Dubai-Based Evakind Is Championing Sustainability On Its E-Commerce Marketplace With her enterprise, Evakind, an e-commerce platform for eco-friendly products, Sladjana Franovic is on a mission to champion small, independent local and international brands that truly hold ethical and environment-friendly values.
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A study conducted by Mastercard earlier this year found that four in five (83%) adults in the UAE have been even more mindful of their impact on the environment since the COVID-19 crisis, while a 2021 BCG study found that 80% of the surveyed GCC residents would be willing to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Keeping these stats in mind, it might seem that, in the UAE, consumers and companies alike can make environmentally friendly choices easily. Yet, for entrepreneur Sladjana Franovic, finding sustainable, plastic-free, high quality, and affordable products in this market was once a challenge for her.
"It was also difficult to understand why a product is eco-friendly, especially if it doesn't have an eco-label," Franovic says. "There are many products out there, some even very popular, with labels covered in flowers and trees, but without really offering any evidence that they are indeed natural. Sustainable products proved to be easier to sell, so unjustified claims of being eco and green have unfortunately become very common." While annoyed with such "greenwashing" practices, she soon also found that the brands that are not misleading their consumers about meeting high environmental standards often neither have large marketing budgets nor options to export to regions such as the GCC.
And that's what led Franovic to launch her enterprise, Evakind. "In Europe, which is a more developed market for sustainable shopping, consumers have the opportunity to choose from thousands of independent innovative and eco-friendly brands, which is not the case in this region," she says. "I am on a mission to change this." Evakind is an online shopping platform that offers a range of eco-friendly homeware, cleaning, personal care, and beauty products, while championing small, independent local and international brands that have sustainable and ethical values. It is partially owned by Casinetto, a UAE-based food distribution company that was founded by her husband in 2010, whose warehouses and strong supply chains enable Evakind to import and store products from all around the world.
"When I started building Evakind, I wasn't able to find many online shops dedicated exclusively to selling sustainable products in this market, and although today there are a few, most of them are positioned as marketplaces, reselling products that are already available in the market," Franovic explains.
"This is what makes Evakind different- we are an online platform partially owned by a well-established distribution company, and hence with the capacity to import products we wish to bring to the market. However, we will also be operating as a marketplace, because we want to make sure that we support local brands as well."
Franovic moved to the UAE in 2014 after taking a job at a government entity -a career decision that she "has never regretted"- and before that, she had spent a decade in the UK, working in the business events sector. Her commitment to sustainability is thanks to her Montenegrin origins, with the country known to be the world's first declared ecological state. "I've always been inspired by nature," she says. "Born and raised in Montenegro, a place of outstanding natural beauty, I spent summers swimming along the coast of Adriatic, winters skiing, springs rafting, and hiking. Also, coming from a family of sailors, I developed the special connection to the ocean, which followed me throughout my life. So, when I hear stories about all the bad things that we as a society are doing to our planet -the overconsumption, excessive use of plastic, destroyed forests and jungles- it feels almost personal to me."
But it was becoming a mother in 2020 that finally pushed Franovic to turn her preference for making environment-friendly lifestyle choices into a business. "I want to make international, high-quality, eco-friendly products more accessible and affordable for everyone in this market," she says. "We at Evakind prioritize products that have European Union eco labels, and that are not packaged in plastic, in order to enable the customer to make an informed purchase. My ethos is that when consumers embrace conscious shopping and sustainable lifestyles, we will also have more businesses and governments embracing the green economy. In this way, we are all becoming part of the solution."
When it comes to turning a business idea into reality, Franovic explains that, at first, starting up an e-commerce platform seemed easy. "I partnered with Casinetto, laid out the business plan, got it approved, sourced web developers, selected the brands that I wanted to import, and so, I thought that everything else would follow smoothly, but I was incredibly wrong," she says. "The store launch was delayed for six months due to the agonizing technological difficulties, which included everything from integrating different operating and data management systems and maintaining website speeds, to making sure that the interface looks the same across all devices and basic store maintenance- everything proved to be extremely challenging."
In addition to learning that having a solid information technology (IT) support system from the outset was of a crucial importance, another lesson Franovic soon gained was that the success of an e-commerce platform depends on proper alignment between various stakeholders. "These different teams, be it customer service, warehouse, shipping, or delivery staff, can use different IT systems, and it can take only one little thing to go wrong for a disaster to happen," she says. "Streamlining these teams and processes is not the easiest thing to do. I quickly realized that the ability to handle these ongoing tech and operational bottlenecks determines long-term e-commerce success."
As for starting up her business in Dubai, Franovic says that the Emirate's encouraging startup ecosystem as well as its many entrepreneurship-support initiatives was a key reason for doing so- in fact, she says, "Most people I know in Dubai have either started or want to start their own business." Having said that, Franovic advises everyone to do their own homework before taking the leap into entrepreneurship. "The UAE has been my home for six years, and I think I am quite familiar with the working culture here, so my advice to everyone new to Dubai is do your research," she says. "You need to understand the market, the regulations, and your future customers. The public sector support is highly accessible here, but you must know the rules. Additionally, Dubai is a high-tech place- technology and innovation are the backbone of almost every business here, so before you start, you should consider how well-versed in tech you are, and if you are not, get yourself a co-founder."
Newcomers to Dubai, she continues, should also keep in mind that the city is a highly serviced market, where a customer service strategy, irrespective of whether they are in the B2B or B2C sector, will make or break their business. And for those already in the UAE with a business idea that makes commercial sense to them and will also give them a sense of purpose, Franovic advises them to just go for it. "I read somewhere recently that a minimum viable product is not actually a product, but a process, and I totally support this philosophy," she says.
As for the future of Evakind, Franovic plans to introduce more brands to the online platform, while also expanding into new categories, and possibly start delivering to Saudi Arabia. "At the moment, our offering is focused on homeware, cleaning, personal care and beauty products, but I am looking to launch sustainable fashion and jewelry categories, as well as to start importing from Japan and Korea," she says. "I am taking one step at a time- I have just started, and I want to focus on listening to the market needs." And that is what is going to govern the future of Evakind- as Franovic put it: "I am sure that I will have to go back to the drawing table over and over again!"
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'TREP TALK: Evakind founder Sladjana Franovic's tips for entrepreneurs
1. Don't be afraid to starttake the risk, and believe in yourself. "It might sound like a cliché, but Dubai is a great place for women who wish to jump on the entrepreneurial bandwagon. Firstly, there are many organizations, events, even investment funds ready to support female entrepreneurs in the UAE. But also, there are many women-led startups, freelancers, business owners, and corporate leaders who will be happy to help you and even work with you. Studies show that women who support women are more successful in life and business. I am a big believer in that."
2. Stop waiting for perfection. "You are never going to be fully ready to launch! This is a piece of advice I decided to ignore, and I was wrong. The truth is, if you are postponing your business launch because you don't feel ready, you are losing money and time. There will always be something to change- it's a part of the game."
3. Plan your financesyou won't be paid for some time. "Having a robust budget and financial plan is extremely important. The best is to set short-, medium-, and long-term objectives. Consider that you might not succeed, it happens and it's not the end of the world, but always keep a positive outlook and your end goal in mind."
4. Ask for help- it's not a sign of weakness. "'Fake it until you make it' is not the right approach. Asking for help can help you grow your network, build brand awareness, and ultimately lead to business growth. The notion that in business you can do everything on your own is completely wrong."
5. Take care of yourself. "Juggling between pregnancy, motherhood, new business, life far from family, the COVID-19 outbreak, and life post the pandemic has indeed put a lot of pressure on me, but I also believe that my startup will never be successful if I destroy myself in the process. Don't sacrifice your well-being for the sake of your entrepreneurial goals, and stop believing in the stories that only two hours of sleep a day, skipping meals, and sacrificing your family and personal time is the only way to grow your business."