In the UAE, entrepreneurship and raising a family go hand-in-hand for young Emirati women entrepreneurs.
And Badour Al Qubaisi is no different. Between business meetings and running a cafe, the 31-year-old is also bringing up three children.
In 2013, Ms Al Qubaisi opened a shop selling traditional Emirati sweets and ice cream but with a modern twist. The ice cream, for instance, is not the daily fare one gets from the grocery stores. It is frozen karak tea with its milky sweetness and spicy flavours.
She also sells date cupcakes, brownies with rahash or sesame seed paste, and cookies with khabeesa or semolina porridge, as well as Vimto slush and Namlet among other out-of-the-box combinations.
The idea of the vintage with a modern taste extends to the shop decor that uses pop art and colourful enamel teapots to add to the atmosphere.
While figures are not available for boutique businesses run by women in Abu Dhabi, their numbers have been growing.
“Many of my friends are getting into the creative businesses such as abaya and T-shirt making, as well as chocolates,” says Ms Al Qubaisi, the owner of White Coffee shop in Khalifa City A, a suburb of Abu Dhabi.
While figures are hard to come by, there are about 250,000 to 300,000 SMEs in this country, according to the telecoms provider du this year. But only a few of them are likely to be owned by Emirati women. At the 2013 SME Congress and Expo in Abu Dhabi, a report from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor revealed that men here are 2.8 times more likely than women to open a business despite a push from the Government.
A traditional attitude that questions the need for women to open businesses, bureaucratic delays to get one started, and high expenses related to retail space rents are among the challenges that keep Emirati women from unleashing their full potential, say some of local businesswomen.
“Some people say, ‘You are the daughter of so and so, how come you are selling, people will think you are doing this for money?’ Some people have this mentality,” says Amena Al Remeithi, the founder and interior designer for Elegant Fabrics Decor.
But, she says, Emirati women who start businesses do it to showcase their talent and for some it is about taking their hobby to the next level.
Ms Al Remeithi runs Elegant Fabrics Decor in Abu Dhabi that provides furniture and furnishings from home and gets 85 per cent of the business through social media such as WhatsApp and Instagram.
Last week, an organisation started by three young Emirati entrepreneurs that helps them to start and market their businesses, held an exhibition for home and store-based enterprises that sell cookies, ice cream, packed and imported jams and jellies, chocolates, and sweet and savoury snacks.
Mubader Event Management started six months ago. On Tuesday, it organised a two-day workshop on how to use the popular mobile application Instagram to promote businesses. “Mubader” in Arabic means “one who is willing to start”.
While most of its activities tend to attract Emirati start-ups, the organisation is open to other Arab nationalities as well.
One of the co-founders, Hanan Al Kendi, runs two businesses – a flower and chocolate shop in Abu Dhabi and one selling baked and stuffed potatoes called Nom Nom in Al Ain.
Along with Khawla Saeed Al Mazrouie, 25, and Mohammed Al Meqbali, 30, Ms Al Kendi plans to organise other exhibitions on fashion and farmers’ products and honey marketed by local businesses in the next few months.
Ms Al Kendi, 25, had her own stall from her Le Cadeau Flowers and Chocolates shop at last week’s sugar exhibition, which was supported by Emirati Entrepreneurs Association. It is a non governmental organisation that was started in 2013 with support from Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development.
Most of the 12 participating businesses are run by women. They were out there with their wares for four days at one of the capital’s oldest malls: the Fotouh Al Khair Centre, also known as the Marks & Spencer Mall, on old Airport Road.
The community mall usually attracts residents who live nearby and, during one of the exhibition days, curious guests strayed into the circle of the temporary stalls drawn by the shabby-chic decor of the vending carts and the goodies on display.
Exhibitions such as the one Mubader initiated last week help to give local women an opportunity to identify the market needs, the suppliers and demand, Ms Al Remeithi says. “Moreover, a lot of [women] who just started feel shy, and need the push,” she adds.
The 30-year-old started the business with her husband as a business partner and invested Dh60,000 from her personal savings. She designs wooden furniture pieces and has them made at a factory in Al Ain. She deals with four local tailors in Abu Dhabi for the cushions, tablecloths and curtains.
For those businesswomen who take the plunge, the UAE’s growing retail sector is a support. Sales in the overall UAE retail sector this year are expected to be US$35.91 billion, up from $32.91bn last year. It is expected to touch $52.79bn in 2019, according to Euromonitor International.
Of that, the chocolate, sugar and sweet and savoury snacks sectors together are expected to have sales of $729 million in the country this year, up from $659.6m last year, according to Euromonitor International. By 2019, the total sales are expected to be $1.06bn. Of these, the chocolate confectionary sector is the fastest growing.
Much of the market is captured by the global international brands such as Galaxy, Cadbury and Kinder beside the likes of Lays and Pringles for the savoury snacks sector.
Supermarkets and hypermarkets remain the main distribution channels for chocolate confectionery for all the three sectors but convenience stores are expected to make inroads in the coming months as tourists who are less price sensitive and local buyers, who want to avoid the heat, opt for nearby facilities.
Boutique businesses active in chocolates, sugar and snacks sectors are also increasing in Abu Dhabi, although the paperwork and the time taken still put off many women looking to start their own shop.
“They see it as a risk,” says Ms Al Qubaisi. “It takes one and half years for all the approvals from the municipality, and you can’t get all the things done at one place.”
Moreover, there are the high rents and subsequent recurring costs such as salaries and accommodation for staff to contend with.
The retail space in Abu Dhabi, which saw the addition of 235,000-square-metre Yas Mall in November, is expected to remain stable until 2018 when super-regional malls such as Sowwah Central on Al Maryah Island, the high-end Saadiyat District, Reem Mall on Reem Island and the Marina Mall extension are expected to come on stream. In the fourth quarter last year two smaller malls – Capital Mall in Mohammed Bin Zayed City and Al Reef retail – also entered the market.
The limited addition of space means rents have remained stable and high in the fourth quarter. On Abu Dhabi island, malls now demand Dh3,000 per square metre a year, up by 3 per cent year-on-year, according to the consultants JLL. Those off the island can fetch an average of Dh1,860 per sq metre a year, which was down by 2 per cent year-on-year.
Even then, vacancies are as low as 2 per cent within regional and super-regional malls.
Ms Al Qubaisi had decided on being an independent operation from the start.
“I felt it’s more professional to start as a standalone shop, and I wouldn’t take the risk ordering food that was prepared at a stranger’s house without knowing the process or the hygiene level,” she says.
The high rents meant she has had to start outside a mall but hopes someday she will be able to open within one. Ms Al Qubaisi employs 10 people at the shop.
Since the young business is short on budget, most of the marketing is done through social media such as Twitter and Instagram besides its own website.
Ms Al Qubaisi, 31, expects the firm to break even in about three years. Before she started on her own, she studied the market and could not find any store or company selling such hybrid products. Ms Al Qubaisi would not reveal her annual sales but says she plans to expand to Dubai by the end of the year. Despite the challenges, being your own boss is fantastic, Ms Al Qubaisi says.