How making cookies changed one Iranian woman’s life

Necessity led Fatemeh to discover her potential for business

Women are major agents of change and play a key role in ending poverty. ©FAO/Amir Khaleghiyan


In the town of Se-Qale, a small rural community near the Lut Desert in eastern Iran, Fatemeh Safarpour provides for her children with her own cookie-making business. What started out as a way to make ends meet in a time of need has blossomed into her own small-scale bakery creating job opportunities for other women in the area, thanks to help from FAO and her local community.

Fatemeh’s life was turned upside down 18 months ago when her husband went bankrupt and left her alone to care for their three children. With no job of her own, it was a difficult time for her. 

“Before my husband left, I just looked after the house and took care of my children,” Fatemeh says. “But [after that happened] I was determined to find a new source of income to support my children.”

After considering her skills and the tools available to her, Fatemeh concluded that baking traditional cookies could be a feasible option to generate income – although she was sceptical about whether she would be able to pull it off. Fortunately, Fatemeh was a perfect candidate for help from her local community’s Sustainable Community Development Fund (SCDF), set up as part of FAO’s Rehabilitation of Forest Landscapes and Degraded Land (RFLDL) project.

Funded by the Global Environment Facility and the Government of Iran, the RFLDL project establishes environmentally sustainable, community-based initiatives. Despite what the project’s name suggests, it doesn’t just focus on improving soil and degraded land. It also promotes environmentally-sound livelihoods. Residents can share their plans for new businesses and request financial support from their local SCDF. In particular, the project encourages women to pursue social and economic endeavours.

Still unsure about the prospects, Fatemeh tentatively shared her idea with her fellow women in the local community development fund committees.  

“Seeing my idea as a promising one, the women, members of the fund [SCDF], encouraged me to start the bakery,” Fatemeh says. “First of all, I borrowed IRR 10 000 000 [about USD 100] from the local fund committee and started my new business with a home oven.”

Three women work hard using their newly built energy-efficient oven to produce a competitive and in-demand food product. ©FAO/Amir Khaleghiyan

The business got off to a great start, and she soon realised that if she wanted to scale up her business further, she needed to make some changes. The techniques she was using were too labour intensive and the home oven too small. She requested RFLDL’s assistance and the project put her in touch with another beneficiary, from whom she learnt how to use more professional tools and methods.

“We arranged for her to meet with one of our experienced beneficiaries in Zangooyi Village – 35 km away from Se-Qale town – who had established a similar bakery there,” said Fatemeh Beheshti, a local facilitator for the RFLDL programme. “Fatemeh learnt how to construct a new brick oven and improve her techniques in preparing the dough.”

Her new oven is larger and more economical. It keeps heat in for longer, reducing the energy costs. The oven also has a capacity to bake seven trays of cookies simultaneously instead of a single tray at a time. Thanks to these improvements, Fatemeh’s business soared. She even hired two other women to help her manage the workload. This in turn helped the women earn an income.

“With this oven, and the assistance of the two ladies, I can bake more than 50 kilograms of cookies a day, which result in 70 percent net profit. Taking out the production costs, I can make around IRR 1 000 000 (USD 10) every working day,” Fatemeh says. “Thank God, I can now support my family. I am even considering enlarging my bakery, purchasing new baking machines and hiring more women.”

FAO encourages women in rural communities to take a leading role in starting and running community businesses. ©FAO/Amir Khaleghiyan

Nowadays, in each of the communities where the project is running, women have a strong, decisive presence in the local development fund committees.

“Initially, it seemed that the local communities were reluctant to accept the participation of women in local committees established by RFLDL,” says Mohsen Yousefi, the Province Project Manager of RFLDL in South Khorasan. “However, now the role of women has become an accepted reality.”

“In one village, Bostagh, almost half of the core members of the local fund committee are women,” Fatemeh Beheshti says. “Also, in Se Qale town, you can find many successful businesses that are run by women.”

Women fulfil important roles in communities and agrifood value chains, whether as farmers, market sellers, entrepreneurs or community leaders. FAO projects are committed to supporting women worldwide reach their potential, for them and for the benefit of communities everywhere. This is all a part of working to eliminate gender inequalities, Sustainable Development Goal 5, and achieving a world free of poverty (SDG1) and hunger (SDG2).

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1. No poverty, 5. Gender equality, 8. Decent work and economic growth