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Could This Be the Middle East’s Own Lush?

Yasmeen Smadi meets Samah Kheir El-Zein, the Syrian entrepreneur pioneering locally-made organic skincare products in Egypt.

by Yasmeen Smadi

Samah pours the green mixture into the small, heart-shaped moulds as the voice of her children playing sings in the background. Her organic skin-care products, which she makes at home, emanate a fragrance unmatched, filling the room where she makes home-made soap with a hint of Oud.

“I’ve always liked cosmetics and knew a lot about them, so I took some courses and taught myself how to make cosmetics from natural ingredients,” says the entrepreneur, who was recently one of the winners of -‘Heya Ra’eda’ (which in Arabic means “she is an entrepreneur”) incubation program, led by Egypt’s Technology, Innovation Entrepreneurship Centre (TIEC).

Samah Kheir El-Zein kick-started her business when she found herself alone with two kids, after her husband passed away in Egypt, the country she had just moved to. She had to find a way to support her family, being the only provider they had now. So she came up with the idea of making natural cosmetics at home and selling them online.’I have a passion for cosmetics, especially the ones made from natural ingredients, and I like helping women with skin problems through natural remedies,’’ she says, as we sit at the Vested Summit in El Gouna, having won SWB’s Women on the Move Pitching Competition.

“I always thought of myself as a weak person but after starting my business, I realized that I’m actually very strong.”

On a table next to the TV set in her home, located in a district known as Little Damascus – in Cairo’s satellite city of 6 of October – there is a purple box with matching rose petals and a bow, containing one of the many skincare products she creates, from start to finish. From fruit-infused soap, to skincare creams, to lotions, scrubs, and body butter, Samah’s products stand out as much for their artisanal presentation and finishing, as for their quality: they are home-made, animal-cruelty free, and devoid of chemicals. Much like the globally smashing brand Lush, her products appeal to a market that is ever more attentive to the impact of the products they consume. 

Samah pitches at Egypt’s Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Centre in Cairo.

The entrepreneur had never worked a day in her life, but this new situation forced her to make a decision for herself and for her children – she had to take things into her own hands in order to survive. “They are the reason I want to be strong and successful,’’ she states. Indeed, her children are often seen as her companions in her entrepreneurial venture, whether it is in product fairs, startup trainings, or meetings.

“We decided to come to Egypt when the war started in Syria,” she recalls. “We chose Egypt because it was affordable, safe and the people here are friendly.” At the time when she left her hometown of Damascus, there were regular flights to Cairo – and the borders were not closed. “It was in the beginning of the war,” she recalls, as we begin the interview.

How did the idea for the startup come about? 

I’ve always liked cosmetics and knew a lot about them, so I took some courses and taught myself how to make cosmetics from natural ingredients. I started by doing experiments with different ingredients until I was sure my products are effective and safe.

My friends and family tried my products and liked them so I started selling them in bazaars and events. I now make different kinds of soaps, lotions, creams and scrubs; I also make customized products based on my customers’ needs.

The entrepreneur recently attended the Vested Summit, in the coastal town of El Gouna, after winning the Women on the Move competition.

What was your main challenge creating the company? 

I think registration and having a shop. I work from home now, and I haven’t registered the company yet because the registration process is very complicated for non-Egyptians.

Were you aware of the startup world before coming here?

I had a very basic idea about it as I took some business courses, but Women on the Move helped me get more exposed and aware of the startup ecosystem. I wasn’t expecting to learn a lot from the event but I did, it was very beneficial and I feel that it opened a lot of doors for me.

What changed in your life when you started the business? 

I became stronger. I always thought of myself as a weak person but after starting my business, I realized that I’m actually very strong. Also, I’m now capable of supporting my family.

What’s your biggest goal with the company?  

I hope for my company to be registered so I can supply pharmacies and doctors with my products; as now I don’t have a license for this. I also want to launch the online platform to sell them, and export to different countries around the world. I believe that my project will grow and that I’ll make myself and my children very proud.

What would you advice another person who migrated from their country and wants to create a business? 

Know what you want to do, take courses, improve your skills and then start. Don’t start before you’re ready and always have a plan B.

Photography: Valentina Primo.

©Startups Without Borders.

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