Alaa El Huni, Chief Business Officer, CAFU highlights that UAE is spearheading the journey for startups in the region, and how CAFU has grown into a successful venture that is going global with its entry into the Canadian market
Being a startup yourself, how do you see the startup landscape evolve in the region since CAFU started in 2018?
Over the past few years, the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) has experienced remarkable growth in startups. Consequently, the startup ecosystems in the region are rapidly expanding, creating fresh avenues for individuals seeking to fulfil their entrepreneurial aspirations.
In the UAE, this entrepreneurial behaviour has been driven in part by the government’s relentless efforts to cultivate a supportive environment that spans a wide range of sectors. The UAE is spearheading the journey for startups like ours, through announcements like Projects of the 50 – a series of developments that aim to position this country as the best global investment destination and a leader in the innovative economy. Additionally, its various incubation and accelerator programs provide startups with the necessary tools to help them grow and thrive.
At CAFU, we wholeheartedly commit ourselves to supporting the growth and development of entrepreneurs, even from a young age. That’s why we have joined forces with GEMS Education and GEMS World Academy, a local school in the UAE, to collaborate on their Youth Entrepreneurship Accelerator program. This unique initiative serves as a platform to empower students, fostering their entrepreneurial spirit and safeguarding the vibrant startup ecosystem of the UAE.
As a strong believer in the immense potential that lies ahead for Dubai, we are excited about the opportunities it presents for our brand and the wider innovation ecosystem. The collaborative spirit, diverse talent pool, and supportive business environment in Dubai serve as a catalyst for turning bold ideas into reality.
Furthermore, Dubai’s commitment to sustainability and its focus on becoming a smart city further aligns with my own values and aspirations. The city’s drive towards sustainable practices and adoption of advanced technologies inspires us to continue pushing the boundaries of innovation in our own endeavours.
How would you describe your journey and how has the company grown over the years?
I started my entrepreneurial journey about 20 years ago, and have worked in investment, growth, expansion, corporate strategy, product development, and served at the helm of organizations across UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya, and Ethiopia. These experiences led me on my journey to CAFU.
Our founder and CEO, Rashid Ghurair, got the idea for CAFU after noticing that despite radical developments in the automotive industry, the petrol station continued to operate along a century-old model. In fact, everything around servicing our vehicles hasn’t really evolved much over the past 100 years. This resonated with me, from the outset. CAFU’s mantra of finding “a better way to do things” is also my personal driver and so it was an easy fit.
In my capacity as Chief Business Officer, my goal is to drive business growth by working with key business partners to establish and launch initiatives, ventures, and projects, while maintaining CAFU’s position as a leader in innovation within the automotive, mobility, and energy industries. In the UAE, we have evolved from a fleet of 20 trucks in 2018, to becoming the technology platform of choice for all vehicle services.
While our journey began with fuel delivery, we have expanded our offerings while staying true to our core brand promise – to deliver the services a car owner needs. At present, we proudly serve as the leading vehicle service provider in the UAE, offering a wide range of services beyond fuel delivery. In addition, we provide services such as car wash, oil change, battery change, tire change, insurance, minor service, inspection, and emergency fuel services. These services are designed to cater to the diverse needs of our customers and ensure their vehicles are well-maintained and running smoothly.
Building on our success in the Middle East, we have expanded globally, starting earlier this year with Canada, where we are set to revolutionize the electric vehicle (EV) industry. We are proud to offer a mobile EV charging solution, making EV ownership more accessible and convenient for consumers and businesses, as well as solving the infrastructure gap that slows down EV transition.
As we move into new regions, we have come to the realisation that localization is a key aspect of our strategy. We strive to understand the specific needs and dynamics of each market and adapt our services accordingly. This ensures that we provide solutions that are relevant and beneficial to the communities we serve.
What have been the key milestone moments for the company till now?
Earlier this year, we launched our loyalty program, CAFU Rewards, as a token of appreciation for our valued customers. This program allows customers to earn reward points for every service they purchase through our app, offering them a hassle-free way to save both time and money. This initiative has been incredibly well-received and has strengthened our customer loyalty.
At CAFU, we truly care about our customers and the community, which is why we endeavour to leverage technology for sustainable and considerate business operations. We believe that technology is a force that can be used to address different global challenges and work towards a more sustainable future. This led us to develop the first-of-its-kind, new autonomous and unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) technology in the MENA Region to accelerate CAFU’s Ghaf Tree Project, our goal to plant one million Ghaf tree seeds in the UAE. We are working to scale the technology to tackle deforestation and wildfires in countries using improved technology, with the ability to penetrate deeper into the ground and distribute seeds more effectively, leading to more successful trees being planted.
We have also expanded our services on a global scale, starting earlier this year with Canada, where we are set to revolutionize the electric vehicle (EV) industry, as well as solve the infrastructure gap that slows EV transition. Our mobile business infrastructure that leverages the use of homegrown and in-house technology is smart, scalable, and can be localized to the markets that we serve. With our entry into the global EV market, we aim to make EV ownership more accessible and convenient for consumers and businesses alike.
As a tech-driven company, we continuously challenge the status quo and seek to exceed customer expectations. In addition to our on-demand refuelling and mobile EV charging services, we have expanded our offerings to include a range of convenient services such as mobile car wash and other maintenance services.
How did expanding into Canada happen, and how has the experience been servicing the Western audience?
The fundamental idea behind CAFU’s innovation—the traditional refuelling model—is a universally relatable one. People around the world, including our region, encounter similar frustrations when it comes to the conventional fuel-up or car service processes and needs.
At CAFU, we have a global outlook, and our goal is to introduce our innovative concept on a global scale and disrupt international markets. We understand that the challenges and requirements in different regions may vary, and we are committed to tailoring our approach to meet the unique demands of each market.
We believe that we can disrupt the Canadian market and roll out our life-enhancing model across the world. Our expansion into this new international market is a bold step towards growth and success.
Despite being in the BETA phase in Canada, our mobile EV charging service has already achieved remarkable success. We have received an overwhelmingly positive response from customers who appreciate and see the value in the convenience and accessibility our services provide. We are utilizing our BETA phase to actively gather valuable feedback from our customers, which allows us to further refine and enhance our services for the Canadian market and beyond.
We are proud of the progress we have made and are excited about the future of CAFU, as we continue to drive innovation and contribute to the sustainable mobility landscape on a global scale.
Where does CAFU stand today in terms of growth and where do you see yourself in the next 12 months? Any expansion plans beyond Canada?
As a fast-moving scale-up, CAFU is constantly working on exciting new projects and exploring different verticals. We are refining and improving our existing products, ensuring that we deliver exceptional experiences to our customers. Our agile approach allowed us to identify and seize the strongest opportunities, and we remain open to exploring new markets alongside the right partners who share our vision and values.
In the past year, in addition to our global expansion, we have also increased our CAFU fleet size by approximately 41% in the UAE. We have recently expanded select services into Sharjah, as an addition to our other Emirates, as the UAE remains one of our most important markets.
The convenience-driven energy delivery and additional services we offer have received a warm reception in both the UAE and other regions, leading us to plan further expansions within the region and globally.
Ultimately, we are a platform that offers a variety of services to car owners and operators, and hope that, both in the UAE and in other regions, producers will be excited to join the platform to offer these exciting, convenient services to our growing user base.
CAFU has become an inspirational story for startups in the region, what can startups learn from your experience and what advice would you give to people who wish to become entrepreneurs?
Starting a business is not an easy task, and can be a daunting one at that, but it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do. It’s a journey that requires hard work, dedication, and the willingness to take risks. And by persevering through the challenges and staying focused on goals, it can lead to limitless rewards.
I believe that entrepreneurship offers the opportunity to impact the world. Here are a few valuable insights that have been instrumental in shaping my career.
Any successful business requires determination and perseverance, to be able to see your idea through, even when things get tough.
Don’t be afraid of failure, it’s not a negative term and by no means signifies defeat. Instead, you should see it as an opportunity for learning and growth and just another experience that will help you improve.
Always try to surround yourself with the right people. The people that you bring along on this journey with you should be able to support and encourage you along the way.
Finally, I encourage all start-ups to focus on sustainable growth, not just rapid success. Funding is becoming even more selective, and investors will prioritize businesses with a long-term, realistic growth plan.