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Thu 10 Nov 2016 12:22 PM

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Empowering the intellectually disabled in Dubai

Michael Mascarenhas, CEO of Desert Group, a Dubai-based SME that has set up Enable, its social enterprise, to empower people with intellectual disabilities, explains why other SMEs should follow suit

Empowering the intellectually disabled in Dubai
Michael Mascarenhas, CEO of Desert Group.

Enable is a social entrepreneurship initiative of Desert Group. How did you come up with the idea for Enable?

Desert Group’s CSR strategy comes from our vision, which was put into place in 2006, that states that “enhancing lives is our passion.” CSR is ingrained in Desert Group as part of our belief and ethos. It is part of our daily strategy and long-term plans.

We wanted to make an impact on society in a way that we thought was different to anything that was done by the region’s private sector, and that is creating an environment for work inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities (PWD). Our strategy was to create job opportunities for PWDs and since then we have 32 individuals employed within the Group. This will not stop here as we are more inspired than ever! Our programme has proved that with care, training, and the right approach we can create gainful employment opportunities and thus enhance and impact lives of the many with disabilities.

Then in 2015, we felt the need to reach out and show our fellow business fraternity that there is another way to create a sustainable CSR programme without decreasing our social impact. Therefore, we felt the concept of a social enterprise fits our vision perfectly. This is where “ENABLE” was born, with a goal to eventually make those entrepreneurs our team members.

ENABLE is a commercial entity that delivers a 360 entrepreneurial model to PWDs, but it is a social enterprise which means that it is a profit generating business that tackles a social problem or improves a community where all its profits are re-invested back into the unit (ENABLE).

It is a commercial entity with a social impact. Although ENABLE operates under Desert Group, none of the profits goes to Desert Group, which presently acts as the sponsor until financial sustenance by ENABLE is achieved.

Yet ENABLE has another challenging goal and that is to develop an entrepreneurial skillset for our team members in which they could one day create their own small business units. Daunting yes, but we are up for the challenge.

Is ENABLE a completely separate entity and how is it structured?

In 2016 we successfully registered ENABLE as an LLC company in order to facilitate its business operations. Although our main goal is to have it registered as a social enterprise, we were told that the required legislation is being worked on. We hope to be the first one registered in that category.

ENABLE offers a range of home and garden products using indoor cacti and succulents plant arrangements. We sell our products through a series of pop-ups at various bazaars and markets and are now targeting corporates office, hotels, restaurants and cafes. The response has been phenomenal! Our patrons are overwhelmed with what they see in our little work shop in Al Khawaneej.

The distribution of our work is phenomenal and in line with identified capabilities. Our products are carefully assembled by five of our highly functional employees, transferred from our CSR project. Our products are now on permanent display at Dubai Garden Centre and Aswaaq Al Mizhir. We also have an online store ( Through this article, I would like to reach out to all corporates to source their corporate gifts from our team.

Our future target markets include households, corporate offices, F&B outlets and hotels, to which we would offer decorative centerpieces and indoor plant arrangements which can create a beautiful green feel within any venue.

We are also very keen to create an awareness through our product packaging. Attached to our product tag is a small story of who we are and what we do. We also educate consumers on how to take care of their plants through a simplified infographic.

What are other key things to consider when an SME, such as Desert Group, decides to set up a social entrepreneurship arm?

- Recognise and nurture talent

- Create an efficient business model

- Communicate

- Measure your impact

- Stay committed

What would you advise other UAE-based SME leaders in this regard?

There is always a beginning. Translate your belief system into a vision that inspires your team. Then weigh the best possible medium to carry out the vision. If a social enterprise is to be established you need to know what you are trying to achieve and create a model that has sustainability.

What has been the most gratifying event you have experienced since starting ENABLE?

As individuals we have learnt early on that one should give back to society. It is this sense of being a useful member of society that drives us. Our gratifying moments are daily. The passion and dedication that we see, gratifies. The sale of the products assembled by the team, gratifies. The remuneration for a job well done received by the team, gratifies. Truly, it is more than one moment!

Please share with us your plans for 2017 and how those interested to support this initiative can help you?

ENABLE is on the cusp of being “the model” of a social enterprise. Reem Al Ghaith, who runs the unit, has a clear vision and that is to make a positive impact on lives, daily.

We will reach out to all like-minded individuals and to all the corporates and SMEs that have a CSR vision and to those who do not as well, to work with us. We will hold workshops to share our success story and assist those that are beginning on this wonderful journey.

Our mission is to enhance lives and we will do that each day through the coming year! I would like to end by saying that our goal is to create the “first” stand-alone retail unit in the UAE totally managed and run by PWDs.