Women set up shop on the sweet side of local business

Two female entrepreneurs who have opened confectionery businesses share their stories at the Made in Sharjah exhibition.

Aisha al Muhairi, a businesswoman who runs Litchi Chocolate, oversees the production of sweets with the chef Beladj Nasser at their chocolate factory in Sharjah.
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SHARJAH // After years of working in the private sector, Aisha al Muhairi decided to quit her job to pursue her dream of a career in fashion.

Working out of a room in her home in Sharjah, she started building her business in 2001 by designing wedding dresses and evening gowns while raising her family. Before long, she had opened her own boutique.

Now, nine years after her decision to leave the stability of a job with Etisalat, Mrs al Muhairi, an Emirati mother of six, has just launched her second business.

The Litchi Chocolate company, which opened over Ramadan, was among the dozens of businesses taking part in the Made in Sharjah exhibition last week.

Mrs al Muhairi was also one of the female entrepreneurs whom the Sharjah Businesswomen Council placed under the spotlight during the event, which ended on Thursday.

Around 10,500 commercial licences have been taken out by women in the UAE, according to Ameera Binkaram, who chairs the council's executive committee.

In Sharjah alone, 2,500 commercial licences have been issued in women's names.

But while there are hundreds of female entrepreneurs in the business community, Ms Binkaram said many are failing to market themselves properly.

The council is now actively encouraging women at the helm of their own companies to "share their stories".

"Women have to understand that they have to get out there and be very hands-on with what is happening," Ms Binkaram said. "We have noticed that women have the creativity and the capacity, but they need ongoing support and encouragement in business."

Mrs al Muhairi, 39, said her family - and, in particular, her husband, Mohammed al Suwaidi, who co-manages her chocolate business - have been a constant source of encouragement.

"He has been supporting me since I started in 2001 at home," she said.

Today, Mrs al Muhairi splits her time between her fashion business and overseeing the production of confectionery at her chocolate factory in Sharjah.

The Litchi company logo is the only thing that gives away what lies beyond the doors of the nondescript building on a dusty street just off Emirates Road.

Inside are three rooms dedicated to confectionery, where trays of delicate and colourful treats are laid out on steel benches.

The first room, kept at a chilly temperature, is where the chocolates are made. Beyond is the place where Mrs al Muhairi's team create hand-crafted marzipan sweets, and the third room is where biscuits are baked.

A diabetic, Mrs al Muhairi has also developed products for those who share her condition.

Despite only launching the company a couple of months ago, Mrs al Muhairi is currently in the process of opening her first dedicated Litchi Chocolate outlet.

"One of the most famous things about Emiratis is our hospitality," she said. "It is very good for people to have something to give their visitors."

This is a concept also at the heart of Aisha al Rasasi's business. The chief executive of ChocoArt, another of the exhibitors at Made in Sharjah, decided to launch her own business two years ago when the youngest of her five children started high school.

Unlike many other female entrepreneurs in the Emirates, Mrs al Rasasi, 42, said she did not want to get into the fashion or perfume industry, but was drawn to confectionery by her love of chocolate.

"It really takes time to convince people about locals," she said.

"Many people trust foreign things, not things that are locally produced. It has taken me more than two years to get people to choose my chocolate, but now they trust it."

Both Mrs al Rasasi and Mrs al Muhairi have taken traditional European chocolate-making techniques and adapted them to cater to an Arab palate by introducing local flavours and ingredients.

As they continue to develop their own businesses, Mrs al Rasasi and other female entrepreneurs are proving to be something of an inspiration for businesswomen of the future. One of Mrs al Muhairi's daughters is thinking of following her mother into the fashion industry.

"I want my daughters to be businesswomen, too," Mrs al Muhairi said.