Elena Kinane is The founder of Greenheart Organic Farms, a barren plot of desert landscape she transformed into thriving farmland. One of the pioneers of the organic food movement in the UAE and a staunch activist for ethical business, the German moved to the Emirates 24 years ago after accepting a job as cabin crew to pay off her student loans. In 2012, Ms Kinane, 43, launched Greenheart, one of the country’s first organic farms, which she now juggles alongside raising her two children, a daughter, 10, and son, eight.
How did your upbringing shape your attitude towards money?
We probably had more money than most but my mother was more frugal than anyone I knew. On the one hand we went to nice restaurants, and on the other, I had to wear hand-me-downs because my mum thought it was a waste to spend money on kids when they are still growing. I was an only child and the clothes would come from anyone and everyone; from friends and family. I don’t think I had something new until I was around 10.
How much did you get paid for your first job?
My first job was delivering leaflets so it was very little pay, maybe Dh10 to Dh12 per hour. I was 11 or 12 and I did it because I wanted to buy myself new clothes; a pair of jeans.
Are you a spender or a saver?
Both. I save a lot but when I like something and think I will have it for a long time, I buy it. I would rather buy good quality. What I do spend on is my kids. If they need a pair of trainers, I will get good ones that last them. My philosophy is to buy less, but good quality.
What else do you spend on for your children?
The kids don’t ask for anything, but we spend roughly Dh4,000 a month each on their activities. They both do music lessons, swimming, football and taekwondo; my son does athletics and rugby and my daughter does Irish dance. They don’t have much time to want anything. We’ve never bought them things like Wii so they’ve both always loved board games and arts and crafts. We read together and they love to ride their bikes, so it’s an old fashioned way to spend our time. Where we save is by eating at home; we don’t really eat out, we don’t buy fancy cars or do brunches, and we just generally don’t buy much.
What financial advice do you give your children?
They both have bank accounts and all their pocket money and gifts go straight into that. Its a one-way street; we’ve told them it doesn’t come out until they go to college or university, to buy a car, or save to buy a house. They’ve saved an awful lot already and get a kick out of seeing it grow. The toys I could’ve bought with that would have been and gone. I don’t want my kids to be in the situation I was in with a student loan. So many people leave university and spend their 20s or longer in debt.
What is your most cherished purchase?
We bought a farm in the south of France. I like to invest in things I can see and visualise, rather than bonds and shares. When you invest in shares or something similar, you really have to read a lot to understand it all fully and if you don’t have time, it’s just a big risk. You will lose more than you win. We have properties and rent them out instead. It’s solid and it’s honest.
What is the French property for?
We are going to turn it into a farm in France. It has 1.5 acres of land and terracing that is hundreds of years old. We want to plant food on it. The south of France is one of the best areas to grow a wide variety over a long period. The farm is a step by step thing though, a long term project, as it needs a lot of work. It was a love purchase. It’s old fashioned, based around a community, markets, they celebrate the traditional holidays; right now we even have wild boar and deer roaming in our garden. I felt really at home there.
What is your biggest financial milestone?
This has to be making Greenheart profitable without compromising on our ethics. People always said we would have to compromise something but we never had to. In the start we could only open the shop two days a week. as we just didn’t have enough produce so renting a shop and only selling for two days, wasn’t easy. It wasn’t an overnight process. Over time we’ve extended the farm and it’s been really gradual.
Have you ever had a month where you could not pay the bills?
I actually can’t remember how many. We were on the bread line quite a few times but we’ve always paid our staff; we made sacrifices elsewhere. In the early couple of years of Greenheart, it was tough. We had so many things to pay at the farm, and of course, we made mistakes. There was no ‘how to’ manual, especially in what we were doing here.
What has been your best investment?
Buying property in the UAE has served us really well. We bought and sold five or six properties here and we made a good bit of money on them; maybe not as much as other people and we could’ve done better if we’d been cleverer. However, we chose the right locations and the timing was right. We lost before the crash too, so it wasn’t all positive but overall we came out better for it. We learnt from it. Many people panicked in 2009 but we didn’t because we knew it was going to pass.
Do you have any financial regrets?
Yes, not getting the right contractual paperwork drawn up in my first business. I was too naive and had to learn that everything must be in writing. I’m now more vigilant and ask more questions, and look for signs.
What luxuries are important to you?
Good food is really the only luxury we have; I’m my own best customer. When we travel we go to places with good food.
How much do you have in your wallet right now?
Dh400 - I always pay for everything with cash. When I have a card I spend more money.
What car do you drive?
I have an old Ford Explorer that I lovingly call the Rust Bucket. It’s not rusty but it’s a real farm vehicle; I’ve transported all sorts of agricultural things in it, even manure. It really does smell like a farm vehicle.