Dubai through the eyes of Zaina Kanaan, co-founder of ChariCycles
Zaina Kannan talks about her starting up a business with sister, their involvement with refugee camps and what makes ChariCycles different…
Where are you from? I’m Palestinian but grew up in Canada.
When did you come to Dubai? Five years ago. I grew up in Montreal but it was too cold for too long during the year. I wanted a change and wanted to live close to the beach and Dubai was the polar opposite of Montreal.
What do you do here? When I moved here, I had a corporate job, but I left and launched a start-up with my sister Rania, who’s also my partner in ChariCycles. We started an e-commerce website for people who make handmade products around the Middle East and North Africa.
What is ChariCycles? We started it a year-and-a-half ago and basically, we upcycle vintage bicycles. We get old bicycle frames from Japan, and instead of turning them into scrap metal, we upcycle them. We give them a new heartbeat and replace all the parts so they’re functional bikes, but the steel frame itself is 50 to 100 years old. So, we conserve the environment at the same time as making bikes.
What makes your bikes so different? You don’t find upcycled bikes anywhere in the world. And these are customisable. Instead of going to a shop and buying a bike that’s already made, we’ll give you your dream bike. You can customise the seat, the grips, and the colour of the bicycle – you can have fluorescent pink, or golden shades of pearl. We’ve seen some people who want specific things written on the bike, which is something we’re starting to offer right now. You can have a polka-dot bike or you can have full illustrations on it or even your signature.
Tell us about your involvement with refugee camps For every five bicycles we sell, we give one to a child in a refugee camp. When I volunteer in refugee camps, I ask kids what they want and they never say they want a sweater or money. They want a bike because it gives them freedom.
Right now, we’re doing a programme with a Syrian camp. The kids have to perform well in school for a week, and the best student that week gets a bike. It really incentivises them to stay in school.
What inspired you to start ChariCycles? I lived on a bicycle in Montreal. That’s how I commuted everywhere. When I came here, I wanted to buy a bicycle but I couldn’t find the right colour or even the right shape. I wanted my dream bike so we made one on our balcony. We stripped it apart, remade it and everywhere I rode it, people asked, ‘Can you make me one?’ And we said yes.
Not long after, I got a call from a stylist and she wanted to borrow my bike for a photoshoot with a celebrity. I had no idea who it was, but it turned out to be a famous Bollywood actress. She was on billboards with our bicycle, all over Mumbai. After that, we realised we had to do this.
Do you make them yourself? We have a team now that helps out because we can’t do it all ourselves. But I still get involved. I’m very hands-on and I spend
a lot of time in the garage.
Where do you get the parts? The parts are outsourced but the end product’s made in Dubai. All the handiwork that goes into making the bikes happens here in Dubai.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt since starting ChariCycles? The biggest thing we’ve learnt is the number of people that want to cycle here. Even though it’s not like Europe, and there are still restrictions about where you can cycle in Dubai, people want to cycle – and that’s beautiful.
Favourite place to cycle in Dubai? I like Satwa because there’s so much to discover there. Every street’s different and you only discover them on a bicycle.
First impressions of Dubai? My first impression was that it’s a very comfortable city. But I still feel like a tourist here. I think it’s just the vibe – I have people flying in all the time and I’m always doing tourist activities.
Have those impressions changed? After five years, you change, and what you want from life changes. I travel quite often. I need to see more nature and different classes of people, and hear political opinions.
Favourite place to eat in Dubai? This changes a lot but this month I love Maraheb on Sheikh Zayed Road. They’ve got a dish called Madhabi that I love.
Favourite place to catch up with friends? I love listening to musicians, which happens in Tribeca a lot. I also like Pizza Express in JLT. I like live, homegrown music.
Favourite club or music event in Dubai? I like Freshly Ground Sounds a lot. And I like the Jazz Festival. When Nicolas Jaar was here, I loved that.
Favourite Dubai-based DJ or band? There’s a great acoustic band called Deerhum. And there’s a really young guy called Hasan Malik, who plays at Freshly Ground Sounds – he’s got the voice of an angel.
What do you do when you need some ‘me’ time? I do yoga and meditate a lot. I need ‘me’ time every day and make a point to get it.
What’s the secret to success here? The secret to success anywhere in the world is finding what success means to you. It depends on what your measure of success is, and measuring yourself to that.
Top tip for getting the most out of Dubai? Be open and try to meet as many new people as you can.
What’s next for you? For ChariCycles, we want to ship to Europe. For me, I’d love to make enough money to go back to school for a bit. I’d love to study photojournalism.