YouTube creators turn Arabic home cooking videos into revenue

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When Heba Abo Elkheir was a little girl, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer, maybe even a judge. After earning a law degree in her native Egypt, she married and soon found herself a mother of two.

“Then it all stopped,” she said. “I didn’t want to sit at home, but it was also difficult to continue my studies or go out and work in law.”

On the advice of her husband, Ms Abo Elkheir, 31, started a cooking channel on YouTube in early 2019, showcasing her home cooking in simple videos. It’s not novelty or innovation that has made his recipes popular – Egyptian classics like basbousa and macarona bil bechamel are his most popular, with over six million views each – but reliability and simplicity.

In less than three years, she has amassed more than three million subscribers, becoming not only an equal earner with her husband, but also one of the top three women to run food channels on YouTube across the Middle. -East and North Africa, or MENA. , Region.

The kitchen, historically the symbolic heart of domestic life in the Arab world, has often kept women attached to household responsibilities and out of the labor force. Only around 25% of women in the Middle East participate in the labor force – the lowest figure in the world, although female university graduates in the region often outnumber their male counterparts.

But the rise of social media platforms, YouTube in particular, is changing the power dynamics of Arab women, allowing them to turn cooking into a source of income and influence.

“If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said I wanted to go back to law,” Ms Abo Elkheir said. “But now, no, I want to go abroad and become a certified chef. I find so much meaning in this job.

Further west, in Morocco’s coastal town of Nador, Karima Boukar launched her YouTube channel in 2015. People flocked to her dessert videos, which she described as simple, but mostly economical. Her most popular video, with more than 16 million views, is a three-ingredient coconut macaroon-inspired dessert, followed closely by a chocoflan and a cold-infused pudding. In six months, she has more than 100,000 subscribers. Today, it has more than four million.

When Ms Boukar, 35, learned in 2016 that her eldest son had autism, she considered closing her channel to devote her time to him, but soon realized that his medical care would be costly.

“I continued this channel to earn an income and help my son. And now he is – alhamdulillah – very, very well,” she said, using a phrase that means “praise be to Allah.” videos average 400,000 views, earning him a monthly income of around a few thousand US dollars, a figure comparable to Morocco’s annual gross domestic product per capita.

Food is one of the top four categories on YouTube in the MENA region, a company spokeswoman said. (The other three are lifestyle, music, and more recently, games.) Over the past five years, the number of female-led channels in the region with more than one million subscribers has been multiplied by 30, to reach 150 channels today.

“You know, I used to hear about people making money on YouTube, but I never thought I’d be one of those people,” said Ola Tashman, whose channel de cuisine has more than 2.5 million subscribers.

A native of Jordan, Ms Tashman, 38, started her YouTube channel in 2018 while living in Saudi Arabia with her husband. She is an accountant by training, but she was not allowed to work there because she was not a Saudi citizen. (She has since returned to Jordan.)

Ms Tashman started posting cooking videos to cope with the frustration of having her professional ambitions hampered and to recreate the meals she missed at home, such as ma’amoul (Eid cookies) and his mother’s shushbarak (a lamb meatball cooked in yogurt sauce).

“I didn’t expect to grow my viewership so much,” she said. But when she realized there was a profit to be made, she doubled her efforts, invested in better cameras, and quickly saw her following grow.

For most of these women, cooking was already a hobby or something they did for their family, even if their reasons differed from doing it online. For all of them, however, seeing an activity traditionally considered feminine taken seriously and respected by those around them has been thrilling. And realizing that their work can pay off has empowered women with financial independence, respect and meaning.

“Financial freedom is beautiful,” Ms. Tashman said. “My whole personality has changed. I feel bigger in front of me.

Even her children no longer complain when she is late for dinner on the table. “My husband is also very supportive, because to succeed, a house cannot lean to one side. And now we are truly equal partners.

Muna Al-Amsha, who fled the Syrian civil war in 2016 with her husband and five children and settled in Iraqi Kurdistan, has also reaped some of these benefits. As refugees, she and her husband struggled to find work. At the suggestion of a friend, she started posting videos of traditional Syrian recipes, ranging from many varieties of kibbeh to countless mezes.

“It took me about a year to start earning a good income, but eventually I was earning several hundred dollars a month,” Ms Al-Amsha said. “For several years, we relied exclusively on my income.

Creator revenue per view, a function of what advertisers pay to YouTube, varies by region. Since many of Ms. Al-Amsha’s early followers were from Syria, their opinions did not earn her as much as if they were based in other places. But the refugee exodus that has sent many Syrians around the world has allowed her to now have enough income to cover rent and family expenses.

Financial security, while fundamental, is only one of the rewards these women enjoy. They also feel a sense of contribution to a larger community.

“I benefit financially, which is great and important,” said Ms. Boukar, the Moroccan vlogger who runs the dessert chain. “But my self-esteem and my personality is what really changed. Now I feel a lot better, a lot more confident, and when I meet people I feel like I brought something.

This sense of giving is also a driving force for Ms. Al-Amsha.

“Young women, many of whom are newlyweds away from home or have been forced to leave Syria like me, they were telling me that I was like a mother to them, teaching them how to cook,” she said. declared. “When you hear that, it breaks your heart. You feel so honored and important to do this for so many people.

Indeed, community members form connections and a sense of affinity with these content creators, even without ever seeing them.

“Often people don’t even log on for the recipes,” said Ms. Abo Elkheir, the famous Egyptian vlogger, who doesn’t show her face in her videos. “They just want to relax and unwind, and they’ll tell me they watch my videos because they like hearing my voice and what I’m saying.”

For Ms. Tashman, requests come in regularly for popular or viral recipes. “When I tell my subscribers it’s all over YouTube, they insist, ‘But we want it from you, your way.'”

Who exactly are these loyal viewers? According to data from Google, millennials are the largest YouTube audience in the Middle East-North Africa region, with watch time second only to millennials in the United States. For these online cooks in particular, women made up about three-quarters of the subscriber base.

This broad and loyal base has helped these content creators stay somewhat immune to the notorious and relentless algorithm changes by social media platforms. But the increasingly crowded space has always been a challenge for many of them to navigate.

“It’s not like before, where I would have 50,000 additional subscribers in a day,” Ms. Boukar said. “The views have also calmed down. But my income has not been affected because I have collaborations with food companies. It’s actually my biggest source of income.

But regardless of their income and views, these women have forged meaningful connections with other Arab women around the world.

Ms Abo Elkheir said the messages she receives from followers often bring tears to her eyes.

“When someone tells me my recipes work, that they enjoyed them, it’s like I’m not just doing things for myself, I’m reaching out to people and helping them,” she said. “It makes me feel that my presence in life has value, that I’m doing something important.”

Sound produced by Tally Abecassis.

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