A young graduate’s future in reinforcing steel: how the microfinance institution Enda Tamweel is helping micro-entrepreneurs who are struggling to access the traditional financial system.

By Mélanie Mazier

Raja Fehli discovered the construction industry at the age of 28.

In 2017, Raja had decided to stay in her region, Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia. She had a degree in production management and international trade but few job prospects, so she took matters into her own hands. She noticed that reinforcing steel, or rebar, is commonly used in construction.

It is essential for reinforcement, for slab formwork and for construction beams. But in her region, companies have to travel over 300 km to Tunis to get it. This got her thinking, and she decided to launch her own production shop to make this material. Being a traditionally male industry, she was driven to do everything in her power to succeed.

“In the end, the fact that this niche had barely been exploited and that very few women had taken on such a challenge are what convinced me to go ahead with the idea,” says Raja.

She needed financing, but had few guarantees. The loan of TND 10 000 (€3 200) from her bank would not be enough to launch her business – she would need extra help.

She turned to Enda Tamweel, a microfinance institution that is widely known in the region. In the 30 years since its creation, Enda Tamweel has provided over 3 million microloans to some 900 000 people, injecting more than €1.6 billion into the local economy. Enda Tamweel provided Raja with the additional TND 3 000 (€1 000) she needed, as well as business start-up training to help her get her business up and running.

Loans adapted to the needs of the market

The purpose of microfinance institutions such as Enda Tamweel is to help people who are struggling to access the traditional financial system. This includes those living in rural or disadvantaged areas where the informal economy is prevalent, accounting for 34% of Tunisia’s GDP. However, microfinance institutions need resources to be able to serve an increasingly large and diverse customer base.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) supports these institutions as they grow and develop. It helps them contribute to social progress through micro-entrepreneurship and promote financial inclusion, in particular among the most vulnerable customers such as young people, women and individuals living in disadvantaged rural areas. Enda received a loan equivalent to €8.5 million in Tunisian dinars to do just that.

Enda Tamweel is at the forefront of the microfinance industry in Tunisia. A leader in its field, it serves as an example for North Africa and the Middle East.

Julia Assaad, EIB Investment Officer responsible for Enda Tamweel, explains that this type of investment is particularly sought after in countries with low liquidity, as was the case for Tunisia when the loan agreement was signed. “Enda Tamweel is at the forefront of the microfinance industry in Tunisia. A leader in its field, it serves as an example for North Africa and the Middle East,” says Assaad.

Supporting financial inclusion

The EIB has built a strong partnership with microfinance institutions over almost 30 years. Through the Economic Resilience Initiative Fund (ERI Fund) and thanks to its donors, it is able to support small and micro-enterprises in the EU’s Southern Neighbourhood and the Western Balkans with loans in local currency, drawing on its experience in the Southern Neighbourhood countries through the Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment and Partnership (FEMIP), and in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries through the Cotonou mandate.

The Economic Resilience Initiative was created to provide sustainable solutions that are crucial for stable economic development, helping countries be better prepared to deal with shocks. The EIB supports the most vulnerable populations by helping them access financing to improve their economic resilience. Through the ERI Fund, it aims to have a positive long-term impact on people’s quality of life.

“Not only are we giving a longer-term loan in local currency, but we are also providing an opportunity for Enda Tamweel to expand its outreach to most vulnerable groups,” says Assaad.


Enda Tamweel’s stated mission is consistent with this objective. Today, women account for 60% of its 390 000 active customers, and young people for 25%. In addition, the non-governmental organisation Enda Inter-Arabe, the majority shareholder of Enda Tamweel, offers non-financial services dedicated to sustainable and inclusive development and to reducing inequality across the country over the long term.

For example, its female empowerment and inclusion programmes include training in financial literacy and socio-economic rights.

Its “projet de vie” or “life plan” programme is designed to help young people in disadvantaged situations regain their self-confidence and shape their future. Today, 65% of the participants are no longer unemployed and 60% have begun the process of setting up their own businesses.

“By helping someone become financially independent, you give them back their confidence and their ability to make something happen,” says Mohamed Zmandar, Managing Director of Enda Tamweel.

At €825 the average loan is small, but many customers come back to Enda Tamweel multiple times for additional financing. The strength of a microfinance institution lies in the close relationship of trust it establishes with each of its customers through ongoing support in times of success, but especially in times of difficulty. “As our customers put it, we are bound by much more than just loan repayments,” says Zmandar.

Digital to the rescue 

Enda Tamweel has deployed five mobile counters so that it can remain in contact with customers in even the most remote areas. This is especially important considering that rural clients account for 40% of its portfolio, with a significant proportion being women. They are also more likely to be in a situation of insecurity and to travel to a branch.

The institution began its digital transformation two years ago, with two main benefits.

First of all, customers save valuable time for their business, as they no longer need to travel to a branch to repay their loan instalments.

Second, it offers an improved and personalised customer experience when applying for a loan online.

These innovations appeal particularly to the younger generation, who are looking for fast and flexible services that they can access from a mobile device.

The outbreak of COVID-19 forced the Tunisian government to restrict or even suspend activities in many sectors. Digital tools enable Enda to stay in touch with customers and continue offering financial solutions adapted to their changing needs as they navigate the health crisis. Thanks to this fully digital process, small and micro-enterprises can continue their operations – this is key to their survival.

Microfinance institutions such as Enda aim to promote a culture of self-employment as a tool for independence for their customers. Today, Raja has five employees – four of whom are women – and the company is continuing to grow. She has just acquired a new machine for her workshop and plans to further expand her team to meet the demands of her growing clientele. 

“For me it was a risky but calculated gamble,” she says.