If there is one country known for its emigrant, internationally-bound community, it is Lebanon. Today, there are more Lebanese people living outside the country - between 8 and 14 million - than inside, where only 4 million Lebanese citizens live. Amongst the millions in diaspora, three young entrepreneurs gathered their talents, their passion for tech, and their long-lasting melancholy for a homeland they left, to wrap up the scents, the flavours, and the textures of their Levantine country in a box - literally.
The idea behind Koullouna, the cardboard box infused with Lebanese flavours travelling the world, was sparked when founder Marielle Khayat left Lebanon in 2011 to continue her studies abroad, yet keeping a very strong bond with her country. “I work in the entrepreneurship and Innovation field in Paris, this inspires me to look at things from a different perspective and think of creative solutions to problems,” says the young entrepreneur, who lived in China and the US before settling down in the French capital. “When I started writing down my ideas, I noticed that they all involved Lebanon!” she recalls.
Throughout her travels, Khayat had always stayed passionate about highlighting positive happenings in her home country and in 2012, she co-wrote Losing Touch, depicting the lives of Beirut’s trade workers, in an account and nostalgic reflection of a the disappearing Lebanese trades.
Home is not a place, it's a feeling
Much like Khayat, co-founder Pascale Comaty spent five years working abroad, developing LinkedIn’s business strategy for the MENA region. A world traveller as well, she’s been travelling around South-East Asia since 2017, in charge of making Koullouna known in the world, convinced that “Home is not a place, it's a feeling,” as she says.
Joining their team of Lebanese expats longing for the fruits and flavours of the country of cedars was Joseph Sayegh, whose early departure from Lebanon at 17 years old estranged him physically but not emotionally, as he kept a strong relationship with his motherland, particularly through his involvement with the Lebanese diaspora in France.
This video was originally published on our sister site Startupsceneme.com
It was probably the common experience as homesick world travellers that brought the three entrepreneurs together, creating a channel between expats and their homeland. "From abroad I was seeing all these local Lebanese initiatives that were pushing the country forward and spreading hope and positivity. I wanted to get involved but it was very hard to do that from far away,” says Khayat, as she explains the “virtuous cycle” the startup proposes: with every purchase, the company gives back to the Lebanese ecosystem, donating to charitable organisations based in the country. Indeed, the entrepreneurs recently began a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, raising 141 percent of their goal of €15,000 to send off their first boxes. In a chat with Startup Scene ME, founder Marielle Khayat explains how their “virtuous cycle” works.
What can you tell us about the Lebanese diaspora?
The majority of those abroad, which live in South America, consist mainly of third or fourth generation of emigrants; most of them have never been to Lebanon, but they are engaged in local Lebanese clubs and the network is very active. Second generations are mostly in Australia, USA, but also Canada, France and UK where there are a lot of first generation emigrants too. The Lebanese community is also very active in these countries through many student clubs, associations, parishes, and networks.
However, our market goes beyond the Lebanese diaspora since we want to reach all Lebanon-lovers or Lebanon-curious! All the people who have already traveled and fell in love with Lebanon, all the ones who have Lebanese friends and are curious to know more about this country.
The box comprises of local goods and products: each month there will be a special theme and the box will contain a bundle of curated articles related to that theme, shipped with love, all the way from Lebanon
Where are you shipping the first boxes and what are the products?
The first boxes that are going to be sold during the crowdfunding in November are going to be shipped worldwide. The idea would be to continue shipping across the world on a monthly basis. The box comprises of local goods and products: each month there will be a special theme and the box will contain a bundle of curated articles related to that theme, shipped with love, all the way from Lebanon. But there's more to it: the box also comes with local initiatives, as each box will be contributing to helping a Lebanese charitable activity that has a positive impact on the country. That way, subscribers are collectively helping their country grow from afar and contributing to a virtuous local ecosystem.
Who are the entities interested in collaborating?
A first prototype box was sent to more than 20 Lebanese people based in different cities around the world, from Paris to Dubai and was around the theme of coffee: One “Rakwe”, 4 “Chaffe”, an orange blossom water bottle from Maymoune, a pack of coffee from Cafe Najjar and lots of Lebanese goodies. Maymoune and Cafe Najjar were our first collaborators and many are also interested. We can't cite them at this early stage but they will be unveiled when the time comes.
Tell us more about the goodwill causes you are supporting?
Every month, a local initiative or association with a positive impact will be selected and a part of all the subscriptions will be donated to that initiative. For the first prototype that was sent in May, the selected initiative was the Nawaya Network and we were able to sponsor a Basketball course to Ahmad. The initiatives we support are non-profit, apolitical and not affiliated to religious groups.
Are there any competitors or companies trying out this model in other countries?
We don't have direct competitors. The closest to a competitor would be a Lebanese shop in a foreign country; but we are different as we provide an experience more than actual products, and we send a wide range of products - not only alimentary but also cultural, functional, and decorative. Another competitor on the "social" aspect of the startup would be people contributing to initiatives directly (without passing by Koullouna); what we offer is a different story each month and varied verified contributions.Similar boxes exists for French expats, Bleu Blanc Box and for British expats, Penn Ar box, which offers only alimentary products.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Koullouna.
*This article was originally published on our sister site Startupsceneme.com