If you took a poll of the places in the world where you think that there is some value to building an Etsy-like business, we are pretty sure that Qatar would not find
itself in the top half. Homemade, authentic, and handmade—these are terms that you will typically not associate with a state known more for its oil and gas prowess, even though it has made large strides in building itself up as an art and culture hub. But that art and culture push is from the top down.
There is another cultural movement though that is building from the bottom up, away from the limelight, fostered in a demographic that has largely been ignored—the stay-at-home entrepreneur making handmade products.
Gradually, and mostly away from the larger spotlight on Doha, a small legion of home-based businesses has sprouted up. While there are no concrete figures as to how many such businesses are in operation, the Qatari government has tried to size up the market.
A 2015 note from the Qatari Ministry of Labor & Social Affairs and the Social Development Center, says that there are about 1,458 home-based businesses in Doha. Two reports from Qatar Development Bank, released in 2015, said that of these 1,458 home-based businesses, 86% are operational, 95% are run by women, and 84% of them are run by owners 30 years old or more. Additionally, 43% of them have never been employed at all, while 46% have a regular job too. Also, 62% of owners are over 40 years old and never held a job.
That tells you more than a few things—that stay-at-home women overwhelmingly run these businesses, that they are probably married, and doing this to earn a second or complementary income to run their homes and lives.
The growth is huge, says Ahmed Mohamedali, co-founder and CEO of Magaza, a Doha-based startup focused on what he calls the city’s growing “social commerce” sector.
“Home-based businesses are booming right now, and the numbers are increasing rapidly. And they are being run by all nationalities and not just the locals (Qataris).”
Magaza, now in its beta stage, has signed up at least 20 merchants and has also run a trial, shipping locally handmade, quality products, according to Mohamedali, across food, handcrafted jewelry, kidswear, and accessories.
The app-only business, modeled on Etsy, is now preparing for a soft launch before Ramadan, after which it will go in for a full launch, offering apps for iOS and Android, in Arabic and English. The startup recently won a grant from the Qatar Science and Technology Park to fuel this effort.
“There is a lot of potential for this,” says Munera Al-Dosari, chairman, investor and co-founder at Magaza. She points to the wide range of home-based creators she wants to tap into. “We have a 16-year old Qatari girl now selling homemade Sushi on our platform, and it’s a huge hit.”
A hand for the handmade
Al-Dosari, who was also behind the now-defunct Girnaas, one of the Gulf’s first and only gaming studios, says that the idea behind Magaza had been stewing since those days.
She explains that discovery is the first big challenge that home-based businesses have, something the Magaza app solves for them, but so do other avenues such as fairs, exhibitions, and word-of-mouth networks.
But then there are other progressive challenges such as marketing, business intelligence, and recruiting that not all home-based creators are ready for, she adds.
Perihan Mohamed, who runs her own handmade jewelry business, called Precious Piece of Earth, has seen that cycle.
Of Egyptian nationality, she ran a jewelry business back home with a couple of friends from 2005 to 2009. In 2011 came marriage, after which she moved to Doha, and the birth of two children, and all that comes with it.
It was her husband who pushed her to start thinking of making jewelry again. But by her admission, while she was great at the craft she was selling, the business side of things was not something she excelled at.
Mohamed is part of the QatART community, an organized community of handmade creators in Doha with about 60 members, which has been helpful, and gives her access to about two markets every month.
But it too ceases work in the summer and “then we will have to wait until next October,” says Mohamed. “Online, I am a dinosaur when it comes to social media, and I am trying to learn on how to grab attention.”
Like other home-based creators, Mohamed is keen to grow out of the markets-only business model and find other avenues, including Magaza, to help grow her business.
“My plan is to take my skills and build a real business out of it,” she tells us.“I am building a strategy to understand what channels are appropriate to what I do, working on a very strong look book, and seeking to work with stores in cities like Doha, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.”
But to work with stores in Doha (at least), the likes of her would have to figure their way around a regulatory change that has made things ‘interesting’ for home-based businesses.
By the books
In late 2016, the Qatari government released new licensing procedures aimed at small businesses and self-employed residents. For QAR1,020 annually, home-based entrepreneurs can get themselves licensed if they are over 18 years old and live in the residence where the company is registered. Only one license per home would be granted, the notification said, adding that clearances from other government entities could be needed depending on the business.
Business activities approved under the notification included photography, gift packaging, catering, tailoring and embroidery, and so, on paper, the move was a positive one.
“The fact that finally they finally acknowledged these businesses is significant,” says Magaza’s Mohamedali.
“People earlier were trying not to do something illegal. The license is quite affordable…it does open up doors for these businesses.”
But on the ground, there are mixed reactions to this change from those affected.
The main point of contention is the uncertainty as to who does the law apply to—Qataris, or expats as well.
This is something that Paula Bouffard, founder of Touche Textile, is keeping a keen eye on.
Bouffard, of French-Canadian heritage, came to Doha via the UAE along with her husband, and her business of natural material-based printed textiles.
A QatART member like Mohamed, Bouffard has been using the community’s events and Etsy (for international clients) to reach out to her audience. Currently, under Touche, Bouffard offers products such as pillow cases, tea towels, and tote bags, at a price range of QAR50 to QAR300.
Having started in 2014, Bouffard says that she would love to start selling her wares in stores fit for her products in time and therefore would want to be properly licensed under Qatar’s laws before she does so.
“There has been some conflicting news if I may say, and it’s not 100% clear at the moment. I’d be more than happy to become a legitimate business for the kind of business that I am in, which is niche with a small-scale production.”
Bouffard says the municipality told her that for now, this legislation is for Qataris only.
“So, we are waiting and not conducting any activity outside QatART and Magaza. I feel okay that I am with two well-established organizations, but of course, to grow, I’d feel more comfortable owning a proper business license.”
This is something Patricia Pomares, founder of Patt Handcraft, agrees to. Of Portuguese nationality, Pomares makes handmade accessories and toys for mothers, babies, and children that she sells through QatART and her network.
Having moved to Doha in 2014, she has built up a more than generous following for her products and is ready to step up. She says that besides the question of regulation, Doha has been a fantastic place to build her passion into a business.
“Even in my native Portugal, they don’t have this type of community,” she says, pointing out that Doha’s unique demographic mix has helped in that.
Bouffard concurs and says that the QatART has underpinned this community feeling between the handmade creators. “It really is a community in the sense that we work together, help each other, and grow together.”
QatART currently holds its bi-monthly market in the Katara Art Studios, one of Doha’s art and cultural landmarks.
Showcasing their products there is helping home-based entrepreneurs like Mohamed, Pomares, and Bouffard come into the spotlight and bring to the attention of everyone the value they add to both the economy and culture of Doha.
But many others are still working in the shadows, and there is hope that sooner rather than later, they will come out as the likes of Magaza help institutionalize the market.
“I think it’s a nice thing that the government considers what we do a business and not a hobby,” Pomares says. “We are artists. So, if we can get a license, it is good for us and our creations, and it is good for the country’s image too.”