More than 30 young men with dis­abil­i­ties are on their way to be­com­ing en­trepreneurs, thanks to a decade-long ini­tia­tive by a Dubai-based land­scap­ing firm. By Anand Raj OK


Peo­ple with spe­cial needs try their hand at en­trepreneur­ship.

Tall and dressed in a smart blue shirt and a pair of dark blue trousers, Saif Saeed sits be­hind a ta­ble at the En­able Mar­ket Fair ad­ja­cent to the Dubai Gar­den Cen­tre on Shaikh Zayed Road on a cool Fe­bru­ary morn­ing. On the ta­ble is an ar­ray of suc­cu­lent cacti ar­range­ments in beau­ti­ful ce­ramic, metal and wooden pots.

‘Would you like to take one home, sir?’ he asks Nathan, a vis­i­tor to the fair.

The vis­i­tor steps closer to ad­mire the table­top cacti plants. ‘Looks very nice,’ he says, be­fore choos­ing one.

‘Buy two and I can give you a dis­count,’ tempts Saif.

Nathan con­sid­ers the of­fer, chooses an­other, and pays.

Saif counts the money, twice, re­turns the change, neatly packs both cacti ar­range­ments in a bag be­fore hand­ing it over with a smile, his eyes twin­kling be­hind a pair of thick spec­ta­cles.

Not many would know that 30-some­thing Saif is a per­son with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties. But that has not stopped him from be­com­ing one of 32 work­ers – all with dis­abil­i­ties – at En­able, a CSR ini­tia­tive by Dubai-based land­scap­ing firm Desert Group, and who its ge­nial gen­eral man­ager Reem Al Ghaith likes to call ‘a suc­cess story’.

‘Just think­ing about the num­ber of stu­dents who’ve passed through the doors of En­able gives me goose­bumps,’ says Reem. ‘But if you were to ask me one of my most cher­ished mo­ments, it has to be see­ing Saif de­velop and man­age his life so well.’

Like its name sig­ni­fies, En­able of­fers a 360-de­gree com­mer­cial model to young male Emi­ratis with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties en­abling them to one day start their own small busi­nesses.

Set up in 2006, the so­cial en­ter­prise com­pany started the pro­gramme with the Dubai Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre, which is un­der the Min­istry of Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment, to cre­ate vi­able pro­grammes for Peo­ple with Dis­abil­i­ties.

‘Why did we think of spe­cial needs peo­ple?’ asks Reem. ‘One of our found­ing part­ners re­alised there was a bit of scarcity when it came to in­clu­sion and op­tions for peo­ple with chal­lenges. He de­cided to cre­ate it in his own com­pany and started this in 2006.’

Ini­tially Reem used to han­dle the mar­ket­ing di­vi­sion at Desert Group, but when En­able and a CSR di­vi­sion was set up, she was made its gen­eral man­ager.

‘I’m pas­sion­ate and priv­i­leged about the role be­cause it’s a job where you can make a dif­fer­ence through your ac­tions,’ says the Emi­rati, who has a Mas­ter’s de­gree in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion and has com­pleted a course in CSR and lead­er­ship from Har­vard. ‘I wanted to ed­u­cate my­self bet­ter about CSR pro­grammes and felt such a course would be very use­ful and im­por­tant.’

It has clearly helped. Helmed by her, En­able has been chang­ing the lives of sev­eral young peo­ple with chal­lenges.

En­able works with land­scap­ing project gar­den­ing. ‘There’s scope for repet­i­tive work in the com­pany – suit­able for peo­ple with cer­tain in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties,’ she says.

To start with, En­able cre­ated an in­ter­nal pro­gramme – a ba­sic 101 re­tail. ‘We took the best per­form­ers from our staff and gen­tly taught them the steps of what a busi­ness is like,’ she says.

Desert Group hired 32 young peo­ple with in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties to work as gar­den­ers at one of the com­pany’s nurs­eries. ‘With an in-house team of spe­cial­ists de­liv­er­ing a com­pre­hen­sive re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme we got to work train­ing them so they could en­joy an in­de­pen­dent life,’ says Reem.

To set the ball rolling, the work­ers were first given a project to de­velop. ‘We showed them some pic­tures of cacti ar­range­ments and asked them to cre­ate dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of suc­cu­lent ar­range­ments so we could gauge their tal­ents, core skills and pro­duc­tiv­ity.’

Barely a few months into the pro­gramme, the En­able man­age­ment team was pleas­antly sur­prised to see the work­ers dig­ging deep into their cre­ativ­ity adding their own touches to the ar­range­ments and pro­duc­ing ex­cel­lent, sell­able prod­ucts. ‘Of course, not all of them did it, but a ma­jor­ity did and we were very pleased with the re­sults,’ says Reem.

She and her team which in­cludes man­agers, buy­ers, and be­hav­iour and spe­cial needs ther­a­pists, also in­cluded se­lected En­able work­ers as part of the pro­cure­ment team when go­ing out to pur­chase raw ma­te­ri­als. ‘We felt it was nec­es­sary for them to know the modus operandi of how a raw ma­te­rial pur­chase is made,’ says Reem. ‘We wanted to train them to step out of the com­pany, to know where the ven­dors and sup­pli­ers are, and try to man­age on their own.’

The staff’s tal­ents were clearly blos­som­ing. ‘The work­ers were just amaz­ing; they quickly learnt how to bar­gain, choose the right prod­ucts and make a per­fect deal. They now un­der­stand what an or­der is, when it needs to be

de­liv­ered and the need and im­por­tance of stick­ing to dead­lines.’

Work­ers are also in­volved in pric­ing, pack­ag­ing and dis­play­ing prod­ucts.

En­able em­ploy­ees have a code that they af­fix on the prod­ucts they make. This way when a sale is done, the per­son who made the prod­uct gets an ex­tra 15 per cent of the sale price.

‘At the end of the month, each worker gets an en­ve­lope which has the ex­tra money that he made from the sale of prod­ucts he cre­ated; it’s like a bonus for them,’ says Reem, ‘and an­other rea­son for them to work harder and im­prove the qual­ity of their prod­ucts.’

Healthy com­pe­ti­tion among the work­ers is clearly vis­i­ble at the fair. Saif, who prides him­self for know­ing the bi­o­log­i­cal names of the var­i­ous cacti, is ex­cited to be at the fair pro­mot­ing En­able’s prod­ucts.

‘The work area is like my sec­ond home,’ he says. ‘I en­joy be­ing here with my friends and col­leagues.’ He then ex­cuses him­self from the in­ter­view to rush off to make an­other sale.

En­able is not the only cen­tre that had a stall at the fair. More than 45 young men and women from seven other spe­cial needs cen­tres across the UAE, in­clud­ing the Shar­jah City for Hu­man­i­tar­ian Ser­vices, Al Manzil, Awladouna Cen­tre in Shar­jah and Spe­cial Needs Fu­ture De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre set up stalls sell­ing prod­ucts they cre­ated at their cen­tres.

And the fair did not only show­case hand­i­crafts and ar­ti­san goods. Mu­sic, food, live cook­ing and en­ter­tain­ment all com­bined to make the event a mag­net for the pub­lic.

Hold­ing fort at the Awladouna stall is Yousuf Al Mur­shidi. The young man is a pro­fi­cient artist and is keen on sell­ing his works. A highly-func­tional autis­tic per­son, he is an award-win­ning artist and one of the most ac­tive per­sons at the Awladouna stall. Pro­fi­cient not just in art, he is also good with num­bers and is open to work in a bank. ‘I’m get­ting a lot of train­ing in com­put­ers at Awladouna,’ he says, be­fore of­fer­ing one of his paint­ings to a vis­i­tor.

Next to him, his col­league Yousuf, also an artist, shows off one of his art works – a cute cen­tre­piece made of sea shells. ‘It is hand-painted and will look cool any­where,’ he says, with a smile.

The stall by Senses, the res­i­den­tial and day care cen­tre for spe­cial needs peo­ple, is also agog with ex­cite­ment. Stand­ing be­hind a ta­ble heav­ing un­der the weight of a va­ri­ety of hand-crafted ob­jects the stu­dents, are vy­ing to woo vis­i­tors to check out their hand­i­works. Dr Lina Oweis, ex­ec­u­tive man­ager and a spe­cial­ist of spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion at Senses, says that just like the stu­dents she too is ex­cited to be part of the fair. ‘It’s truly amaz­ing to at­tend the fair and see up close the wood, glass and metal works done by

En­able is not the only cen­tre that had a stall at the FAIR. More than 45 young men and women from SEVEN other spe­cial needs cen­tres across the UAE set up stalls sell­ing prod­ucts that they CRE­ATED

stu­dents. The money raised from the sale of the prod­ucts will be used to buy things for the stu­dents,’ she says.

The fair, the first held by En­able, is a huge step for those with spe­cial needs want­ing to show­case their tal­ents and skills. ‘Although we have 32 peo­ple at En­able with dis­abil­i­ties, ac­tu­ally they are no dif­fer­ent from you or me,’ says Ebrahim Ali Mo­ham­mad Ali, se­nior ther­a­pist at En­able.

‘Any worker here has to above 18 years of age and like any em­ployee, they have proper con­tracts, in­sur­ance, med­i­cal cards, an­nual leave… They have the perks as well as the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. For in­stance, if they are ab­sent, they have to pro­vide an ex­pla­na­tion when they re­join work.’

He cites the ex­am­ple of Mustafa, whose life changed after a few years at En­able.

‘He was 20 years old when he came here six years ago. But after just one year, his at­ti­tude changed com­pletely.’

Us­ing sev­eral be­havioural tech­niques and per­son­alised at­ten­tion, Ebrahim was able to change Mustafa’s be­hav­iour for the bet­ter. ‘He be­came much calmer, is able to look at cus­tomers in the eye… Main­tain­ing eye con­tact is a very im­por­tant mile­stone in the de­vel­op­ment of spe­cial needs peo­ple. He knows to dis­tin­guish be­tween good and bad prod­ucts and he se­ri­ously wants to be­come bet­ter at his job.

‘Salah Essa, too, is now ready to set up a busi­ness on his own. He has been train­ing for three years now and is a pleas­ant and hard-work­ing young man.’

Ebrahim is ex­tremely happy with the way the pro­gramme is mov­ing for­ward. ‘Of the 32 peo­ple who are with us, I’d say 14 of them are ready to work in­de­pen­dently and to take on a proper job based on the skills that they have de­vel­oped here. They can have a proper con­ver­sa­tion with peo­ple, are in full con­trol of all their ac­tions and can com­pre­hend and act on or­ders.’

The fact that En­able’s prod­ucts are now in sev­eral ma­jor cor­po­rate and hos­pi­tal­ity ar­eas, in­clud­ing Jumeirah Eti­had Tow­ers, is proof that the pro­gramme is a suc­cess.

‘We cre­ate more than 200 prod­ucts a day. En­able’s in­door cacti and suc­cu­lent plant ar­range­ments are avail­able at a series of pop-ups at var­i­ous bazaars and mar­ket,’ says Reem. ‘Our prod­ucts are now on per­ma­nent dis­play at Dubai Gar­den Cen­tre. We also have an on­line store, en­’

Op­er­ated on ex­tremely pro­fes­sional lines, 100 per cent of the in­come from En­able is ploughed back into the com­pany for its day-to-day op­er­a­tions. ‘Noth­ing goes to the par­ent com­pany,’ says Reem. ‘Our mis­sion is in­clu­sion; help­ing in­di­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties en­joy a nor­mal life.’

Reem leans back in her chair and looks out at the bustling fair where Saif and sev­eral other peo­ple like him are busy hawk­ing their prod­ucts just like any sales­per­son would at a fair.

‘Saif came as an em­ployee and de­vel­oped with us. He grew with us and we with him. Now he’s mar­ried, with a son and is fund­ing his house­hold.

‘To get to see that... to see him cre­at­ing and man­ag­ing his own house­hold is what truly makes me happy,’ says Rem. ‘His son does not have a dis­abil­ity but he can see his fa­ther work­ing hard ev­ery day de­spite a dis­abil­ity so that he can have a good ed­u­ca­tion. That is one of the many high­lights of En­able. It feels enor­mously ful­fill­ing.’

Saif Saeed, one of the En­able work­ers, mans the stall sell­ing a va­ri­ety of suc­cu­lents at the En­able Fair ear­lier this year. Stu­dents and work­ers from eight spe­cial needs or­gan­i­sa­tions par­tic­i­pated in the fair where ta­ble-top decor, mini foun­tains and art works, among other things, were up for sale

From ce­ramic ware to art works, the fair had some­thing for every­one. The of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­phers too were a cou­ple of spe­cial needs peo­ple

En­able’s gen­eral man­ager Reem Al Ghaith (top left) and ther­a­pist Ibrahim Ali (above) are happy with the way the pro­gramme is go­ing

Salah Essa en­joys mak­ing cacti ar­range­ments

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