Lingerie online: a Palestinian company is remaking the Middle Eastern lingerie market

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You’ll be forgiven if you know absolutely nothing about lingerie culture in the Middle East or the difficulties of running an e-commerce startup in the occupied territories. For Christina Ganim, however, it's just day-to-day life. 

“People think that lingerie is some sort of a taboo product in the Middle East, but it’s not,” Ganim said. “It’s actually very popular here. There’s even a book called the ‘Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie,’ about the exuberant types of lingerie popular there.”

In 2015, Ganim and her co-founder, Nicola Isabel, founded Kenz, Palestine’s first lingerie e-commerce company.

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“We had no real experience in tech or as entrepreneurs,” Ganim said. “But we liked lingerie and we saw that the startup community was growing in Ramallah and that there was an opportunity for us to join it.”

Kenz, which is based in Ramallah, focuses on the Arabic market and sells high-quality lingerie from international brands. They pride themselves on having the styles and, importantly, sizes of higher-end lingerie that can be hard to find locally.

“Turkish brands and styles are very popular right now,” Ganim said. 

The company goes beyond simply providing products and aims to be the Arabic-language authority on the subject. As such, they maintain a blog and social media presence that not only describes their products but also provide real-world advice about the culture and trends. 

“We want to be a one-stop shop for lingerie in the region,” Ganim said. 

Finding lingerie in Ramallah is not impossible, but the experience leaves a lot to be desired. Generally, shopping is done in markets, which are crowded and many shops are operated by men. The experience is roughly akin to shopping for lingerie in Costco — only this Costco almost certainly doesn't have your size and you can forget about trying anything on.

“A lot of people either travel to Amman to get it or ask a friend to pick some up when they travel abroad," Ganim said. 

Kenz is eager to fix this, but operating an e-commerce business in the occupied territories comes with a unique set of technical headaches. 

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Because shipments into and out of Palestine are subject to a litany of inspections and taxes, most of the items they sell are never actually brought into the country. Instead, Kenz partnered with Fetchr, a Dubai-based services and logistics company that manages their deliveries and inventory abroad.

“If we were a startup in New York, for example, we’d be running all of our logistics out of my living room,” Ganim said. “But because of the situation here we don’t have that option. So, we try to find ways around it.”

Online payments are not prevalent in much of the Middle East, so the company offers the option to pay upon delivery. Fetchr will deliver the product, pick up the cash and then deposit it into the Kenz' bank account. 

“The market in Palestine is very small, and we cannot process online payments here,” Ganim said. “It’s just one more of those technical challenges we face on a daily basis.”

Even PayPal, which can be used in over 200 countries, won't process payments from Palestinians. To surmount this obstacle, Kenz operates a series of pop-up shops for the local market.

Of course starting a business anywhere comes with unique challenges, but Ganim chose to stay in Ramallah. 

Ganim is Palestinian-American and was born in Jerusalem and her co-founder was born in the United States and moved to Ramallah. While they are both U.S. citizens and can live and work there if they want, the distinction is worth noting. Because Ganim carries a Palestinian ID card, it is difficult for her to travel into and out of Jerusalem. Although the city is just 20 kilometers away, she needs a special permit to travel there — even for something as simple as picking up merchandise.

Regardless of the obstacles, they're glad they started the business here. 

“It’s been a good experience. I personally think that I’ve received more guidance and support as an entrepreneur here than if we’d started up in San Francisco,” Ganim said. “I could be in the states, working, but I don’t want to be. I like being here. It’s a nice place to start a business and we have a great team and get to make a real impact.”

Kenz recently secured seed funding from Ibtikar Fund, a Ramallah-based fund that invests in Palestinian startups. The company is focusing on expanding in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Palestine, and is looking to expand to other countries in the not-too-distant future. 

Images via Kenz.