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Wojouh: Diana H. Kobayter

One of the greatest assets of Greater Tripoli is its very own people. Whether in Tripoli or abroad, Greater Tripolitans have continued to excel and innovate. As a result, Tripolicy has decided to launch a series called Project Wojouh to shed light on some notable figures and rising stars.

Diana Kobayter is a young entrepreneur who recently founded Zouyouti, Oils & Beyond, a brand which has emerged by upscaling a renowned family business, Al Wazir Olive Oil, specialized in the production of olive oil since the early 1950’s. Diana hasn't let that family tradition fall by the wayside as she has tapped into that history to create new product lines with a unique Mediterranean blend. Zouyouti offers its customers a range of healthy, authentic, and natural products, sensational textures, and heavenly fragrances prepared with lots of passion. Zouyouti goes on to further add a touch of handmade, a unique blend of natural ingredients, and a bundle of creativity to the overall experience.

In addition to her business achievements, Diana has worked for multiple relief and development organizations with many years of experience in the design, implementation and management of aid and development programs.

Tripolicy's Raafat Yamak met with Diana Kobayter to discuss her latest achievements and projects, and the vision that she sees for other business entrepreneurs looking to make inroads into the Lebanese and international markets.

Kobayter's Zouyouti Logo

Raafat Yamak: Diana, thank you so much for being with Tripolicy today. I'm aware that your schedule is extremely busy, so we truly appreciate your time being here.

Diana Kobayter: The pleasure is mine! Thank you actually for the feature!

RY: I want to start off by asking you about your upbringing. Were you born and raised in Tripoli?

DK: I was born and raised in Qalamoun (North Lebanon), and attended school in Tripoli (El Koura) at the Lycee Franco-Libanais, prior to moving to Beirut to start college at the American University of Beirut where I completed my BA in Political Sciences, specializing in International Affairs. After my BA I moved to the United Kingdom where I acquired an MA in Human Resources from the University of Leeds.

RY: Very cool. I think you're our first Qalamouni personality to be interviewed by Tripolicy as part of the Wojouh Series! So, after you graduated, where did your career path take you?

DK: Proud Qalamounian and Northern Lebanese! My professional journey started right after having completed my MA in the UK. I moved to Barcelona, Spain to work at the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Navigation as a Project Officer formulating and developing project concepts to acquire funds from various international donors.

RY: That must have been a huge challenge to take on. I'm curious as to why you decided to settle in Spain. Do you have any ties there?

DK: Yes, as a matter of fact! We have ties to Spain since my childhood! Back in the 1950’s my late grandfather, Mohamad Kobayter, launched the first company in Lebanon to introduce branded olive oil in the market: "Al-Wazir Olive Oil". A few years after he found an opportunity for expansion in the export of olive oil around the world, the company KOBAYTER SAL was founded in Malaga, Spain and we have been exporting its products internationally. Moreover, my father is – since the early 90’s - the Honorary Consul of Spain in North Lebanon. I am also fluent in Spanish and I consider Spain as my second home. This country has given us a lot!

RY: Wow, with Spain playing such a huge role in your post-graduate life, how did Lebanon tie back in with respect to your aid work?

DK: So, I moved back to Lebanon to work at the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Beirut, where I managed to secure 4 million euros of funds for a waste management project proposal that I had drafted and which was selected for execution by one of European’s Commissions funding programs for the Mediterranean region. The project was a regional project implemented across 6 countries, including Lebanon, in the Mediterranean area.

I have dedicated most of my career to projects and program management, where I have acquired project formulation skills and implementation skills. I was able to gain an extensive experience in the Euro-Mediterranean region working where I have identified and developed strategic partnerships on the local & regional levels, tailored solutions to particular challenges facing public-private partnerships, and managed and implemented various development projects.

RY: That's incredible. It's great to hear about initiatives happening in Lebanon. I'm aware that you have also done work specifically in Tripoli. How did you manage to steer your focus towards your hometown?

DK: It's interesting you ask that. For the past few years I have been working with Mercy-USA for Aid & Development - an NGO with HQ in the United States - dedicated to alleviating human suffering and supporting refugees and local communities in their efforts to become more self-sufficient. The bulk of our work is in Tripoli and North Lebanon as Tripoli has taken in a massive influx of Syrian refugees on top of the existing Palestinian refugees. This makes Tripoli an important center deserving of support and economic aid to meet the massive challenges facing the region. Many of our projects are funded by international donors, namely United Nations Agencies.

I am also currently a Senior Regional Expert in a project financed by the European Commission, and managed by DG REGIO – Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy, acting as Contracting Authority, dedicated to providing technical support to the Implementation and Management of 15 European Neighborhood Instrument Cross Border Cooperation (ENI CBC) CBC programs.

RY: I'm sure your background also played a crucial role in understanding the area and potentially providing better programs. Moving away from your humanitarian work, what motivated you to start a business while you were working with Mercy USA?

DK: Actually, I wouldn't say we're moving away from humanitarian work just yet! Zouyouti’s business model focuses on engaging & employing vulnerable and underprivileged women to empower them and contribute to improving their livelihoods and living conditions. Decorative work, packaging, and wrapping are made by women directly from their households before being dispatched to clients. I genuinely believe that every company should strive to have a social impact especially considering the current crisis Lebanon is going through where more and more people are in need of jobs to secure their basic needs.

RY: It must be an amazing feeling to contribute something back to your hometown in the way you are doing. This is the kind of ethical business that I, and many others, in my opinion, can be on board with! Would you mind telling us a little more about Zouyouti products?

DK: Sure! Initially, I started Zouyouti to try to innovate and upscale the family business. I felt that our generation was not familiar with the Al Wazir brand so I wanted to create something new with a more youthful touch. My first product was a soap bag with the word “سعادة” (which means happiness) printed on it. I showed it to friends and they loved the smell and the idea. They started placing orders requesting specific designs and/or names on the bags. And this is how it all started! From a customized soap bag to expanding the line of products to skin care products (soaps, rose water, body oil), to edible products (olive oil, rose water, flower water, olives), and gift items (baby favors, wedding favors, corporate gifts, etc.). The brand caters to people’s tastes and events!

RY: That's really fantastic. I'm sure there are more options available on your Instagram page as well. Do you do international deliveries?

DK: Yes, we do! We have been delivering to many people around the world via DHL. Our website is currently under construction. I expect it to be up and running by the end of the month!

RY: That's great! I'm really looking forward to seeing that. I wanted to ask you one final question about suggestions or advice you'd give to up and coming business entrepreneurs in Lebanon, especially in Tripoli. Any tips?

DK: Honestly, with respect to Lebanon, it’s difficult to encourage someone to start a business here right now with ailing Lebanese economy. Moreover, at the moment, the local purchasing power has decreased to a drastic level due to the hyperinflation. But I would definitely encourage anyone with a current business to adjust their business to survival mode. Small and medium businesses are at the heart of communities and of the economic health of any country, thus try to survive in order to recover and rebound stronger!

Last but not least, with the COVID-19 pandemic still controlling most aspects of our lives, maintaining a business requires patience, wisdom, and an innovative attitude to go beyond the extraordinary hurdles the local community, and particularly Tripoli, is facing. Another piece of advice I would give is the need to go digital and have an online presence. Purchasing trends have tremendously changed; you no longer need to have a physical store to be able to sell! Most businesses have gone digital lately. An online presence not only cuts some overhead costs, but it has the ability to let you reach a wider consumer network all over the world.

RY: Agreed. Those are all great points. I promise this is the last question. How feasible is it for Tripolitan business owners overseas to open up branches in Tripoli?

DK: I think it's very feasible and Al Wazir is one example of this. We continue to employ local talent, while utilizing the relatively cheaper costs associated with Lebanese labor. Not only is it a way to make profits, but it is also a way to reduce the rampant unemployment in the area. It is something that I hope more overseas Tripolitan business owners will start considering.

RY: This was a great way to end this interview. Thank you so much for your time, and just to let you know, I only buy Al Wazir olive oil.

DK: Thank you and I'm glad to see Tripolicy doing great things, and I'm definitely happy to hear that you are an Al Wazir fan! Thanks again, Raafat!

RY: Thank you.

About the Author:

R. Mahmoud Yamak is a petroleum engineer currently residing in Dallas, TX. He is a commentator on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs who has previously written for the Daily Sabah, The New Arab, Muftah Magazine, among others.

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