LIFE Entrepreneurs Working Through Adversity During COVID-19

By Mahir Sheikh

With COVID-19 creating unprecedented challenges for the food industry, LIFE entrepreneurs from refugee and host communities alike face a daunting question: how can they pivot their business plans to overcome these challenges and find success in this new environment? With the support of LIFE Project virtual programs, members quickly adapted to these new circumstances. Some pivoted their businesses online, while others continue to serve their local communities while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Here are the creative ways some LIFE entrepreneurs are adjusting their businesses to provide important food and nutrition products and services for their communities in Turkey.

Navigating the Amplified Challenges of a Foreign Market

The new business environment COVID-19 created presents unique challenges to Syrian LIFE entrepreneurs  navigating the Turkish market. The pandemic forced entrepreneurs to stabilize their businesses through creative adjustments. Fatimah Alkhedr, a Syrian LIFE entrepreneur, confronted these challenges head on. After losing her husband, brother and father in Syria, Fatimah moved to Jordan and secured a livelihood by selling dairy products to those in her social circle. Soon after, she moved to Turkey to expand her business idea. Like many other business owners, Fatimah faced challenges finding access to fresh supplies and resources in the wake of the pandemic. She worked with her supplier to secure a trustworthy source of milk and other fresh dairy products to make her ghee, cheese, and yogurt. Since then, her orders increased, doubling her production. Over 30 families are loyal customers; Fatimah believes that word of mouth with the guarantee of fresh products is keeping her business stable. 

Zeinab must adapt her flower extract business to address reduced demand and a disrupted cross-border supply chain.

Zeinab must adapt her flower extract business to address reduced demand and a disrupted cross-border supply chain.

Zeinab Wazzan, a 49-year-old Syrian entrepreneur whose family owned a flower and lemon farm in Latakia, brought her family’s distillation machine to Mersin where she started a flower essence extraction business. While she continues to sell flowers to local families during the pandemic, social distancing measures and disrutptions in her supply chain forced her to decrease production and turn down orders. While business is not the same, Zeinab and her family continue to persist.

Creating New Opportunities through Online Business

For some, transitioning to online services has strengthened their business offerings. Take Selin Eker, a Turkish entrepreneur whose business centers around baking sourdough bread and gluten-free products. 

Selin recently opened a café in Mersin where she sold baked goods and raw ingredients. While COVID-19 forced Selin to pivot her business online, she now sells her products to customers who continue to support her. In fact, this transition brought her new customers and allowed her to generate enough profit to cover the costs for her café, which she was struggling to cover before the spread of COVID-19. “I did not make any business changes, but the fact that I was very fast to adapt did me well. I set out with the logic of creating opportunity arising from the current crisis and I can say that the process of staying at home and doing more research and development is good for me."

Capitalizing on New Markets for At-Home Activities

Other Turkish entrepreneurs like Nadide Yidirim (who also sells sourdough bread) and Emine Yalcin Aka took advantage of new markets that emerged as individuals spend more time at home. 

Nadide, who successfully pivoted her sourdough bread business online, advises other members during an online workshop

Nadide, who successfully pivoted her sourdough bread business online, advises other members during an online workshop

Nadide took her unique idea of baking artisan bread from ancestral seeds and shifted to selling sourdough starters online to promote baking at home. Along with selling her products directly, she started to organize online sourdough bread workshops which led to increased orders from numerous cities. Nadide contributes her adjustment during the pandemic to her experiences in the LIFE Project entrepreneurship incubation program. “My attitude towards life has changed by participating in the LIFE Project. I am better equipped from the training I received, and my self-confidence has increased. LIFE became like my family. I feel safe in all matters." Now, Nadide pays this support forward by advising other LIFE Entrepreneurs on business pivot strategies.

Emine started her business selling kombucha five years ago when she began making the fermented drink for her friends. Online orders come from all over Mersin through her Instagram account, @my_komucha_tea. Now with COVID-19 keeping families indoors, Emine created a starter kits for individuals to make their own kombucha. A 250 ml bottle of kombucha is sold at 20 TRY, while the kits are sold for 85 TRY. Since the shift, demand increased as did profits through sale of the starter kits.  Emine credits her attitude for helping her pivot her business, since she finds joy in introducing and delivering a healthy product she has been drinking for years. "I had regular customers before the pandemic and when I introduced the product on my page, my yeast (kit) sales started getting higher as people wanted to make the product at home." Emine continues to produce and sell her kombucha and starter kits and actively markets through online platforms to attract more customers

While LIFE entrepreneurs persist in these difficult times, significant hurdles still exist that threaten the success of their business journeys. The LIFE Project is committed to continue providing refugee and host community entrepreneurs with the skills and resources to adapt and strengthen their businesses in the face of these new challenges.