BEIRUT: When Syrian entrepreneur Alaa Alzhouri first heard about UNESCO’s social entrepreneurship competition in Lebanon in 2016, she decided to compete with a simple idea: Recycling wool. The idea was that Alaa and her three co-founders form a team of underprivileged women who were skilled in knitting wool and pay them to make new forms out of old recyclable wool.
“I have been living in Lebanon since I was 17 years of age,” 24-year-old Alzhouri told Annahar. “I’ve become well acquainted with its garbage crisis, and I wanted to do something about it.”
“Lebanon now feels like my second home, despite the fact that I am considered a refugee by many,” she added.
While Alzhouri’s team did not make it into the finals, it wasn’t until their coach at UNESCO Ziad Haddara introduced them to Leila Zahed that Alzhouri found her true mission.
“I met Leila through our coach at UNESCO,” Alzhouri said. “She explained to me her idea, which was recycling plastic bags by knitting them crochet style using one needle. It was a novel idea and I was excited to try it.”
After forming another team of underprivileged Syrian women and asking them to try Zahed’s one-needle knitting technique for plastic bags, Alzhouri was delighted to discover that the technique worked. That Christmas, Jellyfish was formed, and the women sold their first bundle of accessories at Souk el Tayeb, a local farmer’s market.
After that, Alzhouri and Zahed, along with the two other members of their team, worked on expanding the line of their products.
“We worked on producing bags, baskets, carpets and cup holders,” Alzhouri told Annahar. “Each product requires a vastly different number of plastic bags. Some products such as wallets require up to 30 plastic bags; others, like carpets, require up to 2000 bags.”
As for the women who knit, they get a commission on the products they sell.
Their team now involves 12 Syrian female refugees who earn a living by knitting and recycling plastic bags. Since the beginning of 2020, the team has sold approximately 469 items.
“We want to help these women empower themselves and their families by generating an income. We want to change the perception that Syrian refugees are a burden to the economy,” Alzhouri said. “With the right tools, they can be an asset instead.”
Alzhouri and her team have now moved into a new phase. They have launched training for women in Bekaa and Tripoli and have marketed them on social media.
“It’s key to use the Arabic language while relying on social media and word of mouth in order to reach these women,” Alzhouri said.
Jellyfish has won a number of awards in several competitions, including third place at Jusoor and Spark’s roadshow competition for Syrian entrepreneurs. The competition brings together Syrian entrepreneurs who are displaced in different countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq.
“Even though we are based in Lebanon, we cannot register our company, because we are all Syrian,” Alzhouri said. “The process is expensive and very bureaucratic, and we also need to have a Lebanese co-founder.”
Another challenge the startup faces is their reliance on friends and volunteers to collect plastic bags and give them to the women who knit them. Visiting the women in their houses and collecting the finished accessories is also a hassle.
“The lack of funding is another obstacle for our startup,” Alzhouri said. “Some of the ladies we work with wanted immediate reimbursement for their work, but they understood later that they had to get paid by commission. It’s details like these that make our work difficult, but we persevere because we love it.”
Jellyfish’s future plans include expansion to other areas of Lebanon as well as expanding their team.
Welcome to “NAYA," the newest addition to Annahar’s coverage. This section aims at fortifying Lebanese women’s voices by highlighting their talents, challenges, innovations, and women’s empowerment. We will also be reporting on the world of work, family, style, health, and culture. NAYA is devoted to women of all generations-NAYA Editor, Sally Farhat: [email protected]
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