By Alicia Buller
Bahraini business veteran and founder of Maya La Chocolaterie, Sonya Janahi, discusses how she built multiple companies from the ground up.
The small island of Bahrain packs a big punch when it comes to turning out world-class female CEOs.
Around 18 per cent of the kingdom’s start-ups are founded by women – a figure that trumps the likes of London and Silicon Valley, according to the 2019 Global StartUp Ecosystem Report.
As a veteran businesswoman and founder of Maya La Chocolaterie, Bahraini Sonya Janahi is a fine proponent of the kingdom’s support for female entrepreneurs.
Speaking exclusively to CEO, Janahi says that the culture in Bahrain does not impose societal pressures or self-imposed restrictions on women.
“I have always felt empowered and was mentored by many women and men who were my superiors, who helped me to be who I am today.”
Janahi also praises the kingdom’s Supreme Council for Women for giving local women extra encouragement to think outside the box and to take on challenging opportunities.
“The Bahraini culture actually encourages women to go after their dreams, and has the fundamentals available to create the ideal atmosphere for any women to be creative,” the entrepreneur says.
However, Janahi believes the best teams in the region are those with mixed gender attributes. “I have worked teams that include men and their contribution on delivering results has always been in line with any women.”
According to Janahi, a wider issue within the region is the need for more venture capital entities who believe in and invest in women.
A recent study from the Kauffman Fellows Research Center found companies in the US with at least one female founder get $23 m on average in VC investment in the third- and fourth-round raises, compared with $18 m on average for all-male teams.
However, the latest report by event organiser Arabnet, in partnership with Dubai SME, analysed start-ups across the MENA region last year and found that only 14 percent of deals were with companies founded by women.
“We need investors to believe in female SME visions and take on their challenge of lack of funding,” urges Janahi. “This is what is lacking in the Middle East – we need VCs that have an appetite to share the passion and the risk for SMEs. They need our appetite to succeed within the region and also to become global brands.”
Janahi began her own entrepreneurial journey by focusing on real estate investment, specifically affordable housing opportunities by creating strategic alliances with financial institutions back in 2002. She provided land ownership opportunities in good residential areas with small affordable sizes.
During this period as a property magnate, she secured an exclusive joint venture (JV) deal with construction giant Arabtec for projects in Bahrain. After successfully exiting this JV in 2018, Janahi set up architecture developments firm, Neo Designs.
In parallel, in 2005, the businesswoman also diversified her portfolio by launching Maya La Chocolaterie – an F&B concept that holds the twin accolade of being the first chocolate factory in Bahrain, as well as the kingdom’s first franchise model. The company currently exports more than 24 tonnes of chocolate annually.
“We chose chocolate because we are passionate about it,” says Janahi, who is a certified professional chocolatier in her own right. “We wanted to create chocolate for a better world! We felt a social obligation to provide a healthy range with limited cocoa butter, limited sugar, no additives, no preservatives, and an artisanal style of production for all chocolate fans,.”
Janahi adds. “We have created a chocolate culture that brings together all types of chocolate fans.”
Maya La Chocolaterie is a leisure destination for chocolate-loving tourists from the region, as well as farther afield in Europe and the US. Through its franchise model, the brand carried its presence into other GCC countries, with plans to continue expanding internationally.
But, Janahi admits that building up the business has not been without its challenges.
“Funding is a key challenge. Partnerships can also be challenging as we unfortunately do not have a crystal ball to predict whether potential partners share the same passion and objectives as us. Nevertheless, through these challenges I have learned that with perseverance, everything is possible.”
Janahi, who will be speaking the 18th Arab Businessmen and Investors Conference (ABIC) in Manama, Bahrain, which runs from 11–13 November 2019, says that the event is a critical conference for driving investment in entrepreneurship and digital innovation in the Arab world.
Organised and supported by the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), Union of Arab Chambers, Arab League, The Arab Investment and Export Credit Guarantee Corporation and the UN, this year’s ABIC will explore the advent of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) in Arab countries.
The event will also highlight the opportunities and challenges of 4IR to key stakeholders and emphasise the need to align with global developments that are driving major breakthroughs across many industries and sectors.
“Bahrain is ready to adopt the next challenge as the digital age dawns on the global market. We are ranked tenth in the world in mobile penetration rate, fifth globally in mobile broadband penetration rate and third globally for the percentage of internet users,” says Jahani.
The Maya La Chocolaterie founder says Bahrain has much to offer digital innovators and start-up companies.
“Setting up a company in Bahrain is an extremely efficient process. Government organisations like Tamkeen provide the necessary support for all start-ups and established companies in Bahrain,” she says.
“Bahrain is the ideal location for any founding concept to start from due to the simple yet sophisticated support systems available. It is the place to test the concept, adjust it, perfect it and take it global.”
Jahani insists that all local entrepreneurs should have a global vision in mind.
“Entrepreneurs need to ensure that their business model is globally sustainable. They also need to have an innovative edge. Most importantly, they need to learn from their mistakes, move on and enjoy the rollercoaster ride.”