Multiple crises have hit Lebanese businesses hard over the past two years, pushing business owners, startup founders and general managers into devising strategies that could help keep their businesses afloat.
Recognizing that these crises have exacerbated the existing economic gender gaps in Lebanon and hit female startups and SMEs disproportionately, the Government of Lebanon and the World Bank Group have therefore launched under the World Bank Group’s Mashreq Gender Facility (MGF) a series of activities that address constraints to improve women’s access to economic opportunities in Lebanon. These activities include the MGF’s Crisis Management for Women-Led Businesses Program conducted over the course of 2020 and 2021.
To deliver this program, the World Bank Group has partnered with Berytech and the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB) to provide capacity building in times of crisis for women who want to grow their businesses and enhance their business model, marketing, financing, and networking opportunities, as well as learn how to be resilient in the face of crisis. In doing so, the program aimed to support these women in addressing the most critical challenges they face as women in navigating this space.
Berytech and LLWB have been providing customized trainings in addition to mentorship sessions to participating trainers and women-led businesses. So far, over 150 women have benefitted from the World Bank Group’s Crisis Management for Women-Led Businesses Program. Learn more about the program here.
Because these female startups and SMEs are facing limited access to funds and resources, many of them have revisited their offering, processes and delivery methods to ensure their survival. We reached out to seven women business owners and business managers in different industries who participated in the World Bank Group’s Crisis Management for Women-Led Businesses Program and asked them to share the multiple strategic decisions and actions they took to address the consecutive challenges in their fields, in the hopes that their answers provide insights and ideas to other struggling businesses.
Meet the seven women who took the time to answer our questions.
Suha Maamari Haydamous – Founder of House of Marmalade, brand of artisanal delicacies handmade with organic, wholesome ingredients.
Rafka El Achkar – Founder of Everythink, a variety store for gifts, gadgets, toys, and stationery items.
Rima Nazer – Co-Founder and Managing Director of Jardins D’EDEN, a family business run by three sisters in Tripoli who make 100% natural luxury hand made soap and body products based on Aromatherapy.
Nathalie Nasr – Co-Founder of FoodSight, an online platform that helps food businesses overcome their food safety challenges by connecting them to freelance professionals in order to tackle their most pressing challenges in terms of food safety, quality and export-readiness.
Joelle Hajjar – Co-Founder and Production Manager of GO Baladi, a new innovative dairy brand using 100% natural and organic dairy.
Roula Haydar – General Manager of L’artisan du Liban, a non-profit organization that works for the social and economic development of local Lebanese artisans by providing sustainable solutions that helps support artistry and preserves the cultural traditions of craft.
Carla Abboud – Managing Partner of Ariane Travel, a travel agency specialized in ticketing, hotel booking, tour organization, car rental, and congress organization.
What are the main strategic decisions that you took for your startup/SME recently?
Suha: Although we have been operating for several years so far, the most recent strategic step we took as a firm was to complete the required assessments on industrial certification including the confirmation on business locality and health measures. This also translated into receiving the certificate of origin for our product, which is an essential requirement allowing us to start exporting our product primarily to the UAE but also now in preparation to the US and the EU.
Rafka: We managed to remodel our business from a retail store into a design and manufacturing concept. Currently, our products are designed and manufactured in Lebanon. We have also managed to diversify our channels and to reach international markets such as KSA and UAE.
Rima: We are looking into focusing more on e-commerce and digital marketing while becoming more engaged with different communities by creating a blog and writing articles, to raise better awareness into why people need to take good care of their mental and physical well-being, as well as their lifestyle. We are focusing on working with local growers as importing our ingredients is becoming very hard while we keep pushing for the empowerment of women especially in rural areas, to help them lead a better life with their families.
Nathalie: The main strategic decisions that we took recently within Foodsight, in response to the chaotic situation, were mostly on the organizational level. To better serve our clients that are facing a decrease in their purchasing power and change in their behavior (new needs and preferences), we adopted a price management strategy to offer more competitive prices and implementation of new services in response to the opportunity in the market. In addition to that, we reduced our costs by adopting cost-cutting techniques and cash flow management. We also applied for funding programs to get funds so we can cover our expenses and increase our revenues.
Joelle: With the pandemic and economic crisis, Go Baladi decided to cut down expenses related to marketing and R&D. The focus was to deliver a product at a reasonable price for Lebanese consumers. We worked on optimizing operations by implementing lean practices in the manufacturing process.
Roula: L’Artisan Du Liban worked to lower its overhead costs and the fixed costs, without affecting its image and accessibility. We focused on meeting the market demand through developing new lines of affordable products with available raw material without lowering the quality and while increasing our sales through diversifying our markets through pushing business to business and online sales. We also decided to seize the opportunity of increased support to SMEs and social enterprises by reaching out to our network and partners for funding and support possibilities. Meanwhile, we installed new processes and measures to manage our financial resources, in light of the monetary volatility and the lack of effective bank transactions while defining our priorities to manage our cash flow.
Carla: This crisis is a change in how we think, interact, travel, and more. Not only is it affecting us now, but it will change the course of how we operate in the future. Therefore, our main concern during 2020 was pivoting our business to adapt to the new travel industry world, with minimum losses on both the company and the team. We managed to create a work from home plan that can easily be followed by the team, without causing any disadvantage to our clients. We also reduced all unnecessary expenses, cut off the gifts and treats we usually offered to our clients. We put a new scale for tickets and hotel pricing, added the profit margin and reduced the discounts. We stopped the bonuses for our team but kept paying salaries to all our staff. We worked on our cash flow, reduced our receivables/payables, and implemented more restricted credit facility plans for our clients. We made deals with new suppliers outside Lebanon, and thus we have access to more competitive rates for airline tickets and hotel bookings. Finally, we opened bank accounts outside Lebanon to have easier access to fresh USD when needed.
How are you managing your team?
Suha: My team is very micro; we are two full-time equivalent workers, but we outsource multiple logistics processes. For instance, delivery requests are taking the biggest size of outsourcing at the moment. Internally we have managed to maintain the working hours and processing of the different products. Since our products consist of varied seasonal fruits, our schedules were maintained on that front. We originally had plans to expand the team, but as per recent events in the country, the most logical choice was to maintain the status quo until we gain a clearer vision on the upcoming phase.
Rafka: We are co-visualizing the end product in mind, and then we are setting smart goals to reach this vision. We are also counting on the intrapreneurship spirit by enabling the team to develop their solutions to the crisis.
Rima: We are recognizing their patience and tolerance to the fast-changing times, showing a lot of appreciation and trying to support them individually whenever possible and needed. We are involving our employees in most of our decision-making processes during these times of stress and uncertainty, which means including them in discussions of where the business is going.
Nathalie: In times of crisis, we chose to focus on two main things when managing our team: individual well-being and safety. To create a less stressful work environment, all team members were working from home and communicating daily using online management tools such as Slack that enabled us as founders to monitor the productivity level and track task completion. The team is evaluated based on the deadline and deliverable, the defined role, deadline, and tasks to accomplish. We worked on communicating all the problems and challenges we faced that cause delays and worked on solving the issue with the person while imposing a particular solution. We make sure to respect work-life balance hours for communication and conduct weekly assessment meetings.
Joelle: At Go Baladi, we alternated the shifts to keep social distancing, and we increased our training on COVID-19 practices to raise awareness on how to prevent the spread of the virus and to promote handwashing among employees.
Roula: Nurturing the motivation, the solidarity and the sense of belonging of our team are key points to keep this social enterprise going. This also extends to artisans and suppliers. The ability to relate all small activities and measures to a long-term goal can help while giving hope based on small successes and celebrating them is needed. Keeping the communication during the confinement, even if it’s just through social calls proved efficient.
Carla: We always stay transparent with our staff. Communication is the number one rule in our team. We make sure our team can work during chaotic situations and be alert to adapt to changes as the situation evolves. We look after them, provide a calm and supportive environment and always inspire them with a sense of hope. We keep reminding them why we are here.
How are you mitigating your risks and ensuring continuation?
Suha: The multiple crises have impacted our business and imposed a great continuity risk. It is important to note that surely the first few months of the economic crises and the fluctuations in the exchange rates have imposed on us pricing confusions and a discontinuity in some of our intermediary goods that we counted on as part of our production. Moreover, as our range of products consists of short shelf-life items and longer shelf-life items, we have focused more on the latter, thus rebalancing our products to better suit the demand. Lastly, being able to produce more of the longer shelf-life products supported our ability to expand our market outreach from the Lebanese local market into the UAE and the US as well, in hopes of keeping this trend and diversifying our market particularly to mitigate the risks imposed on our business.
Rafka: We’re not investing in tools or machinery. We’re building partnerships with the different stakeholders in the sector and we’re securing our demand before venturing into new products. We’re exploring all our resources, skills and capabilities internally to make sure that we’re coming up with the funniest, smartest and most creative stock keeping units (SKUs) for the Lebanese and GCC markets.
Rima: Due to the current situation, each member of the team is aware that there are many risks in every decision we make, and we accept that. To reduce that risk, we keep trying to reduce the impact of any decision we make by keeping it real and considering all sorts of major changes, such as launching a new product only when we know there’s a demand for it in the market or buying a new machine only if we are sure it falls within our strategy for growth in these hard economic times. This means, when we are stepping into a new venture, we identify the scope of the plan, identify key business areas, critical functions and determine acceptable downtime for each step. We create a plan to maintain operations and make sure that eventually, our venture will conclude a contract.
Nathalie: To ensure the continuation and mitigate the risks, we developed a contingency plan for our business to implement an effective risk management process. The process includes listing our top priority activities, assigning relative resources for them (people, tools, budget), assessing the capacity of the resources along with the activity to cover, while focusing on the progress of the activities. This process allowed us to identify the potential risks that could arise during performing or implementing each activity, assess the risks, plan for newly identified risks, and report the risks every week through continuous follow-ups and planning sessions with all the team. This process enabled us to identify potential risks to prevent or get ready to face its consequence on our business operation.
Joelle: With the fluctuation of the dollar exchange rate, we decided to reduce our payment terms and focus on managing the cash flow. In these circumstances, ensuring that we have a robust framework for managing supply chain risk is a must. Also, we are focusing on reducing our variable costs as a quicker way to immediately reduce our cash outflows.
Roula: Numerous crises are facing us as a business in a non-commodity sector, leading to different responses. Yet, cohesive and comprehensive ones are needed to sustain the business. The economic, health, safety, and security crisis may need different measures, and sometimes contradictory ones; the lack of revenues must not suppress us from paying salaries or stopping the production and cutting the revenue generation from hundreds of artisans. The need to open the shops and continue the production process must not threaten the health of the team, etc. We must make it work, though. So, we have to find different sources of income, through grants, shareholders contribution, and any other kind of financial support, protect our team and artisans from COVID-19, still be able to be productive through confinement, and find new markets.
Carla: Now it’s time to be agile and innovate. We are working on a new concept for incoming tourism. We are developing a new website providing online booking for airlines and hotels – and promoting our new products for local tourism. We are working on our digital marketing plan for 2021. We keep continuous contact with our customers – always reminding them about our services and new products. We’re getting prepared, when the crisis is over, people will crave to travel – we’re doing our best to be ready.
The best way to wrap this interview is with a quote from the founders of FoodSight addressing all Lebanese women entrepreneurs, “if you were able to establish a successful business or maintain the survival of your business in Lebanon facing the pandemic and the economic crisis then, congratulations! You will definitely succeed anywhere else in the world, as your business model is validated in the most challenging business environment and uncertain circumstances.”