A Saudi social market could replace Instagram for ecommerce

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The internet offers huge opportunities for women and entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia. (Image via Artistia)

Instagram has become very popular in GCC countries. Bahrain is currently the third most active country on Instagram in MENA after the UAE (56 percent of the population subscribes) and Morocco (52 percent); 51 percent of Bahrainis subscribe to the social network, above 43 percent of Kuwaitis and Saudis.

For many young people in the region, Instagram is a chance to market and sell their products. In the Gulf, Instagram’s 'commerce' feature is being used by thousands of young users to promote their handmade crafts in an effort to generate an income from their hobbies and talents.

Capitalizing on the success of Instagram in Gulf countries, several online platforms have been launched to group and archive these online brands. Such platforms include Shelvies, which groups Saudi Instagram accounts, and Vetrina, an app designed to archive the accounts of more than 3,345 Kuwaiti stores, the products of which fall under 97 categories.

The designers of these apps view them as a positive phenomenon of the region's youth benefitting from social networks by developing their own mini stores. "Instagram was not built to be an ecommerce platform; this hugely complicates the task [of selling goods online]," says Lulwa AlSoudairy, founder and CEO of Artistia. “But people use it when they have no other option."

She believes that Instagram "is not the best way" to market handmade products.


The three cofounders AlSoudairy, Leena Al-Aufi and Marwan Cheguenni. (Image via AlSoudairy) 

Artistia offers a solution to this problem in the form of an online community that enables users to purchase crafts from Middle Eastern makers and artists. Artists can also recruit less-skilled practitioners to help them in their work, or seek the advice of their colleagues. 

Artistia also aids local artists in developing their ecommerce business through offering assistance in selling and promoting their products to customers across the region and the globe. They also help these artists develop partnerships with local and international shipping companies.

AlSoudairy launched Artistia in September 2015 alongside her two cofounders Leena Al Aufi and Marwan Cheguenni. The three cofounders currently reside in Boston, where, having finished their education, they dedicate their full time to the project. "We registered the company in the US, Dubai and KSA, but we run our business from the US, where we have access to resources and modern tools."

Solving a problem

AlSoudairy came up with the idea for Artistia after a personal experience with her mother, who resides in Saudi Arabia, and has a workshop where she makes original handicrafts spun from palm tree fronds. Marketing the products was difficult, due to the virtual impossibility of reaching clients outside of Saudi Arabia, without a proper solution. 

Artistia thus came onto the scene, and artists can display their products and promote them online. The platform has also streamlined shipping to regional customers through local partnerships with shipping companies.

Artists eager to join the platform are evaluated by the Artistia team for the quality of their products before being approved to list their products. The platform receives 1 Saudi Riyal for every listed product, and a commission of fifteen percent for every product sold.


During the filming of one of Rishatee’s sessions. (Image via Artistia)

While Instagram may have the advantage of being free, cofounder Cheguenni believes that his paid platform offers higher value for users. "We enable artists to focus on what they are good at doing, while we take care of the marketing and handling their sales," he says. AlSoudairy adds that "in light of the dependency of the Gulf countries' economy on oil, we're helping diversify it. We're putting in a lot of effort in convincing customers of our local products, telling them that for every Saudi Riyal they spend, they are helping create happier future generations."    

In addition to the three cofounders, Artistia currently has four team members, with more than 70 artists using the platform, most of them from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. The platform currently has over 3,000 weekly visitors.

Two months ago, the platform also launched Rishatee, a series of interviews with local artists who share their advice and experiences. In the next few months, Artistia will also launch additional social features on the platform, enabling artists to collaborate on crafting their products.

“The artistic scene is growing rapidly [in the region], and we will help these talented individuals, who are sitting at home, to be productive and generate an income from their talents," said AlSoudairy.

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