Buying Local: Q&A With Thuna’s Sharifa Al-Sulaity

Sharifa Al-Sulaity, co-founder of e-commerce startup <a href="">Thuna</a>, talks to Global Finance about the launch and growth of her digital shoe business.

Global Finance: What pushed you to start your own business?

Sharifa Al-Sulaity: Many Kuwaitis work in the public sector, but I never wanted to do that. I’ve always wanted to work at a private company and reach a high position. While working for a couple of small businesses in the food and beverages sector, I understood how the entrepreneurial spirit works and I felt this was right for me. I thought that if I have my own company, I can make a difference.

GF: How did you fund your company?

Al-Sulaity: We struggled with funding. At first, we were self-funded, starting with little capital—around $7,000. We wanted to apply to the National Fund for Small and Medium Enterprise Development [a $7 billion government fund established in 2013], but unfortunately it was closed due to Covid-19. After that, we got a small loan from the Industrial Bank of Kuwait. Paradoxically, since we work in e-commerce, the pandemic helped us because online shopping grew very quickly. We were profitable the first year and our [product] turnover increased 175% to $1.1 million between 2020 and 2021. We even started hiring five employees and will go up to 10 this year.

GF: What makes Kuwait an attractive market for you?

Al-Sulaity: We have a high purchasing power in Kuwait; that’s obviously a plus. But also, I feel that being locals gives us an advantage. It helps to better understand the market, for example. We have our own seasons here that are different from international fashion seasons. Our winters are very short, and our summers are very long, so we don’t want fur boots, we want open shoes. Ramadan is also something we take very seriously in Kuwait and in the region; it is the season when people buy the most. To be successful, businesses must understand the specific needs of the clients.

GF: How do you see Kuwait’s business environment changing?

Al-Sulaity: I see a lot of businesses setting up; it is very impressive. But the small size of the market, as well as the lack of government support and regulations, is limiting the growth of companies. Therefore, you see a lot of businesses starting here and then moving abroad.

GF: What are some of the difficulties in terms of regulations in Kuwait?

Al-Sulaity: Regulation of online payments systems. The lack of payment gateways, like ApplePay, for example, is something that really affects e-commerce companies. We have customers from all over the world, and when they don’t see the payment options, they are familiar with, they don’t go ahead with the purchase. One of the tools we would like to implement, for example, is “buy now, pay later.” It could increase our sales by up to 20%, but for now it is not available in Kuwait because it is not regulated by the central bank. Meanwhile, in neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates, it’s up and running.

GF: Are you thinking of expanding abroad?  

Al-Sulaity: Our line of business requires minimum order quantities to be able to reach specific cost margins, and we realized we are not able to do that with the Kuwaiti market only, so we registered our company in Saudi Arabia, which is a similar yet much bigger market. We will continue online sales, and we are also opening a store in Jeddah in March, along with five to six pop-ups around the region.