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Maya La Chocolaterie Founder And CEO Sonya Janahi On Building A Bahraini Brand That's Going Global If you've ever dreamt of owning your own chocolate factory, this entrepreneur is sure to spark some envy in you.

By Pamella de Leon

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You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Maya La Chocolaterie
Sonya Mohamed Abdulla Janahi, founder and CEO, Maya La Chocolaterie

If you've ever dreamt of owning your own chocolate factory, this entrepreneur is sure to spark some envy in you. Sonya Mohamed Abdulla Janahi, whose background stems from over 20 years in Bahrain's banking sector, is the founder and CEO of Bahrain's premium artisan chocolate brand, Maya La Chocolaterie. Launched in July 2007, Janahi took advantage of untapped opportunities in the Kingdom to create a niche F&B concept around an ingredient she's particularly passionate about: chocolate.

The aficionado, who pursued a Professional Chocolatier Certification from Ecole Chocolate, debuted with a focus on healthy, preservative-free ranges of chocolates and desserts, and went on to introduce the Maya chocolate bar concept out of its own chocolate factory- which, at the time, was a quite a new concept, and paved the way for a homegrown Bahraini brand to be exported outside of its market as a franchise business. During the same year, Janahi also established The Living Concepts, a hospitality and F&B consultancy company that aims to create Bahrain-born brands that can be franchised internationally, and she has also founded other brands such as Maya Delices and ChocoB's.

Janahi's entrepreneurial drive was ignited when she felt an inclination to "promote change for the better of the market." Forgoing the traditional corporate setting began when the founder felt that "what I was doing was not enough, and I needed to be able to do much more to create the necessary change that will reflect not only on myself, but also on the society, the sector, and future generations." And with Maya La Chocolaterie, Janahi has clearly managed to make a dent in the market. "Maya as a brand has reached a mature stage of validation, and the next step is to expand the brand globally with the optimization of technology and affiliations/JVs with new partners to create a global brand," she says.

Source: Maya La Chocolaterie

With franchise locations available in Bahrain, Riyadh and Jeddah (and soon in Europe, US, Canada, Australia, South America, and select Asian markets), Maya La Chocolaterie's philosophy stems from creating "a business about great chocolates, breakthrough recipes and passion for what we do every daya unique experience," which has enabled the enterprise to grow through franchises and strategic partnerships. Its state-of-the-art facility in Bahrain produces an average 25 tonnes of chocolates annually, serving an array 200 types of delicacies from pralines, truffles, chocolate pastries, crepes, waffles, and a selection of hot and cold chocolate drinks, as well as experimenting with spices and herbs for distinct flavors that give the brand an added edge, in addition to the quality of the raw chocolate.

Managing various entities and roles takes dedication and discipline, and when asked about the strategies she uses to do it all, Janahi says it's all about being flexible (yet organized) with your key milestones in mind, delegating responsibilities, and managing your expectations. When it comes to making critical decisions, Janahi encourages entrepreneurs to reflect what's it in for the team and stakeholders, and the value it will add to the economy. But most importantly, she states it's all about passion in her endeavors: "My passion drives me to constantly work and aspire for greater milestones."

The founder and CEO believes that as a leader, one should have the intention to bring the best out of, challenge, and reward employees to grow and develop their capabilities. Besides respect and trust, she also emphasizes on the importance of transparency with your team to ensure that regardless of one's position, everyone is in tune with the objective, and is able to share the passion. "Creating a culture where everyone feels [like] they are partners and not just employees is vital, and this is why many who have been with us for over 15 years, share our vision for development."

Related: Echoing The Past, Heralding The Future: Mirzam Chocolate Makers

Source: Maya La Chocolaterie

Janahi is also an ardent advocate of Bahrain's entrepreneurial ecosystem as a board member of the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI), she heads the steering committee managing the 10 sectorial committees, and she's also a member of the audit committee, head of the business management system committee, and head of the working committee for the Arab Businessmen and Investors Conference (ABIC), which is scheduled to take place from November 11th to 13th 2019.

Janahi notes they're currently in the process of transforming BCCI to become a prominent partner in the business community, with a focus on non-oil sectors that the BCCI identifies will add value to the economy and support the Bahrain Vision 2030. Held under the patronage of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, the ABIC (which will be held with the Entrepreneurs Investment Forum 2019) aims to bring together stakeholders such as policymakers, regulators, investors, entrepreneurs, and universities to foster an ecosystem that will enhance MENA's business sector.

Janahi calls it a "challenging, but rewarding experience," as it will create the necessary information to support the economy and hopefully, future generations. She encourages entrepreneurs to have a global vision, and states Bahrain's business-friendly conditions as ideal for any business model to created and tested. A key consideration, she says, is to have a good legal structure and a reliable accountant to be the "backbone of the organization, and who can bring you down to reality, if necessary." But for sustainability, she says, "Entrepreneurs need to ensure their model can have an innovative edge, and can sustain globally, and not just in Bahrain."

Source: Maya La Chocolaterie

When it comes to obstacles she has faced, Janahi says that, like many SMEs, finding funds and having VC entities who believe in her vision has been a challenge. She feels that there's still a lack of in the Middle East who have an "appetite to share the passion and the risk for SMEs, to not just succeed within Bahrain, but also to become global brands." Has being a female entrepreneur affected her at all? Janahi states that she hasn't faced any pressure or restrictions in her career so far because of her gender.

"In fact, I have always felt empowered, and was mentored by many women and men who were my superiors, and mentored me to be who I am today. In addition, of course, my parents always believed in me, and gave me the strength and power to have faith, perseverance, and a vision for success. As an employee or an employer, I never had to compete with a man to prove myself, in fact I had to compete with "the best,' regardless of gender."

Related: Sophisticated Indulgence: M'OISHÎ Founder Carole Moawad On Building A Bridge Between Japan And The UAE

Pamella de Leon

Startup Section Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Pamella de Leon is the Startup Section Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East. She is keen on the MENA region’s entrepreneurship potential, with a specific interest to support enterprises and individuals creating an impact.

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