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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Dubai's green-fingered work development programme for those with special needs 

Enable Home and Garden Social Enterprise aims to equip its students with entrepreneurial and life skills

Arrangements made from succulents and cacti, as part of the Enable programme. Courtesy Melanie Hunt
Arrangements made from succulents and cacti, as part of the Enable programme. Courtesy Melanie Hunt

Take a corporate social responsibility programme and add a few green fingers – and you might just find yourself developing the skills, confidence and expectations of a group of young people whose potential may otherwise go untapped.

Enable Home and Garden Social Enterprise is an initiative led by the Dubai-based Desert Group. It empowers people with special needs and cognitive learning challenges, by providing them with a work-based development programme. The aim is to equip students with entrepreneurial and life skills – in this instance, the ability to assemble and sell creative indoor plant arrangements featuring succulents and cacti.

The annual Enable Fair 2018 at the Dubai Garden Centre, which took place last weekend, is a celebration of all that this type of social enterprise model can achieve. It highlights the work of Enable’s “students”, but also that of partners from other special needs community centres and organisations, which have adopted Enable’s principles and are producing hand-painted goods, artwork, food items, jewellery and homeware.

Abdulah Mubarak, an Enable students, creates an arrangement. Courtesy Desert Group
Abdulah Mubarak, an Enable students, creates an arrangement. Courtesy Desert Group

“I’m a rich man now,” confides Saif Saeed Al Theeb, a graduate of the Enable programme and one of its top salespeople. Engaging with potential clients and speaking to members of the press? No problem. This tall and smiling young man is a regular spokesperson for the organisation, and speaks English, Arabic and Urdu. “I am a salesman. I sell succulents and cactus. I have a store in Carrefour in Festival City.” Al Theeb clearly enjoys his work and says it makes him feel “very good”.

Reem Saeed Al Ghaith, general manager of Enable, explains more about the programme. “It’s the boys doing the whole thing; they attend work every day. We know the capabilities of each and they are placed where they will perform… we are acting, in a way, like an incubator, and ultimately, the aim is for those involved to be able to start their own small and medium-sized enterprise.

“All the employees have a code number, which is used to identify their succulent arrangements and allocate their payments following sales. Every month they are given cash payments, and they get to compare between their peers,” Al Gaith explains.

A capital outlay for some plants and working materials is all that’s required for graduates of the programme to get started in their own business of creating plant-based arrangements. They can then sell their creations, either online, or at markets and pop-up events around the city.

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Parents and families also play a role in supporting their efforts, perhaps by helping to create an Instagram profile or managing enquiries. By engaging with the social enterprise model, the CSR programme becomes sustainable in the long term. It reflects the adage that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

“Enable is a social initiative that creates awareness, and we are advocates as well. It’s an opportunity to connect where there may be a lack of information, and then we can start to see something happening. We are trying to enhance people’s lives; it is not a cliché. We keep saying it’s not that hard to create these kinds of CSR initiatives, it’s just a question of knowing what can be done,” Al Ghaith tells me.

A round table discussion with corporate partners at the event aimed to do just that, and Carrefour representatives were at the fair scouting for products. The National Bank of Fujairah is involved in the funding of a truck, The Enable Mobile Store, where products are sold at pop-ups, markets and other events around the UAE.

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Michael Mascarenhas, chief executive of the Desert Group, is clearly passionate about what Enable has achieved. “What germinated as a small idea in 2015 has now evolved into a social enterprise. Team members, in turn, get a career progression path, which can take them from a routine job, and then into [public-facing] roles in sales. It’s a whole new process as to how our human capital is being managed.”

A new initiative for this year is further expanding the programme to include a new unit for women and girls with Down syndrome. “We all have unique capabilities and we have all, at one time, been nurtured – by our parents, grandparents and teachers – to help us discover who we are. We should be doing the same with other people around us. When we discover talent, we nurture it. And it requires effort. Training is critical,” Mascarenhas concludes.