How one organisation is using Dubai hospitality ‘exchanges’ to transform African communities
The M.E Exchange
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How one organisation is using Dubai hospitality ‘exchanges’ to transform African communities

Assia Riccio-Smith, founder of Evolvin’ Women, speaks to Alicia Buller about empowering women through hospitality skills

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cut global employment opportunities, rural communities in developing countries are facing particular hardship and limited access to jobs.

This challenge is very close to home for Assia Riccio-Smith, the founder of Evolvin’ Women – a social enterprise focused on skilling up women in disadvantaged societies.

The entrepreneur, who says her own mother was taken out of education and asked to work to support the family at nine-years-old, says her organisation was born out of a need to create a legacy for women’s advancement and prevent the propagation of child labour.

“When I was living in Dubai in 2016, I decided to take some time off and travel in Africa and I saw the same reality that my mum was telling me about from the 1960s in Italy, where she grew up.”

Riccio-Smith says the ultimate purpose of Evolvin’ Women is to put women at the forefront of community development – creating microeconomics that allow villages and communities to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient.

Hailing from a hospitality background, Riccio-Smith used this experience to create a 27-month long development programme for women from developing countries to work for two years in hotels in Dubai, while gaining education, location mentoring, and online training to increase their job opportunities in their home countries.

“It's like an exchange programme,” says Riccio-Smith. “We make it available to women who are unemployed and haven't had a quality education.”

“After these two years, we work with our other partners to help them find a job back home so they can go back home. They can go back home with skills and international experience.”

Working with hotel companies such as the Accor Hotels and the Hilton Group, Evolvin’ Women initially enrolled 200 women – with the programmes set to continue when the global pandemic subsides.

But this isn’t the only project that Riccio-Smith has in the works. In South Africa, Evolvin’ Women is in the process of building ecolodges, with the aim of creating jobs and implementing tourism practices in the local community, while simultaneously reducing hunger and poverty.

“It's a beautiful project because it brings together women in the community,” Riccio-Smith says. “The ecolodge will be a hub for the villages where the girls come from.”

“The ecolodge is a sustainable business but at the same time, it's a service to the community. We recruit and buy from the community; our supply chain is the village and that creates an economically sustainable model.”

Evolvin’ Women currently operates in Ghana and Rwanda as well as South Africa. The social enterprise has future plans to move into Zambia with funding secured from hotel admin fees or sponsorships, with any profit made going back into community projects.

The work that Evolvin’ Women does is crucial for women hoping to make a better life for themselves or their families, and also means that the education they receive can be recycled onto hundreds of other women.

Ricco-Smith says: “The real change happens from inside the community. We bring women out of the community, show them something completely different and tell them to share it with that community – the men, the head of the tribe, their kids - and create the change from within”

“You inspire other women and people in your community. You also create an emotional bond with your family; you go home and you're much stronger. We're just facilitating the change.”