When Stevi Lowmass had her first child “really late in life” in 2005, she began to search for a business idea that would offer her autonomy and flexibility, as opposed to the senior management position she’d just left in a software company. It was a holiday in Australia that provided her ‘Eureka’ moment.
“I went into a soap factory and it was just the most beautiful place,” Ms Lowmass said. “My husband and I looked at each other and I said, this could really work in Dubai.”
She was right.
One of her main aims in setting up The Camel Soap Factory in the UAE was to give something back to the country that has been home for the past 15 years. “I really wanted something that was local,” she said. “I got so tired of buying stuff that was made in China to represent Arabia. I want them to be proud of something that’s made here. And the most local ingredient I could find was camel milk.”
From selling out her first stall at a school fair in 2011, through the following Christmas when she and her daughter’s nanny, now the company’s production manager, sold 80,000 dirhams worth of soap they had made, the business has grown to incorporate 10 full-time staff and a factory in Al Quoz moving 20,000 soaps every month.
It’s a remarkable success story.
“Starting a business here is very hard,” Ms Lowmass said. “But it’s been wonderful.” The main obstacle to start-ups, she believes, is the prohibitive amount of money required to obtain the necessary licences, as well as employee visas a “shocking” expense. And, in her case, the cost of building a factory. She estimates it cost over a million dirhams to get her business running.
“The cost of failing here is very high. If I was in the UK, I could make a bit of profit, invest in a few more things, maybe move to an office,” Ms Lowmass said. “In Dubai, one of the things I think they need to change is that you have to invest all this money without knowing if you’re going to be successful.”
However, the opportunities make up for that risk, she feels: “There’s great opportunity here, because so little is manufactured here. And there’s huge opportunity in environmental awareness – getting people to be aware of what’s in what’s on the shelves. There’s a lot of education needed, but I think that creates great opportunity. We’re at a fortunate junction in that interest is rising and we’re there.”
Ms Lowmass also believes the UAE is a particularly good place to be a businesswoman. “It’s a pleasure,” she said. “I can honestly say I had more issues being a woman in South Africa. It’s just not an issue here. I’ve never had anything other than complete respect. I do not feel discriminated against at all, from a business sense. And it might even be an advantage. I think almost especially because you’re a woman, they really want you to be successful.”