When South African Stevi Lowmass shifted 75 of her handmade soap at a Dubai school fair, she was delighted. Little did she know, less than five years later she’d be shipping the same soap in boxes of thousands to Japan, China, Germany and India.
“When I look back now I can’t believe where I’ve come from,” said Lowmass, a Dubai resident since 2002. “I think I should have been more daunted – especially when I consider what we’ve overcome to get here – but I wasn’t in the beginning.”
Lowmass believes that bravery and courage are traits that all true business people must possess. “Belief in your product is a given,” she said. “But a belief in yourself and what you can achieve is 100% necessary. Even when people around you are doubting or questioning whether it’s possible, you have to have faith.”
Nestled in Dubai’s dusty Al Quoz district, The Camel Soap Factory is an oasis in an industrial desert. Warehouses line the bumpy streets for miles except in zone four, where the sweet smell of freshly made soap wafts from the glass doors of Lowmass’ year-old manufacturing headquarters.
DARING TO SUCCEED
A few embarrassing moments at all-day school fairs – Lowmass sold all units within 90 minutes – and the mother-of-one knew things had to get bigger if she wanted to make her mark.
“I didn’t want to be an artisan, I wanted to be bigger than that,” she admitted.But her dreams could not be realized from her villa kitchen and a few moulds that made 20 soap bars at a time.
“I remember we thought it was really quite daring at the time,” she laughed. “I went to a school fair with 100 [soap bars] and I quickly realized it wasn’t enough. I knew there was a market. The next year, I was a little more prepared and we sold around AED 70,000 [USD 19,022] worth of soap.”
A year later, the number more than doubled and Lowmass took AED 150,000 (USD 40,761) in a morning.
Then in February 2013, she secured a license to start manufacturing from her home, but the fledgling company quickly outgrew the space. In 2014 it was time to find a new home and begin manufacturing in the hundreds.
“It became clear we needed to start heading into shops and to do that you need [Dubai] Municipality clearance, which means you need a business license,” she said.
“That was a big step. The first business license is expensive because you have to get the premises as well. It was a tough one because I really had to decide whether or not I could sell that many soap.”
In the first year, Lowmass estimates she “broke even”. In the beginning there are a great deal of outgoings. It takes a significant investment to fit out the premises and then get staff on board to enable manufacturing to meet demand.”
The Camel Soap Factory started with Lowmass making soap in her kitchen. Now, the 2,800-square-foot facility in Al Quoz employs eight full-time staff and outsources much of the packaging. Giant moulds make up to 300 pieces of soap per batch and the factory has the capacity to make more than 5,000 a month.
Lowmass believes funding and an “interesting legal environment” are the biggest challenges for anyone starting a small business in the UAE.
“The cost of failure in this country is really high. Everything is up front. In other countries you can spread costs and things get more expensive as you get bigger and expand. Here it’s a fixed cost. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are – you all pay the same, which means for a small start-up it’s a massive cost compared to somebody coming in from overseas who perhaps already has revenue.”
While people were “flexible and helpful” at Dubai Municipality, Lowmass said the framework was sometimes not in place to deal with the requests of such a unique SME. “It took a lot of patience and negotiation,” she added.
NICHE PRODUCT GAINS TRACTION
The Camel Soap Factory manufactures soap bars, made from 25% camel milk, with added olive oil and beeswax.
Lowmass created the product following a trip to Australia where she visited The Olive Oil Soap Factory. She quickly made a decision the concept could translate to Dubai with a local product such as camel milk.
“There wasn’t much in the market at the time and I wanted to create something that would be a part of the UAE, was hand-made and that was not dates.”
Products made from camel milk, such as cosmetics and food, have been gaining traction and popularity across the region, especially among tourists, according to experts.
A 2013 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) claims camel milk forms less than 1% of total milk production globally and makes a notable contribution only in sub-Saharan Africa.
But a small and growing export market now exists in the UAE, thanks to Lowmass. “When we started, we did not expect there would be massive requirement or even interest from outside the country. But we get orders from Germany, India, Canada, Serbia, Japan, China and Singapore.”
What’s more is that it’s growing without a tremendous amount of marketing, relying simply on word of mouth.
This is something that sits comfortably with Lowmass as her ‘golden rule’ is to be able to take care of her existing customers before anyone else.
“I take on nothing I can’t deliver,” she said. “We have a few rules we live by here. If anybody contacts us we get back to them within the hour. If any existing client calls we need to be able to get what they need to them within the day. Within 24 hours. As shipments get bigger it has become harder but we stick by it. Sometimes orders come in for 3,000-4,000 [soap bars] at one time and we need to be able to meet those orders off the shelf.”
‘DON’T BE GREEDY’
Lowmass said the best advice she has for a fellow entrepreneur would be to not become greedy.
“I don’t actively seek out other markets where it might impact the really good clients we already have. It ensures the clients we have get excellent client services,” she said giving an example. “I think that’s the key in product-based manufacturing – being really responsive to the client’s needs and requirements.”
The Camel Soap Factory is a finalist in the RSA Start-up Business of the Year category. Products are now sold at Al Jaber Gallery, Jumeirah Group’s hotels, Fakih Group of Companies and Laverne in Abu Dhabi. Lowmass is also supplying Dubai Duty Free through Al Jaber Gallery.
“Dubai’s a great place to just go out and do it because of the variety,” the entrepreneur says to anyone about to the take the plunge. “It’s a business environment where there’s room for innovation. Dubai is still growing rapidly. Anyone with a good idea should go for it.”