Mohamed Al Lawati: Joggo stands for JOurney to the Greater GOod. We produce bags that are thoughtfully designed with a unique blend of functionality and style, helping better people’s lives at every step. With each fair trade certified stitch in our partner’s women run co-op factory, Joggo is giving back to educate refugee kids in different parts of the world. With the purchase of each bag, we give displaced children an opportunity to continue their education, empowering them to ultimately start their own journey to greater good. Our mission is to build a sustainable and scalable business model that will help support the humanitarian funding gap that exists in our world today.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you got to where you are at Joggo.
M.A.L: My entire career has been in marketing; I’ve been working for an international consumer goods company for quite some time. Entrepreneurship is not something that I really considered on the horizon. But after a lot of traveling in the developing world (including Nepal, Pakistan and Africa), and after seeing poverty first hand, that’s when I realized it’s up to me to do something and contribute in a way. Despite that, entrepreneurship was not my first thought to address these concerns. My initial thought was to get into international development. But I realized that taking that route might not be the best way to give back and contribute. The best skill I have is marketing and business management. Therefore I thought that the best way I could contribute is to launch a social brand, and that’s exactly what I did. The idea for Joggo was an overnight thought. It struck me that this is how I can maximize the skill set I have in order to do something that really helps people in need.
Refugees are a topic that really drew me, especially since it has been all over the news. One key moment was when I was watching a TED talk of Melissa Fleming, the UN refugee spokesperson. She really stressed how important education is for refugees, and the role education plays in giving refugees a sense of normalcy in the chaotic environment they are in. Moreover, educational opportunities give them hope and deters them from joining gangs, child marriages or anything that make it hard for them to prosper. That’s why I felt that this cause is worth supporting. I then identified an organization that is very actively involved with refugees: CARE Canada. They jumped in the opportunity to partner with Joggo to support their refugee education initiatives, and that’s when we established this joint partnership.
Tell me a bit more about the charity you have partnered with, CARE Canada. Could you describe the work they do and how do they spend the money you raise?
M.A.L: They work across different areas. Education for refugees is one big area they focus on. Partnering with the UN at refugee camps in different parts of the world, they are present in one of the biggest refugee camps in Kenya. They have established crucial infrastructure like education centers, and helped deliver tools and resources to ensure that education is available in refugee camps.
How would you describe our Western societies’ reaction to the refugee crisis?
M.A.L: I think there are two sides to the story. There is a political side and a humanitarian side. From a political stand point, you see some countries that have opened their gates with open arms while other have shut their doors. Canada is one of the countries that have accepted a lot of refugees and have specific programs to help refugees, including private sponsorship. This is a unique program that not many countries have, and it has been quite successful. From a humanitarian stand point, there are people that have done a lot for refugees. They have travelled across the world in refugee camps, just to volunteer their time and support communities in need. Despite the fact that their countries may not be as supportive, they have taken an initiative to do what they can. In my opinion, this is what we need to focus on. Governments will have their stance but it’s the people who make the biggest differences.
Related article: “MY SYRIAN REFUGEE EXPERIENCE“
So how exactly can social enterprises and sustainable business models contribute to causes like education for refugees?
M.A.L: I see this as an experiment. There is a big funding gap globally – not just refugee education, but for humanitarian aid as a whole. We have looked at many ways of closing this gap, including government donations, but we haven’t identified a sustainable mean of providing long-term funding for humanitarian causes. After all, there are regular economic ups and downs that make governments pull back their donations. On the other hand, however, private companies provide a steady stream of funding. This is especially more applicable to startups because mature organizations have a harder time changing their business model. In contrast, startups can integrate a social component into their ever-changing business models and have significant and long-lasting impact on the funding gap. This is what I am trying to do with Joggo. I don’t believe we will close the funding gap, but I would like to see how far we go into making a difference.
If every aspect of your value chain is adding value to people who are involved, you will be contributing back throughout your entire business model. It’s an end to end process.
In the photo: The Joggo bag, Photo Credit: Joggo
For someone who wants to start a similar social enterprise, what would you say could be the main obstacle?
M.A.L: I am still at a very early stage of the process, but I have seen success and hardship. I would say the main obstacle in starting a social enterprise is not just advertising to your consumers that you are a social organization and expect them to buy your product because of it. You shouldn’t see the process as consumers coming in to make a donation to a cause. That’s not what your intention is, because you want to establish a sustainable business. There is a social component but you still need to focus on the quality of your product and deliver consumer expectations. Having a social component could give you a competitive edge, but it’s not the one thing that will ensure your success. It’s the whole package that your consumer wants, and the social component is just a part of it.
You mentioned sustainability. What does it mean for you and in what aspect is Joggo sustainable?
M.A.L: At this point, I’m seeing sustainability as providing equitable ethical employment to the people who work with the Joggo brand. When I thought about launching Joggo, I thought about the idea of having a social component and contributing back through donations, but that couldn’t be the only component. I couldn’t manufacture my product in a sweatshop and then sell it to get donations. I needed to make sure my products throughout the production chain were really adding value to the people who are involved. So, I made sure the production and sourcing were ethical. If every aspect of your value chain is adding value to people who are involved, you will be contributing back throughout your entire business model. It’s an end to end process. That’s how I see sustainability. And again, if the business is sustainable, the level of impact this would have at each level of the value chain is going to be even more significant.
Where do you see Joggo going in the future?
M.A.L: Right now, I have established a business model that works. The foundation is built, so my aim is to establish and promote the brand by giving consumers a product they value. My vision is to build scale. By that, I mean to have an even bigger impact on refugee education. Last June for world refugee day, we reinforced our commitment to this cause by announcing our goal to educate 50 refugees in the near future. That’s our short-term goal. I intend to surpass this goal, but this is the first milestone. To achieve it I need to make sure I’m giving valuable quality products to my consumers, and I have a pipeline of products that I plan to develop in the next couple of months.
What is your best-selling product?
M.A.L: I have one product which is a messenger bag that comes in different colors. They are casual and offer all the convenience you need in a bag. You have a slot for a laptop and many pockets that ensure the functionality that’s required from an everyday bag. Because it’s a messenger bag it hangs by your side, and not on your back like a backpack. It is convenient in that you pull out the flap and you take out everything you need. Aside from functionality and convenience, it offers a very stylish casual look. It comes in two bright colors and nicely complements your wardrobe. The next product will come with improvements and further innovation.
In the photo: The Joggo bag, Photo Credit: Joggo
Tell us about a positive and a negative moment in your entrepreneurial journey.
M.A.L: Yeah, I have many of those. In this day and age, there are many tools and resources that help us establish a new company or a startup. If you have a clear vision, you can quickly start the process. You have the resources available to support you, and a network of people that will help you achieve your goals. After Joggo’s launch I was sure I had a created a great product, with an amazing cause attached to it, so surely it would fly off the shelf! I was very confident with everything from the concept, to my business model. But I quickly realized that with an online and e-commerce business, it’s just not how things work. You need to have a lot of established networks and inputs to drive traffic.
I was a bit taken aback by the fact that the product did not fly off the shelf. People were just not making this purchase despite all the work and effort I had put in. So there were moments that I thought that maybe this is not what I should do, that maybe I should think of giving back in some other ways. On the other hand, one day someone picked up my story and published it in a national paper. Suddenly, I got a lot of hits. And now things are going great. So, I would say the outcome of these kinds of entrepreneurial journeys depend on a mix of things; it’s a learning process, but there’s also luck involved. Nonetheless, the things I learned in the past year equal five years of learning in my previous life. The learning curve is tremendous and makes you understand how to run a business. There will always be moments where you will be thinking “I cannot do this” and there are going to be moments that are going to completely change your mind and assure you are on the right track.
Recommended reading: “MELISSA FLEMING: LET’S HELP REFUGEES THRIVE, NOT JUST SURVIVE”