MAKING A DIFFERENCE
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, enable.ae.’
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