisted, and provided catering services from her home for 12 long years before taking what she sees as ‘the big leap’. Finally, and with the help of several local organizations, she was able to open her own production kitchen in Irbid. “It was a small place,” Um Mohammad notes, “I immediately hired four women and bought the essentials; a refrigerator and an oven.”
One day, however, Um Mohammad was invited, along with several other women, to a meeting with an official from the Irbid Agriculture Department, and another from the USAID Jordan Local Enterprise Support Project (LENS). “That was in 2015.The official from USAID told us about a grant they had launched for businesses in the food sector. I applied, of course, but did not expect much. But the night I was informed that my grant application was accepted, I met my employees and we were all deliriously happy – we daydreamed about the future and just could not believe it!”
The grant, which targeted home-based businesses and production kitchens, covered the costs of rent and purchasing any equipment necessary for the growth and expansion of these businesses. Due to the high demand for her food and the little capacity she had to respond to all orders, Um Mohammad moved to a bigger kitchen, hired more women to help her out, and bought all the equipment she needed almost immediately after receiving the grant. “I share the revenues with the women I work with,” Um Mohammad says, “Some of them are widows or divorcees, some are Syrian refugees, and all of them spend their income on their own households.”
“I came from Syria about six years ago and was in desperate need to make income because my husband couldn’t work at the time” said Haya, an employee at the production kitchen. “Um Mohammad was an angel. She took me in, taught me everything she knew and helped my family survive” she added.
Um Mohammad trains the women she works with and secures their transportation. Apart from her 18 full-time employees, she works with 30 other home-based part-timers who have difficulty leaving their homes. She states, without hesitation, that she wants these women to become independent and open their own production kitchens one day.
“The USAID LENS grant helped a lot,” Um Mohammad says, “Not only did the revenue of the kitchen increase by almost 90%, I now have the financial means to send my 8 children to university.”
Um Mohammad is helping vulnerable women find job opportunities in an area where employment for women is hard to come by. She also works with numerous male university students on a part-time basis that assist her with delivery and operations. With the recent launch of her social media accounts, Um Mohammad plans on developing her business even more, and eventually expanding to Amman to introduce its people to northern Jordanian recipes that most are unfamiliar with.
“A lot of women contact me on social media and ask me to hire them. I tell all of them, ‘Once I have the chance,’ and I will, ‘I’ll hire you.’”