Nearly five years ago, Huda Sarhang, 27, was sitting at one of the most iconic tea shops in Erbil, the Macho tea shop, sipping the store’s famous cardamom-infused tea.
Staring at the classic istikaan glass which held her tea, she wondered whether it could withstand the heat of something else: melted wax.
After researching the science behind candle-making through online classes, and experimenting with different products, Sarhang started making candles for her family and friends, and soon, Lala Candles was born – handmade candles rooted in Kurdish heritage and culture.
“I wanted to create a product that makes the perfect souvenir for foreigners and the locals to gift to their loved ones,” Sarhang told Al Jazeera.
She is one of a growing wave of female entrepreneurs in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, but her enthusiasm is slightly curbed by the lack of infrastructure in place to support young entrepreneurs.
“The Kurdistan region is a great platform to start any business because there are many gaps in the market, and it can be filled with creative ideas such as Lala Candles,” said Sarhang.
“However, at the same time, it lacks the necessary tools for start-ups to operate smoothly.”
The Kurdish region of northern Iraq has a population of six million people, 1.3 million of them employed by the government.
But that reliance on government jobs is slowly going away, opening the doors for entrepreneurship.
“There are signs of a change in the economy of the Kurdistan region, despite the obstacles, from a centralised planning model to an economy where the private sector has spaces,” Niaz Najmadin, an assistant professor at the University of Sulaimani’s College of Administration and Economics, told Al Jazeera.
“For example, 15 years ago … many goods and services were imported from abroad. Now they are produced domestically.”
This change is particularly important as it opens up new paths for women, and a chance to increase women’s labour force participation rate in the Kurdish region, which is currently one of the lowest in the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exasperated young people’s frustration, and increased unemployment, which contributed to thousands of young Iraqi Kurds heading towards Europe in 2021.
Government backing, along with internationally-funded programmes to support entrepreneurs and start-ups, is a step in the right direction.
And for women like Sarhang, entrepreneurship has opened up other potential financial avenues, and a route to economic advancement without going abroad, and without relying on men.
“I want to deliver the message that we can, as women in this region, work and establish businesses,” Sarhang said. “We can stand on our own feet and be financially independent.”
That financial independence may also curb violence against women by allowing them to escape abusive relationships; in only the first two months of 2022, at least 11 women were killed in Iraq’s Kurdish region, with 45 killed in 2021.
But now, women entrepreneurs need help from the government – not to provide jobs, but to create the right environment for entrepreneurship.
“The Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] can do so much more for entrepreneurs and make things easy and straightforward,” said Sarhang. “They can set up special rules and regulations for small businesses and start-ups. [This can be] in terms of tax, business registration, providing small loans for creative projects that contributes socially and economically to the region.”
Analysts also argue that the government needs to do more to combat corruption and continued attempts by elites in Iraq to enrich themselves, which is proving a hindrance to entrepreneurship.
“The space that has been given to entrepreneurs by authorities is problematic,” said Najmadin. “The political elite, Kurdish or otherwise, are either asking for their share in these businesses, or putting restrictions that limit their expansion.”
Taffan Hamakhan, 30, is another young woman who has ventured out to create her own cosmetics and fragrance line – ByTaff.
It is locally produced, and employs women to reduce female unemployment in the region.
Hamakhan said her line was created in response to the gap because “we did not have any locally produced cosmetics products in Iraq”.
She has ambitious plans with her cosmetics and fragrance line.
“Within the next five years, we have set ourselves the goal of having all our products sold across every part of Iraq,” Hamakhan said.
Both Hamakhan and Sarhang are among an emerging group of women taking entrepreneurial pursuits to build jobs for their local community, and help reduce the high unemployment rate among young people in the region.
The future of entrepreneurship in the Kurdish region depends on whether the local government is able to listen to the concerns of new and small start-ups.
It may take decades before an entrepreneurial culture can take off, and entrepreneurs like Sarhang and Hamakhan say they need the infrastructure in place to support their dreams.
But still, they remain upbeat, and confident that they will succeed.
“I am positive,” said Sarhang. “I see positive changes happening.”