Sarah Aradi from Ethiopia landed in Dubai in 1993 as a 21-year-old with only $500 and a zest for a better life.
She clearly remembers the old Dubai with fewer people around and the strong sense of community that existed. Sarah loved to cook her authentic Ethiopian cuisine and it was when her friends loved the food that she thought of opening her first Al Habasha restaurant in 1999.
To put together the capital for her business, she started exporting VHS tapes (Video Home System) of Indian films to Ethiopia as there was a huge demand for Bollywood movies.
“I set up a video shop in Ethiopia as films by Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were hot sellers. We even had the Indian ambassador in Ethiopia waiting for our VHS to be delivered.”
After VHS phased out, she exported CDs, mobile phones, branded sunglasses etc. In 1999, Sarah put out the first restaurant in Dubai in the Naif area, near Deira. It was a small operation but eventually the restaurant got rave reviews and had people coming from other emirates to taste her food. The second restaurant was again in Dubai in the Frij Murar area.
“Our business was booming and we made more than Dh100,000 monthly, which was a good amount for that time. I remember we bought our first Mercedes ML series with the profits from the first restaurant.”
Eventually, the Ethiopian community grew and number of restaurants kept growing and today Sara has nine restaurants, spread across the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaima. And it is not just the Ethiopians who come for their fix but the local Emiratis and other expats who have developed a taste for the spicy cuisine.
When she looks back at her journey of nearly three decades, she takes pride in being a successful entrepreneur in the UAE.
“I came to Dubai as a single woman and became a millionaire. Most people wait for money but I worked hard to change my life. Starting at zero, I am the owner of nine restaurants today and it makes me proud.”
Away from her home, the expansion of her business keeps her going and she attributes it to UAE and the government.
“If you are working hard and in the legal way by the rule of Dubai, nobody will touch you. The country is free for any expat to set up their business legally and the UAE government supports you.”
UAE might be a second home for her but she considers it her native country.