When a lady joins the powerful Sudanese Businessmen Union- the stress is on men- and manages to get its name changed to Sudanese "Business Owners Union", the gentlemen must have known that this lady means business. And she does, albeit with a human touch and a sense of social responsibility. Her name is Mrs. Widad Ibrahim Yagoub.
But it is not only the Sudanese businessmen who recognized her talent, drive, enthusiasm and relentless industrious efforts. In Cairo this year, ladies from around the world thought the smiley, gap-teethed, civil engineer Widad, with glittering humane eyes, deserved to be honored in recognition of her achievements in a society otherwise known to be dominated by men. She was honored with the Award of Distinction during the 5th Forum of Businesswomen in the Islamic Countries, convened in Cairo, Egypt, under the kind patronage of First Lady Mrs. Suzan Mubarak.
But success is never a product of haphazard work. It requires order, dedication and clear agenda setting. These she never lacked. In fact her motto has always been, "There are always opportunities no matter what the difficulties." Moreover, she bears in mind in her business life that success in business doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to humane action; on the contrary, business in her eyes is nothing but that.
Three projects that have been motivated by humanitarian concerns show how she thinks and how she acts.
For Mrs. Widad, still young and charismatic, the most important accomplishment, the one she is very proud of, is Sudanese Family Bank, which she founded and chairs. Established in July 2008 with a capital of some 20 million USD, Sudanese Family Bank was the first micro finance bank in the country. She and a few other Sudanese businesswomen gathered the initial capital for the bank. In less than a year Sudanese Family Bank became a success story. In its first year the bank financed more than 14,000 families and opened 24 branches all over Sudan. It now has a paid up capital over 100 million US dollars and is being copied in many countries in Africa and the Arab World.
According to the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI), the success of Sudanese Family Bank stems from the fact that "it extends financial services to economically active but poor sectors such as graduates, small farmers, peasants and craftsmen, enabling them to operate economic activities in line with their environments." (http://www.iccionline.net).
With characteristic earnestness and modesty Mrs. Widad told Sudanow, "It wasn’t my own making. It has to be said here that many people encouraged me and contributed directly or indirectly in this leading project. I cannot thank them enough: the Chairman of the Business Owners at the time, Izzul Din Al Sayed encouraged me and offered his unconditional moral support. The Governor of the Bank of the Sudan at the time, Dr. Sabir Mohamed Al Hassan, who was eager to find some projects which would provide micro funding and also the Governor of Khartoum State at the time, Dr. Al Mutaaffi, and the Minister for Social Welfare in the state, Dr. Samia Habbani. But I was also inspired by a lecture delivered by the Noble Prize Winner for economics, Prof. Mohamed Younis, about how poor sectors could be enabled through the banking system, which he delivered in Britain in the early nineties." She insists all those who contributed to the achievement she spearheaded be cited by name.
That is not the only human-cum business enterprise she ably operates.
In 1994, when Sudan was soaked in a bitter civil war between the South and the North, Widad started her voluntary activities. At the time she was a fully grown business tycoon. She setup the Izza Peace Organization which worked primarily on spreading the culture of peace among women in war affected areas. Four years later, in 2000, Mrs. Widad established Child Development Foundation, promoting vocational training and education for adolescent street children. Both organizations are recognized by the UN-ECOSOC (www.un.org/en/ecosoc).
Convinced of the need to promote education especially for women and girls, she believes that educated women have a role in helping unlucky ones who missed their education at an early age. In 2003 she established All for Education, insisting that all educated women should be involved in illiteracy eradication. A nongovernmental charity organization dedicated to promoting education in areas affected by civil war or extreme poverty, All for Education, relying on Mrs. Widad’s personal financing, built 7 schools in the Darfur region, providing education for 10,000 girls, boys and women.
Seeing that women and their babies suffer during birth in Sudan, where according to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), "Sudanese children suffer an under-five mortality rate of 112 deaths per 1,000 live births, an infant mortality rate of 81 deaths per 1,000 live births and a maternal mortality ratio of 1,107 deaths per 100,000 live births; [and] 68 per cent of children have not been fully immunized (www.unicef.org/infobycountry/Sudan),"Mrs. Widad sought to make her own contribution spurred by her social values and Islamic beliefs. She moved to the Omdurman Maternity Hospital where she along with the staff, including dedicated women, working there, were able to bring down the mortality rate by a whooping 86%. Mrs. Widad is now the Chairwoman of the hospital which is more than half a century old (established in 1957). Handling the delivery of over 27,000 babies each year, Omdurman Maternity Hospital currently ranks number one in Africa for reducing the maternal mortality rates. The Hospital was commended with an award of merit from Ireland, a success she humbly attributes to the work of a dedicated staff and the team leaders, Dr. Mamoon and Dr. Ahmed Gafaar.
But one would wonders from where she derived the ethic and principles that guide her. In addition to reading, seeking sound advice and understanding through consultations and making best possible use of time and energy, Mrs. Widad spoke with such tenderness about her mother. This was a lady, who back in 1957, deserted the comfort of downtown Khartoum and established her own chicks farm. Her action had people describing her as "nuts". She had sold all belongings to immerse herself into that project. However, in less than seven years, by 1964, Widad’s mother was awarded a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) award for her pioneering project. The Government of Sudan honored her with the highest merit at the time.
Inspired by the vision and fortitude of her mother and the studious profession of her father, a specialist in curriculum and syllabus designing at the most prestigious institute of the time, Bakht al Ridha College, Mrs. Widad has imbibed the confident determination her mother’s motto informs. Simply, "If you want to do it, you will know how to do it." Her mother also espoused the ethic: "Egoists are losers; love for others what you love for yourself." In Sudanese colloquial Arabic: Al dar -he who loves- nafsu –his own ego-yakhasar -loses-).
With such wisdom in mind, Mrs. Widad Ibrahim Yagoub, who studied civil engineering at the University of Khartoum at a time when there were only 7 females out of 100 students in the engineering college, furthered her studies after graduation and studied construction management in Missouri, United States of America.
She came out with the idea of founding the Bee Group in 1985. The company started off with a mere 3 employees that year. The Bee Group nowadays runs 5 companies: Bee Petroleum Company, Bee Construction & Housing, Bee Aviation, Bee Cement and Hadeed Company. It now employs over 800 well-paid, job-satisfied staff.
When in 1985 Mrs. Widad established Bee Construction Company, she took her first bank loan and bought a small manual concrete mixer. She began by executing small contracts. Then she started building towers, eventually becoming the premier company in building and selling apartments in Sudan.
Less than a decade later, that is in 1993, against all the odds Widad and her spouse, the savvy media expert Dr. Jamal Eldin Osman, established Bee Petroleum Company which was the first Sudanese private oil company. And 15 year later, Bee Petroleum Company owns 43 gas stations and 12 oil depots spread all over the country.
What most distinctly characterizes Widad is no doubt her ability to adapt, learn and make use of every new development in her domain of work. See for example in 1996, she was motivated by a UN HABITAT conference about the environment and decided to take the initiative to Sudan. She established Bee LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) for vehicles. Her company was a LPG pioneer in Sub‐Saharan Africa. By 2005, more than 15,000 cars in Khartoum and other parts of Sudan switched from benzene to LPG.
Successful business woman? That is what the "5th Businesswomen in Islamic Countries" discovered. The conference, held in Cairo under the able and kind patronage of Egypt’s First Lady Suzan Mubarak, had adopted the theme, "Empowering Businesswomen in OIC Member States". It was during this conference that Mrs. Widad Ibrahim Yagoub, in the presence of representatives from 60 countries, was bestowed the 2010 Award of Merit by the US-based international publication for distinguished women.
"That was a moment I shall never forget. I felt proud of myself, of my homeland and of the people who supported me all those years. I felt they deserved that award," she recalled movingly.
The award is annually given to a distinguished lady in the world of business. Widad was the first lady in Africa to attain such an honor.
But business has never deterred Widad from enjoying a warm family life. She revealed some cherished memories of her personal life, of her poor family and where she was born "in my mum’s chic farm". Her mother was her hero. She recalls that at a very early age she learned accounting by helping her "mother in selling chickens and eggs."
Mrs. Widad now lives on her ranch in Khartoum by the Blue Nile, near the American embassy, with her husband, her 6 children and her 3 grand children.
But as expected business and politics go hand in hand and Widad is looking ahead of events. She is currently engaged in efforts seeking to establish Sudanese Family Bank in the south. She believes the whole country should rise to the challenge of making unity attractive through action. She has already established contact with southern leaders including the vice president of the Government of Southern Sudan, Dr. Riek Marcher
Mrs. Widad in 2002 was elected Chairperson of the Sudanese Business Women Association. Her vision was for business women to emerge in all the existing business chambers. Then in 2004 and for the first time in the history of Sudan, she was elected as the first lady on the executive committee of Businessmen Union. That was how as a result of her efforts the name was changed from Businessmen Union to Business Owners Union. Inspired and empowered by her model 12 women were elected in the different chambers of the Business Owners Union. She sowed the seeds for yet a hundred Widads.
Edited by: Mohamed Osman
Photos by: Mahjoub Mohamed Al Hassan