Dubai sisters Rania and Zaina Kanaan bring to mind a saying that’s as old as time: ‘Ultimately it’s not what you get in life, it’s what you become’. Both sisters left their lives and livelihoods in Canada in 2008 to move to Dubai, where they started their entrepreneurial journey upcycling old and forgotten bicycle frames, restoring them into beautiful customised bikes, and giving them a renewed heartbeat and home. From the start, the sisters were very clear with their plan and purpose. They wanted their mission to be sustainable, they wanted to promote a clean environment and they wanted to give back to society.
Art of upcycling
They first learnt the art of making bikes by spending hours on YouTube watching DIY videos. The idea of upcycling (or the art of taking discarded stuff, transforming it into something new and reusing it) came naturally as part of their plan to recycle waste. ‘Did you know the world currently produces 3.5 million tonnes of solid waste per day, equivalent to the weight of approximately 500,000 African elephants?’ Rania, the younger of the two, tells me when I meet them at their workplace, inside a modest warehouse in Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue that they call Kave.
Today their start-up, Chari Cycles (Chari in Japanese is slang for bicycle – ‘our frames originate from the Mama Chari which is the Japanese bicycle for mamas’ – has completed five years and gives refugee kids in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan the promise of mobility by donating a bike to a child for every five bikes they sell online.
Born just two-and-a-half years apart, Rania and Zaina grew up in Montreal, where one studied entrepreneurship and economics, and the other marketing and finance. They graduated really young, began working in Canada, until their family wanted them to move back to the region. ‘We were doing really well, but our mother wanted us close to her. She was crying on the phone almost every night! We finally took the decision to get back to Dubai,’ says Rania.
The sisters arrived in Dubai in 2008, missing their carefree days in Montreal where they used to bike around town quite frequently. ‘I think I really wanted to buy a bike for the longest time possible but everything I saw in Dubai was expensive,’ Zaina confesses.
While Rania, the more impulsive of the two, went ahead and bought herself a super expensive bicycle, Zaina held on to her desire. ‘I wanted a bike in a specific sea foam colour and I just didn’t want to spend so much money on one,’ she explains.
And then one day, during a long Eid break, on a shopping spree in Karama, the sisters picked up a used bicycle frame from one of the roadside bike shops and decided to upcycle it for Zaina. ‘We went on to You Tube and learnt how to strip off the paint and dismantle the frame, then reassemble it, mix the colours to paint it the way we wanted to and accessorise it. We gave it a vintage look with flowers and a basket. And so, just like that, on our balcony we made the first Chari cycle in 2014,’ says Rania.
‘It’s amazing what you can learn from YouTube, there is so much access to information now,’ says Zaina.
While Zania is more inclined towards the creative side, mixing colours and giving the bike its distinct look, Rania is better in the mechanical side – dismantling the parts and reassembling them. And that continues to be the divide. ‘We are both makers, but we are inclined towards different things.’
In those early days, 29-year-old Zaina earned a heap of praise from passersby every time she would bike around in Dubai. ‘There was something different about my bike. People realised it was different and had a vintage look and feel. Our first client turned out to be a young girl from Australia who had moved to Dubai but missed the coast and her life back home. We made a bike for her.’
The sisters got the idea for a business a bit by accident. ‘A woman who had been following Zaina on Instagram got in touch requesting if she could rent her bike for a day. We were a bit sceptical about her intentions, so we charged her the cost of the bike, just in case she just went off with it and never returned. But the lady came back the next day and told us that Zaina’s bike was used by none other than Anushka Sharma, the famous Indian film actress, and it was now on a billboard in Mumbai. It was then that we realised that there was something different about our creation and we could take the idea further,’ says Rania.
Between April and October 2014 the sisters manufactured four bikes a month – today during high season the demand can be for 20 to 30 bikes. ‘We have individuals who come to us because they love the way we can customise bikes, and we also have hotels and corporates that order bikes from us for their guests and staff members. Many cafes use our bikes to deliver goods and if companies want, we can have their logos and corporate colours on the bike,’ said Zaina. ‘But we make on order and that’s part of our philosophy. We make what we need and not more than that.’
Starting from scrap
The sisters work with multiple suppliers who feed them with old bikes. ‘The frames of these bikes are salvaged from scrap and you could trace it all the way to Japan, where a user would trash the bike after several years of use. These old bikes are then collected and then shipped to other countries as scrap. So a used bike in Japan can end up in a landfill in the UAE as shipping waste. Japan is one of our source markets, but we can work on any used bicycle from anywhere in the world,’ says Rania.
Once an order comes for Chari cycles, the customer gets a choice of frames. It could be a high-bar or a low-bar one, and depends on the height of the person it’s meant for. ‘We give our customers a colour palette to choose from, they can go glossy or full matte, and finally have a go at the tyres, seat and grips, basket and other accessories. We also do a check on what needs replacing on the bike, such as its brake, wheels or pedals. You can actually have a fully customised bike planned for you in five minutes and we can get it ready in a week’s time. The cost for an adult bike would range between Dh1,300 and Dh2,500, while for kids the cost would be around Dh1,100,’ says Rania.
Through their bikes, the sisters promote going green, while encouraging a healthier lifestyle. ‘Riding a bicycle is a direct reduction to the world’s pollution. There is that awareness in Dubai now about the energy-saving benefits of having a bike. There are also so many expats living here who miss their home and our bikes give them a feel of the life they left behind,’ says Zaina.
The "giving back" ethos is also visible in Kave, an upcycled café, where the sisters can be found on any workday. They call it their mindful space that supports local artisans and other local pop-ups sharing a similar ethos. There is the handmade musical instrument brand Howlin’ Rooster here (that makes guitars from used cigar boxes), a sustainable café that uses organic free range produce, as well as a fair trade shop that sells products made by refugee women in the region.
For both Rania and Zaina, the idea of giving back to society was almost imperative. ‘I feel we have been privileged enough to study in a good university, to have jobs at a young age and to have made money really early. But we soon realised that there had to be something more to life and what we had didn’t really define us. We had gotten into that habit of making money and living the good life. But it got us thinking of our purpose and we realised we wanted something bigger and deeper,’ says Zaina.
‘We have reached out to children in refugee camps because we believe that children have a right to freedom, regardless of their environment. In those camps, you can ask any child what do you want for your birthday? The answer is almost always: A bicycle! The bike is like a symbol of freedom for them,’ says Rania.
Chari Cycles have so far donated 10 bikes to children in the West Bank, Palestine (in collaboration with Palestine Children Relief Fund in the Al-Am’ari and Qalandia Refugee Camps in Ramallah), 21 bikes to children on the border of Syria and Turkey through Watanili, a grassroots initiative that works with Syrian children to give them a dose of normal childhood through art, film and education. Ten adult bikes were donated as part of a bike-sharing project in Nahr El Bared, Lebanon with the NGO Mishwar that allows everyone in the camp to use them and will be maintained and monitored by the camp residents themselves.
According to Rania, ‘For most of these kids, there is no future as they don’t see any hope in going to school. They’ve been uprooted from their homes and have a lot of restrictions in their movements. So gifting them a bike is like a huge incentive and it helps to get them back in the fold of education. The bikes we donate are usually bought locally or close to the camps so that there is no transportation costs involved, and then we make sure that everything is fitted out for the kids.’
As part of their social initiatives, the sisters have also reached out to workers in Dubai who get their bikes confiscated if they are not wearing a vest and helmet for safety reasons. ‘So we worked in, partnership with Wunderman, to create an awareness campaign around riding a bicycle safely in Dubai. The main objective of the campaign was to get as many vests and helmets donated for the workers who are the most frequent users of bicycles in this city. We were able to buy 40 vests and 10 helmets for them.’
As Zaina says, ‘the bigger motive behind us starting our business was that we wanted things to change and to be done now. We didn’t want to wait endlessly to implement a change. We wanted to control things our way and the only way to do this is to walk the way of entrepreneurship. Chari cycles was born with that thought in mind. We wanted to give back to individuals, to communities and to the environment. We wanted to create a beautiful product that would impact everyone positively.’
The journey has been fun, agree both the sisters. ‘It’s been a lot of hard work but we do what we love and we work at our own pace. Realising what you like and then building on that is what we did. Aspiration fosters innovation, but you really have to be a stubborn goat,’ says Rania.