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Thursday, 27 May 2021

My WFH Routine: Naila El Shishiny, co-founder of Markaz

Naila El Shishiny, co-founder of Markaz: Each week, my Morning / WFH Routine looks at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. Speaking to us this week is Naila El-Shishiny, co-founder of Markaz. Edited excerpts from our conversation:

My name is Naila El Shishiny. I’m a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Markaz. I started Markaz in 2005 along with my co-founder Mohamed Amin out of a deep passion for handmade Egyptian crafts. Mohamed was already working in development at the time, with a particular focus on marketing locally crafted goods from Sinai, and I had a background in design and textiles. We were both concerned with the incredible level of craftsmanship across the country, with different styles and nuances, that was at risk of disappearing due to a lack of economic viability. We felt there was a lot of potential in preserving this important piece of cultural heritage by widening its exposure to consumers in Cairo and giving people the chance to continue working with their traditional crafts.

We saw an opportunity to build upon these existing products by improving quality and making them a little more contemporary in style and function. People often view handmade goods as trinkets they would buy on occasion with the explicit intention of supporting a cause. We started Markaz in the hopes of changing this dynamic. We wanted to set up a business that would sustainably support communities across the country through customers who would come back to buy our products more than every once in a while. Organizations working in the field tend to be small and individual in nature, sometimes even off the books. We registered the business as a joint stock company in 2015 and set out to make it a cost-effective enterprise through setting the right prices and offering people steady incomes. We saw this as the best path forward for growing the company

Ten years later and we’re now coordinating production across 14 governorates in Egypt, which can sometimes be a bit of a logistical nightmare. Given how remote a lot of these communities are, communication and transportation are two of our biggest challenges. We work with craftspeople in places like Damietta, Al-Arish, St. Katherine, Gabal Elba, Aswan and Marsa Matrouh — which is both an edge that Markaz has to offer over competitors but presents a unique set of challenges. While we don't like to interfere in the way artisans come up with their patterns or how they reconstruct images from their surrounding environment, we offer instructions on the overall design of a product that we feel might be more appealing to customers in Cairo. Over the past year however we’ve had to resort to conducting most of our business through phone calls. It's often difficult to describe these design details over the phone, and we’ve come up against misunderstandings that occasionally slowed down the process even further.

The vast majority of our production takes place outside of Cairo. Once a product is crafted we send it to one of our partner NGOs here in Cairo where they execute final technical specifications we’ve drawn out for them. But the bulk of the work, which includes specialized skills like basketry, weaving or embroidery is produced outside of Cairo using techniques that have been passed down for generations. There’s a lot of patience involved in the process, because these crafts are often deeply rooted in tradition and take place within very small and insulated communities, so it takes time getting used to minor adjustments or new requests.

I wake up at 6 am and grab a coffee, but I can’t really say I have a fixed routine. Sometimes I start my day with exercise, on other days I like to read things that are relevant to the arts in the morning. For Markaz, my responsibilities are usually split between time spent at our Maadi office coordinating production, being on the lookout for new materials at markets, and meeting with different artisans in the city who work with us on specific components of our products. Markaz is really all about fusion and bringing together very separate crafts to create a final product, so there’s a ton of time spent researching different ways to make this all come together. Our Maadi office handles coordination between the different craftspeople and NGOs before we put the products out for display at our Maadi store and on our website. We also have a seasonal store on the North Coast, open from June-August. We see a huge uptick in sales around the summer months and around Christmas.

Covid-19 has been tough on us, because unlike mass-produced consumer goods, the products we put on display can vary widely in their appearance. You really need to see the product for yourself to get a feel for it and appreciate the intricate design. This means you need to be at a store in person to get a better idea of the materials used and the small details of our product. This is a natural result of having production entirely handmade. It's not like buying something from H&M or Amazon, there is a large human element involved.

Unfortunately there’s no legislative framework that appropriately captures the work that we do. We’re currently registered and bound to laws that govern a registered shareholder company, but our operations are way more complex than your ordinary business. We deal with some 60 artisans in far flung places across the country, some of whom might not even have state-issued IDs. It makes acquiring all the necessary paperwork almost impossible. We face an equal challenge when buying materials. Because we’re buying very specific fabrics and beads in small quantities, we find difficulty retrieving official receipts from vendors. But at least there is progress on that front, which could make matters much simpler for us in the future.

For now, our goal is to get people to purchase our goods, not in support of local artisans but because they like them more than anything else. I think it's the only way you can have something sustainable.

A very dear friend of mine once told me “fill your days till you wish they were longer.” They’ve been words that have helped keep me creative and live a fuller, more rewarding life.

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