x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Start-up on a Moroccan roll with argan oil

Izil, a company selling natural cosmetic products using argan oil, is one of several UAE startups proving that while the natural and organic products market remains niche, it has “significant” growth potential.

Mouna Abbassy with her husband Mohamed Najib Mouline , set up Izil, a Berber word meaning ‘pure’, to sell products using organically certified argan oil inspired by old Moroccan recipes. Pawan Singh / The National
Mouna Abbassy with her husband Mohamed Najib Mouline , set up Izil, a Berber word meaning ‘pure’, to sell products using organically certified argan oil inspired by old Moroccan recipes. Pawan Singh / The National

Growing up she always had some argan oil in the house.

But it was not until Mouna Abbassy was older that she learnt more about this natural product, which some call liquid gold.

And it was even later still that she and her husband decided to make a business out of it.

“It is actually one of the rarest oils in the world,” says Ms Abbassy, who is a Berber, an ethnic group indigenous to north-west Africa which has used argan oil in cooking and cosmetics for centuries.

“It has numerous benefits. It is very rich in antioxidants. It has more vitamin E than olive oil. It is very rich in fatty acids,” she adds.

As a child, Ms Abbassy’s family predominantly used it in cooking.

“I didn’t really know what the potential of this was globally until I worked in Oxfam and I saw big exhibitions … about this oil. A lot of people from Unesco and global organisations have tried to save this tree.”

The oil is extracted from the kernels of the argan tree, a species which grows only in south-western Morocco and a region of Algeria.

The trees live for up to 250 years and have been used by Berber people to treat a host of conditions, including heart and skin problems. But the oil’s healing properties have recently also come to the attention of cosmetics companies in the West.

And it was while Ms Abbassy worked for one of the world’s biggest, L’Oréal, in Dubai back in 2008, that she first considered launching a business using argan oil in cosmetics.

“That’s where I started understanding the beauty market, how it is in the region, what is working and what consumers here need. We found a lack of natural products, especially natural products made of argan oil,” she says.

“A lot of big brands, even L’Oréal, uses argan oil in its products. Only a little amount is used and once you use it with other chemicals you do not necessarily get the benefits of it.”

So Ms Abbassy and her husband, Mohamed Najib Mouline, decided to set up their own company, Izil, a Berber word meaning “pure”, to sell products using organically certified argan oil inspired by old Moroccan recipes.

Mr Mouline left his job at the LVMH Group to get it off the ground, while his wife continued to work until the business could sustain them.

Within eight months of launching last September from a stand in Dubai’s Festival City Mall, the couple had sold 1,400 products worth US$47,000.

They launched a second stand in Madinat Jumeirah last week and are almost halfway towards raising between $200,000 and $250,000 on the crowdfunding website Eureeca to fund an expansion plan to open a further eight shops in the UAE before rolling out across the region.

The market for beauty and personal care across the Middle East and Africa grew 8 per cent year-on-year between 2008 and 2013, when sales hit $24.2 billion, according to Euromonitor. And the market research company says that in the UAE, natural and organic products remain niche but have “significant” growth potential.

Just last week, Al Hikma, a Dubai free zone company that imports, exports, distributes and promotes premium skincare products, predicted that the natural and organic skincare segment of the UAE market would be worth $100 million by 2016.

Epoc Messe Frankfurt, the organiser of last month’s Beautyworld Middle East, the region’s largest trade fair for the industry, has noticed a significant increase in the number of organic companies taking part this year.

“Last year we had 32 companies and this year we have 40. So if you look at the absolute number it might be not so big but the increase is definitely there,” says Michael Dehn, group exhibitions director at Epoc Messe Frankfurt.

He has also noticed a rise in the number of companies that use natural products, like Izil. But what is driving the trend?

“People see the value. To some people it matches their lifestyle overall, their choices of food, their choices of other things in life, so that is actually the complementing part of all of their choices,” says Mr Dehn.

“All the major brands have introduced at least one organic line,” he adds.

Mr Mouline is hoping that one day Izil may become as significant as those brands.

“We are trying to build a brand that will become something as big as L’Oréal and Lancome,” he adds.

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