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You’ve come a long way, Baby – female-led startups land in Gulf

Spice Girl Emma Bunton co-founded mother and baby brand Kit & Kin
Spice Girl Emma Bunton co-founded mother and baby brand Kit & Kin
  • Emma Bunton, aka Baby Spice, has brought her UK startup to UAE
  • Number of women launching their own businesses has risen sharply
  • One CEO points to ‘increased openness to female entrepreneurs’

Women in the UK are launching their own businesses at a record rate. In 2018, 56,200 female-led startups were established in Britain. Three years later, the number had soared to 145,200, according to the 2022 Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship.

One of the key beneficiaries of this rapid growth is the Gulf, as UK businesses of all types and sizes seek out new markets in the wake of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Total UK-GCC trade was worth more than £33 billion ($40 billion) in the 12 months to March 2022. The British Department for International Trade estimates that, even without the UK-GCC free trade agreement now under discussion, trade between the two will increase by $10.5 billion by 2035.

In the UAE, research published this month by Dubai-based consultancy Business Link has tracked the rise in female entrepreneurship since the pandemic.

“We have observed more women, both local and foreigners coming forward to establish their own business setup in Dubai,” said Hatem El Safty, CEO of Business Link.

One such company is Kit & Kin, an eco-friendly mother-and-baby British brand co-founded by Emma Bunton – aka Baby Spice – which will have its products distributed in the UAE by The Little Birdy Group.

Kit & Kin’s eco nappies, wipes, dermatologically approved skincare and clothing will be available in stores and online at retailers including Spinneys, Waitrose, Noon, Amazon, First Cry, Mumzworld and Yalla Baby.

In the new year, Kit & Kin will launch in the other five GCC nations as well as offering its subscription service, whereby parents can choose scheduled deliveries every three to six weeks.

Cellreturn, a female-led company that sells health and beauty devices based on Korean LED and near-infrared technology, launched in Dubai in March.

Amanda Powell, CEO of Cellreturn UK & UAE, said: “I was in Dubai in October 2021 and saw the opportunity and market size and decided that this will be a great market for us, after having success in the UK and selling over 1,000 units during the pandemic in the UK alone.

“The Middle East is a new untapped market in my opinion when it comes to LED technology. Ladies here especially spend on quality products for their personal beauty on their face and skin.”

The company has been exporting about 100 units a month on average, but it has received orders for 500 units this month.

The UAE is Cellreturn’s biggest overseas market, but it also exports to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and plans to expand to Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan in the next few months.

“Saudi Arabia is our next focus because of its expanding tourism market and the way the kingdom has opened up in the last few years,” said Powell.

Amanda Powell of Cellreturn
Amanda Powell of Cellreturn says Saudi Arabia will be her next focus

The Middle East beauty market stood at $33.32 billion in 2020 and is estimated to reach around $40 billion by 2026, according to Statista.

Another female-run UK company that has tapped into the Gulf market is Creative Nature Superfoods, which makes snack bars, baking mixes and other vegan-friendly, nut-free products. Its snacks are sold in the UK, Australia and the US, as well as the Gulf.

“We saw that there was an opportunity in the Gulf where premium British manufactured products were sought after,” said Julianne Ponan, owner and CEO of Creative Nature. “The trend towards healthier products within the Gulf also made the decision to do business there more attractive.” 

Creative Nature currently exports to Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It has also secured a contract to supply Carrefour, the largest supermarket chain in the Middle East, as well as having its products sold in Grandiose, Lulus, Spinneys and Waitrose supermarkets in the region.

The company is also targeting the other GCC states. “We have an agreement in place now with a distributor for the Middle East who is able to facilitate exporting to markets such as Kuwait and Bahrain,” said Ponan. 

“There is a high level of openness in Kuwait to global trade while British-manufactured brands that are unique are sought after by consumers. 

“There are several high-end shopping malls in Kuwait and the high-spending population enables this to be a great market with consumers hungry for innovative products.

“Kuwait is also looking to increase its imports of food and drink products.” 

Another advantage, according to Ponan, is that the barriers to entry in the Gulf are not as high as other regions, making it easier for a challenger brand to gain traction. She also pointed to growing acceptance of women-led companies.

“The increased openness to female entrepreneurs doing business in the Gulf over the last couple of years has been fantastic to see,” she said. 

This is supported by the UAE’s British Business Group, which has recorded a rapid rise in female business owners as a proportion of its membership, from 27 percent in May to 30 percent in September.

There are “many potential reasons,” according to Katy Holmes, general manager of the group.  “We have collaborated with all female business groups like Female Fusion; we have hosted events with topics that have naturally attracted more female delegates.

“We also ran a campaign in the summer for referrals and found that more women referred their contacts to the BBG than men.” 

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