UAE-Based Startup Kyma Is Making (Business) Sense Out Of Sustainability In conversation with Farida El Agamy, co-founder and CEO of Kyma, a UAE-based startup that uses sustainability principles to reimagine, reengineer, and revolutionize home cleaning.
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As we come closer to the UAE's hosting of the 28th edition of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28), it's interesting to see how the government has been advancing the sustainability agenda within the country over the past couple of years. A noteworthy element of this development has been in the creation of a great number of new, sustainability-focused startups popping up in the country, despite their often capital-intensive nature.
"Setting up a manufacturing startup is a significant challenge in and of itself," admits Farida El Agamy, co-founder and CEO of Kyma, a UAE-based startup that's disrupting the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry with its innovative, sustainable, affordable, and efficient cleaning products. "It differs substantially from launching a company with digital products or relying on contract manufacturing for a product. Manufacturing demands substantial initial investments, and access to talent and technical expertise that can sometimes be challenging to secure."
El Agamy has been a part of the UAE's entrepreneurial ecosystem since 2008, perhaps best known for her role as the General Manager of the Tharawat Family Business Forum, a knowledge resource and networking hub for family-owned companies in the MENA region. In 2020, she teamed up with Dima Samaan and Samar Sayegh -who became CMO and COO of Kyma respectively- to launch their enterprise with an overarching aim to battle the global problem of plastic pollution.
But how does the company do this? Well, Kyma offers its surface cleaning solutions in the form of cleaning tablets that are to be dissolved in a refillable and reusable bottle provided by the company- which thus becomes "the only one [bottle] you will ever need" at least when it comes to your household chores. "Our core mission has consistently revolved around manufacturing, while adhering to the principles of sustainable business," El Agamy adds. "This commitment has driven us to develop our processes and procedures with a focus on lean management, incorporating technology to prevent resource wastage, and manage our environmental impact from day one."
Although the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) states that the world could slash plastic pollution by 80% by 2040, it also records that plastic production levels have soared over the past few decades, especially single-use plastic. To make it worse, it is expected that the global production of plastic might triple by 2060, leading to devastating consequences for the planet. To combat this grim scenario, the UNEP report envisages three main strategies: reuse, recycling, and alternative materials. Out of the three, reusing plastics might have the greatest impact, and the UNEP report presents it as the most "powerful market shift" with a potential to reduce plastic pollution by 30% by 2040. And it is in this particular area that Kyma is making progress in the UAE- slowly but surely.
All of Kyma's products are ISO 9001 and ISO 22716 certified, which recognize the startup's adherence to the highest level of quality control and safety regulations, and they also carry the Good Manufacture Practice (GMP) Certificate issued by the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention. Kyma is also a member of the SME Climate Hub, a non-profit global initiative that empowers SMEs to take climate action, which means that it is an enterprise committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2030, and that it is actively working towards this goal.
Looking at environmental sustainability from a business perspective, El Agamy says that while the issue of "greenwashing" will always exist, businesses are increasingly opting to use sustainable practices in their operations, and this is because they have been shown to play a significant role in overall risk management and mitigation, enhancing attractiveness to top talent, and facilitating access to capital.
"While one could argue that these might not be the ideal reasons to embrace sustainable practices, we believe that adding environmental, economic, or social principles to the average board agenda due to their business sense is a win for society as a whole," she says. "At Kyma, like many other companies, we place sustainability at the core of our mission. This means that it informs every decision we make within the company. While this approach can sometimes lead to challenging conversations, it's a journey to which we are fully committed, and we firmly believe it enhances the commercial success of our enterprise."
Back in 2020 when they launched Kyma, El Agamy and her co-founders made the decision to first focus on research and development, product formulation, and establishing its factory and laboratory. Two years later -in January 2022- the company recorded its first sale. This year, 2023, has also brought a new milestone through expansion into brick-and-mortar stores across the UAE.
"Perhaps most importantly, through our customers' participation in the 'Refillution' [Kyma's campaign to reimagine, reengineer, and revolutionize home cleaning], we've collectively prevented more than 10,000 plastic bottles from ending up in landfills in just the past year alone," El Agamy adds. Meanwhile, El Agamy's personal journey with Kyma proves that the UAE has been taking important steps to support sustainable entrepreneurs. "Our factory and development lab, located in Sharjah, have played crucial roles in our journey, and we've grown our team to include ten employees," El Agamy says. "Currently, our product range consists of ten distinct items, built upon four core cleaning products, and we're gearing up to introduce two more cleaning solutions soon."
Establishing a manufacturing business inevitably brings a great deal of trial and error, and El Agamy explains that finding the right talent for Kyma's R&D team was one of her biggest hurdles. "Initially, we had assumed that recruiting a chemist to develop our formulations and lead our R&D department would be a straight- forward task, but reality proved otherwise," she says. "It took us months to locate our first chemist, and to this day, adding or replacing members of our scientific team remains a formidable challenge. This experience has emphasized the importance of becoming an attractive employer." El Agamy also recounts encountering obstacles relating to packaging. "As a sustainable startup with non-toxic cleaning tablets, we needed to use specific packaging materials to maintain product effectiveness while minimizing waste," she says. "Sourcing these materials has been quite an odyssey, especially given our lack of scale compared to large FMCG companies, making access to eco-friendly packaging a challenging endeavor."
One effective solution in this regard proved to be engaging with manufacturing startups in the UAE and the region, exploring opportunities for collaborative sourcing to benefit from collective scale. "Through these obstacles, we've learned the significance of staying closely connected to our ecosystem, adhering to clear goals and principles, and remaining highly adaptable in the face of challenges." El Agamy adds. "Our fundamental principle is to ensure that every customer has the option to purchase sustainable products without compromising on quality, experience, or paying extra. This goal strengthens our resilience, and reinforces our determination as we confront new challenges. Ultimately, we recognize that we are part of a disruptive movement, and that path is never an easy one."
Today, as El Agamy witnesses numerous businesses embracing sustainable principles, and the UAE continuing with evolving its regulatory framework and strong governmental support for a more sustainable private sector, the entrepreneur wishes the spotlight to also be thrown on artisans, who are often an overlooked part of this domain. "It's heartening to see that support for the artisanal sector extends to the broader MENA region," El Agamy concludes. "Artisans are the ultimate sustainable businesses in many ways: they preserve heritage, typically utilize nature-based raw materials, and maintain close ties with their social networks. In the end, it's crucial to maintain a broad perspective on what sustainability means in the private sector, its potential contributions, and the transformative possibilities it holds for the future."
'TREP TALK: Tips for entrepreneurs from Kyma CEO Farida El Agamy
Find an issue you're passionate about- and then try to solve it
"Identify one or two key areas of concern that you're passionate about addressing, rather than attempting to tackle everything simultaneously."
Don't go at it alone- build your tribe
"Engage and empower your team to assist in addressing these issues, and seek guidance from experts when needed."
Never lose sight of the big picture
"Developing a clear roadmap with achievable goals will not only motivate your teams, but it will also provide a compelling narrative to share with customers, while also raising awareness about other areas that require attention."
Innovation is key
"Continuously enhance your processes and procedures. Although it might seem daunting, we've observed how much more efficiently our company can operate by consistently evaluating our energy consumption, raw material use, packaging, and overall office processes. The good news is that increased efficiency also translates to cost savings."
Embed sustainability into the way you do business
"Examine your products and services, and explore ways to make them more sustainable and eco-friendly. You might be surprised by what you discover, and it could potentially lead to the identification of new markets or even entirely new business models!"