Leveling The Playing Field: Aziz Gamil, Co-Founder And CEO, Santra

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The potential economic empowerment that individuals can achieve by running a home-based business is considerable. However, within economies like the UAE’s, where small and medium enterprises (SMEs) account for 95% of all businesses, there is a need to enhance support for owners of home-based businesses. That certainly is the driving factor behind Santra, a UAE-based online marketplace that supports small business owners and makers of homemade food and sweets. “Santra was inspired by the need to address inefficiencies in the local F&B sector, where businesses struggled with disjointed systems, and a lack of integrated digital solutions,” says Aziz Gamil, co-founder and CEO of Santra. “Envisioning a platform to streamline processes and enable digital transformation, Santra aims to provide intuitive, comprehensive tools for these businesses, enhancing operational capabilities, and contributing to economic growth and innovation in the region. The goal is to be a growth partner for clients, simplifying the complexities of digital adoption.”

Launched in 2022 by Gamil along with co-founders Fatma Al Khaja and Mustafa Alelayawai, Santra offers digital solutions such as order management systems, real-time inventory tracking, integrated payment solutions, as well as customer insights. Thus, with these tools at their disposal, local food businesses and home-based food brands can attain logistical efficiency by reaching larger customer bases by organizing orders and delivery times on a single, dedicated platform. And all of this, Gamil says, allows small business owners a fighting chance to compete against existing larger chains as well.

Source: Santra

“We provide two specialized apps: a customer app for easy ordering and personalized experiences, and a seller app for efficient business management,” Gamil explains. “This dual-app approach caters to both demand and supply sides, ensuring efficient, responsive service. Entrepreneurs start by contacting us, followed by a demo and trial period of our platform. We then assist with onboarding, including setting up profiles and menus. Comprehensive training is provided for effective platform use. Ongoing support helps businesses grow and reach a broader customer base, making our technology accessible even to those with limited tech experience. Santra’s solutions thus meet the unique demands of the food industry.”

Today, Santra is a platform where 90% of its sellers are Emirati women- a profound testament to Gamil and his team’s commitment to fighting unemployment and empowering female entrepreneurs in the UAE. This sentiment, in fact, is what prompted Gamil to launch this startup in the first place- and it all started with a ‘santra,’ a word used to describe the mandarin fruit in many languages. “The startup’s name emerged from a simple yet memorable incident during my university days,” Gamil narrates. “While in class, I was discreetly enjoying a mandarin. This moment was humorously captured on video by a friend, and it led to a burst of laughter and camaraderie among us. But later, as I shared this light-hearted moment with my now co-founders, Fatma and Mustafa, it somehow sparked a deeper conversation about the challenges faced by local brands and home-based food businesses. We realized that many brilliant ideas and potential businesses, particularly led by women, never reach their full potential, due to a lack of accessible tools for managing and growing their operations. The story behind Santra is therefore one that reflects the spirit of spontaneity, innovation, and our commitment to uplifting local communities, particularly women entrepreneurs in the UAE.”

Aziz Gamil and Mustafa Alelayawi are the co-founders of Santra. Image source: Santra

Of course, it is no secret that the industry Santra operates in is a rapidly growing one. Indeed, as per a report by Mordor Intelligence, the food service market size is estimated at US$16.92 billion in 2023, and it’s expected to reach $43.98 billion by 2029. In such a saturated market, the need to differentiate from competitors increases- something that Gamil is all too aware of. “Santra has been built with a series of unique selling points in mind,” he says. “For starters, it has a user-friendly interface allowing entrepreneurs with varying levels of tech-savviness to manage their operations efficiently. Secondly, our platform is highly adaptable, enabling home businesses to maintain their unique identity, and meet their specific needs. We also offer a one-stop-shop solution for order, inventory, and customer relationship management, which streamlines operations and enhances the customer experience. With a focus on the regional market, we provide localized support, and we understand cultural nuances, giving home businesses an edge. And finally, our pricing model is budget-friendly for home businesses, ensuring they only pay for what they need with the flexibility to scale.”

Related: For The Love Of Shoes: How Sophia Webster Built Her Eponymous Luxury Accessories Brand

Nestled in the midst of this model to empower local home businesses is Santra’s own gateway to earning its share of revenue. “Our primary revenue stream comes from a modest commission on each transaction processed through our platform,” Gamil explains. “This aligns our success directly with that of our clients, ensuring that we are motivated by a shared goal of increasing their sales and operational throughput. We focus on businesses that are agile and open to digital transformation, yet may lack the resources to implement or manage complex digital solutions on their own. By offering a scalable and integrated platform, Santra becomes a powerful tool in their growth, enabling them to compete more effectively in the digital economy.”

But Santra’s graph towards achieving an efficient model of operation hasn’t necessarily been linear. “One of the most significant challenges I faced in leading Santra was the balancing act between rapid innovation and sustainable growth,” Gamil admits. “In the tech startup world, there’s immense pressure to move quickly. However, rapid development often comes with risks– both in terms of product stability and team burnout. Managing this delicate balance was a constant challenge. Another major hurdle was in introducing a new digital solution to traditional SMEs in the food sector, which meant that we were not just selling a product, but also advocating for a shift in operational mindset. Many potential clients were hesitant to move away from established methods to a digital platform. Convincing them required not just a solid product, but also a deep understanding of their pain points, as well as effective communication of the tangible benefits they would gain.”

Source: Santra

In overcoming these challenges, Gamil found that it eventually opened doors to investments for his startup as well. “Santra’s funding journey has been a testament to our growth and the confidence our investors have in our vision,” Gamil says. “We started in 2019, bootstrapped by personal investments from myself and close friends who shared a belief in the potential of our platform. This initial phase was about proving our concept, gaining traction, and refining our offerings. After a year and a half of diligent work and demonstrated success, we raised our first external capital of $300,000. Our participation in the 2022 edition of the startup event, GITEX Global, was the next significant milestone. The exposure and networking opportunities at such a prestigious tech event culminated in raising $1 million in pre-seed funding. This infusion of capital enabled us to further enhance our product, accelerate growth, and expand our reach to empower more local brands in the food industry.”

It is thus with that sense of optimism that Gamil hopes to lead his startup in 2024 and beyond. “Over the next 6-12 months, Santra is dedicated to enhancing our platform with new, client-requested features, expanding our market reach to welcome new clients, deepen existing relationships, and growing our team with individuals committed to innovation and client value,” he declares. “This strategy is aimed at strengthening our service in the food sector and supporting businesses in adapting to a digital-first approach. We want to continue positioning Santra in the market as a highly accessible, customizable, and supportive digital platform tailored for home businesses in the food sector!”

Aziz Gamil, co-founder and CEO, Santra. Source: Santra

‘Trep Talk: Aziz Gamil, co-founder and CEO of Santra, shares his tips for entrepreneurs

Recognize The Power Of Resilience And Adaptability “Being an entrepreneur is not just about having a great idea; it’s about your capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, to learn continuously, and to lead your team through ups and downs with a clear vision and steady hand.”

Embrace Uncertainty “I learned to be more comfortable with uncertainty. I realized that not every decision will be perfect, but being paralyzed by fear of making mistakes is far worse. Adopting a mindset of ‘learn fast, adapt quickly’ helped me navigate through ambiguous situations.”

Prioritize Team Well-Being “I learned the importance of fostering a work environment that values not just productivity but also well-being. This meant sometimes taking a step back to ensure our team was not overburdened, promoting a culture where mental health is as important as meeting development milestones.”

Focus On Customer Engagement And Education “We invested significantly in customer engagement. This involved detailed demos, workshops, and one-on-one sessions to illustrate the value of digital adaptation in their language, showing them the direct impact on their business efficiency and growth.”

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