Anu Agarwal founded Ekotribe, a supplier of innovative green products, in 2009. Challenges abound but the company's success proves that eco-awareness is growing in the UAE.
Dubai's Ekotribe expands, highlighting demand for sustainable products
Anu Agarwal is dreaming of importing small, ready-to-grow plants, but knows she will face red tape getting them into the UAE. She would also like to find a stackable crate system that would work as a home recycling centre. "I think these would be in demand from the villa group," she says.
The challenges continue for Anu, who has made a fast name for herself by importing innovative green products through her company Ekotribe. In just three years she has launched both the business and an online portal, and last month opened her first permanent kiosk on the ground floor of Dubai's Mercato Mall. Ekotribe now offers more than 400 products and delivers all over the UAE, while the website averages 1,000 hits and inquiries per day.
In 2008, the 45-year-old mother of two first started reading up on climate change and other environmental issues. She immediately spotted the opportunities that existed for an eco-minded entrepreneur in a country with one of the world's largest carbon footprints. "I started to realise that even if I wanted to go green, there wasn't anything here for you to do it," she says. "When you go abroad, you find so much in the West."
She started attending trade shows, including one at the end of 2008 called Opportunity Green in California, where she happened to be on holiday. "I was amazed at what I saw there," she says. "There was a whole world out there and in the UAE we had no idea."
The most pressing need, she felt, was to begin to replace the vast amount of plastic water bottles heading to local landfills. Good alternatives were hard to find, and even those that were sold as environmentally friendly were often made of a popular hard plastic that contained Bisphenol A, or BPA, a suspected hormone disruptor.
Over the next six months, to the middle of 2009, she sourced products and started to import those she was satisfied with from various suppliers. Her first selections included notepaper from Ecojot, a Canadian company that makes 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper products, and the USBcell AA Battery from the UK's Moixa Energy, which uses a USB port to recharge.
The water bottle conundrum was solved when she found the Ecousable stainless steel version from the US. She began selling her wares to corporations, who used them as gifts for clients and rewards for staff. "We started getting a lot of enquiries from people saying 'where can I get one of these for myself?'" says Anu. "That's what got me thinking there was individual demand."
Originally from New Delhi, Anu studied computer science in the US, at George Mason University in Virginia, before moving to Dubai 20 years ago. She spent six years working as a systems analyst for General Motors before she and her husband set up a web development firm.
Ekotribe was born in September 2009 and Anu officially launched the online space, TheGreenEcoStore.com, in November of the following year. Her first temporary kiosk opened at the Covent Garden Market at The Walk at JBR that December.
The couple poured Dh1million into acquiring stock in the early days of the business, and so far have hired six staff and two delivery people to meet demand.
Anu has big expansion plans for next year, too, when she hopes to open her own retail store somewhere in the UAE. She is in talks with supermarkets about selling her products and is looking to franchise or open corporate stores in Lebanon, Qatar and Bahrain.
There are also plans to open a space in Abu Dhabi, which is responsible for 40 per cent of the orders to the online store. "I would say the majority of my clients, 65 per cent of them, are western expatriates," says Anu. "The rest are Arab ladies. I think the educated Arab lady is really picking up on this." Anu loves to watch the reaction to the products from Arab families who come by the JBR branch. "I did not expect them to have so much interest," she says.
Anu has integrated her products into her own life and encourages her family to do the same. Her husband uses Earth Golf Balls, a recycled variety marketed as the world's first eco-friendly golf ball (Dixon, Dh175), while she uses a shower timer, available in water droplet or bird shape, (Ripple, Dh50).
Her teenage son, one of two children, is taking a little more work. "My son is a typical UAE product, so I struggle with him," she says. "Just the long showers."
Environmental awareness is still spreading in the UAE, but Anu is convinced that with the right education, perseverance and having more reusable, sustainable alternatives available, people will eventually change their ways. She cites the initial reaction at her local coffee shop to her Keep Cup, a cute reusable Barista-size hot liquid container that has become the company's top seller, as an example.
"I would get a weird look the first few times, but then the guy, he just figured it out," she says. "I think we're in that phase now; it's a phase where everything is being used for the first time."
The important thing to remember, says Anu, is that it does not take big, expensive changes to have a greener lifestyle. "All the products are very easy to integrate into your life and you don't have to compromise on quality," she says.