Mountain Flower is one of the small businesses incubated at The Village Business Incubator (VBI) in Syria. VBI aim to promote women's active role in the labour market through the creation of small and micro scale viable and self-sustainable value-added enterprises to strengthen women's capacity to access resources. To date, VBI is working with women across eight villages in the Lattakia governorate.
This interview was carried out with Sabah in March 2009.
Is this the first company that you have started, and what drove you towards it?
Yes, this is my first business. I am also a farmer and a cheese producer. I had three years of experience with dairy products before I decided to expand my small-scale business and target new markets outside my village. Originally I focused on producing fresh milk and traditional cheese, “Shenklesh”, but wanted to introduce new products to these new markets. In order to achieve my goal, I joined the training program of the Village Business Incubator, which turned me into a professional producer of Italian cheese.
How did you finance your start-up operations and how long did it/will it take for the company to become self-sustainable?
For me, as a rural woman, having access to finance an enterprise was never an easy process. However, the Village Business Incubator offers financial assistance for rural women through loans that are offered by the Fund for Integrated Rural Development of Syria (FIRDOS), that works under the umbrella of the "Syria Trust For Development". I also had some personal savings that I contributed to the enterprise capital. I used the loan to build a small workshop and purchase technical equipment in order to improve the quality of my production and attend to the requests of my clients. By now, you can say that my business has already become self-sustainable.
What are your major products and services and how are they unique in your business sector? What is your competition?
My major products include three kinds of Italian cheese: Mozzarella, Provolla and Ricotta. The uniqueness of my products stems from that fact that the Italian cheese, produced following the Italian traditional methods, is not yet available in the Syrian market. Moreover, my products are 100% organic and free from additives and chemicals. I'm the only lady in Syria producing tasty Italian cheese! In Lattakia there are retailers selling cheese called “mozzarella” produced on an industrial basis such as Goody or Dreyi, but this cannot be compared to my mozzarella which is produced following the traditional original method and using high quality milk.
How did you first launch your product/services?
My production was sold to individual clients who bought directly from my workshop or through retailers in my village. The VBI made me visible in Damascus and I started to receive steady orders from clients there. Moreover, through the VBI, I continuously participated in relevant events and bazaars either in Lattakia or Damascus organized by national and international organizations.
As it turns out, the Ricotta cheese was very much appreciated by the new consumers and became easily sold at the village level. I intended to target the Lattakia market by selling mozzarella, provola and ricotta products to restaurants serving Italian food, such as “Shamra”, “Express Cafe” and high quality stores. The Riviera Hotel has already expressed willingness to serve my cheese to its clients.
How do you measure the success of the company?
I consider my business a real success so far. My income has greatly increased: my profit from the traditional cheese was 3000 SYP [approx. USD 65] per month, and now I'm earning about 13,000 SYP [approx. USD 282] per month. In addition I’m enjoying a very good reputation in Syria. The demand for my cheese is growing day after day, and the restaurants and hotels have shown great interest in my products. Now I’m planning to increase the scale of my production by buying more cows.
Who are your clients and how many do you have? How are you focusing on expanding your user community?
Cheese is regularly purchased by families, as the calcium contained in the cheese is very important during childhood and also for the elderly. My clients are the people in my village and neighboring villages, as well as some restaurants and hotels in Lattakia and in Damascus. I also receive orders from individual clients in Damascus and the expatriate community, especially from Italians, who regularly consume mozzarella and other Italian cheese in their dishes and appreciate tasting an Italian product produced following the traditional Italian methods.
What was the biggest challenge in starting an innovative business in your country and how did you overcome that?
As it is not familiar in Syria that a rural woman would own a business, my husband was a bit resistant at the beginning with the idea of me having an income-generating business, particularly since I am his helping hand on the farmlands. However, with the sincere assistance of the VBI, he is now giving me a hand in my work and he is the one handling the receipt of my orders!
How have you benefited from business incubation? (E.g. infrastructure, knowledge development, networking with other businesses/traders, other)
The VBI team invited me to participate in its business training program along with a literacy course that it organized for women who have the desire to establish their own businesses. The VBI training has improved my accounting skills and how to keep records of my profits. Moreover, The VBI offered me technical training in cheese production delivered at the Directorate of Agriculture, which further improved my dairy production skills and abilities.
In May 2006, the VBI put me in contact with Mr. Gerardo Virgilio, a dairy expert from Sardinia, Italy to assist me in learning how to produce new types of cheese, namely the famous Italian “mozzarella” and “provola” cheese. I have attended three very intensive training delivered by Mr. Gerardo during three months and became a famous cheese producer.
The VBI made me visible to clients in Lattakia and Damascus and helped me build relationships with some traders and marketing channels. The VBI always provides me with opportunities to participate in events and bazaars to sell my products and enlarge the circle of my outreach.
With hindsight, are there any particular lessons or messages that you wish you would have known when you started up your company, and which you would like to share with fellow entrepreneurs?
Having access to the Village Business Incubator support services earlier would have helped me save a lot of time and would have made the process of innovation more productive and efficient!
Do you feel that you had the necessary advisory and support network when you started your company?
I believe that I had all the support and advice any new entrepreneur could seek. Being a dairy product producer already, I had a clear idea of the market price that I can fetch for my production. As per the new products, the experience transferred to me by Mr. Gerardo was essential for the pricing of these new products. This information was confirmed by the interaction of the VBI marketing office with owners of stores and restaurants in Lattakia.
What is your message to supporters (financial or otherwise) and what is your message to the users of your product?
More incubators should be promoted in the rural areas of Syria to support rural women because they can be really innovative. To the users of products, I promise to keep up to my standard and to always try to improve myself through seeking new opportunities.