Nurturing mindful eating: Meet Layla Al-Dorani, the woman behind Qatar's first vegan empire
Returning to Qatar in 2007 to work in the oil and gas industry, Layla Al-Dorani noticed healthy food was not easily accessible to Qatari residents.
“I remember volunteering on an after-school programme and I noticed the children didn’t have any fruit in their lunchboxes. At one point, I asked the kids to raise their hands if they had any fruit or vegetables during the day and only two raised their hands,” Layla tells The New Arab.
Her students explained that it’s “uncool” to have healthy food in their lunchboxes and they all strived to eat trendy junk instead. This led Layla to study the market in more depth to help her realise that there was no accessible and “cool” alternative to unhealthy food.
"Veganism wasn’t popular around the world and was virtually unheard of in Qatar, so we had to market through different means"
“I came to Qatar with the intention of connecting with my dad’s side of the family,” Layla, who has an American mother and Qatari father explained.
“While I was working in the oil and gas sector and later in banking, I was doing my yoga teacher training. At the same time, I wanted to give back to the country that provided me with so much opportunity.”
She realised that she wasn’t as able to find healthy, plant-based options at a time in which the average Qatari resident’s diet was comprised of mainly animal products, sugar and fats and thus wanted to provide a healthy alternative to help nurture a culture of mindful eating.
After putting her heart into her mission and pitching a business model, Raw ME was born in 2010. Just a year later, Raw ME expanded into brick-and-mortar.
“We started out selling cold-pressed juice and introducing people to the concept of drinking their nutrients and putting vegetables in juices,” Layla said.
“This in itself posed a huge challenge because there wasn’t as much knowledge on cold-pressed juicing as there is now. People were rightfully sceptical at how the fresh juice can last for 72 hours, so we had to introduce the concept and explain the technology.”
The juicing picked up and the conversation around healthy eating began to grow in Qatar. Her initial success led her to expand into preparing meals and providing customers with raw, gluten-free and plant-based meals.
“The demand for our food grew and we were able to educate people on plant-based living by dispelling myths about not eating meat. We were also able to support smaller businesses as more plant-based and health-focused businesses popped up,” Layla explained.
Raw ME even expanded to gyms by opening their own fuel bar at a local gym. The company was en-route to opening their second before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Changing the landscape
“Things were very different 10 years ago when I first started out,” Layla said as she described the creative transformation that took place in Qatar over the decade.
“Veganism wasn’t popular around the world and was virtually unheard of in Qatar, so we had to market through different means.
“I turned vegan out of compassion for the planet and animals and the belief that we don’t need meat in our lives because we are no longer hunters – however, to explain this to a predominantly meat-eating society would be difficult,” Layla said, adding that her intention is to guide people to better choices, not to create a judgemental space.
"I just want to create a readily available, sustainable and cruelty-free alternative to people without them feeling like they are depriving themselves"
Because of this, she marketed Raw ME as a healthier alternative to what is already available.
“Rather than lobbying people to change their diets, we created an opportunity for them to incorporate more plants in their diets and have their five portions of fruit and vegetables easily.”
Her empathetic approach even translated into her personal life as a vegan living in Qatar. Rather than preaching her lifestyle, she hosted her friends and family to eat vegan food when they wanted to gather and they were usually pleasantly surprised.
She gives advice to her friends and family upon request and is able to kindly avert eating meat at other peoples’ houses by explaining her choices and requesting fruit or vegetables.
Layla’s ethos for accessibility came full circle when she launched Fruity Friends in 2017, bags of fruit that have a shelf-life of 21 days and that are perfect for lunchboxes.
“My whole business idea started because I was volunteering as a school and within seven years of starting my business, I managed to release a product that helps the very people that inspired me.
“Rather than having to cut up fruit in the morning and packing them into boxes, with Fruity Friends parents and housekeepers are able to throw a healthy snack into lunchboxes as easily as a bar of chocolate,” Layla added.
The idea was so successful that even adults began to buy Fruity Friends for themselves.
As the demand for plant-based food grew, Layla launched her own vegan fast-food restaurant in October 2020.
“The whole point of this idea is to show people that they can fulfil their cravings without the added cholesterol of animal products,” she said.
“Overall, the outcome has been very rewarding. I sold the first vegan shawarma in Qatar and had someone who told me that they were able to eat their first shawarma in years because of our products," she adds.
"At the same time, I also had people tell me that my shawarma isn’t really shawarma because it’s not made out of meat. I’m not trying to impress everyone, I just want to create a readily available, sustainable and cruelty-free alternative to people without them feeling like they are depriving themselves.”
Her vegan empire has not only prompted a change but also helped to inspire up and coming entrepreneurs as Qatari residents became more comfortable with leaving the security of a 9-5 job to chase their dreams.
“It’s become a lot easier to start a business in Qatar than it was 10 years ago. A lot of the bureaucracy has dissolved in the government’s bid to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship, which is beautiful to see. People are taking risks and are no longer fearing failure and this younger generation is more accepting of the entrepreneurial path,” Layla opined.
“If I had to give advice to anyone who wants to start a business, it’s to just do it. Qatar is growing fast and there is space for everyone. Failure is never permanent and there is always something to learn in order to get back up wiser and stronger.”
Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab and a spiritual lifestyle blogger.