UAE sustainability champions FOR WEB
Image Credit: John Catherall/Gulf News

Each pillar of sustainability – environmental, economic, and social – originated as its own movement, and encompass disciplines that are so broad they cannot be defined, or so complex they still lack clear solutions. In recent years, these three pillars began cojoining under their unifying umbrella, and efforts on all fronts are now seen as key contributors to a sustainable future.

In this milieu, the UAE has embraced a holistic, whole-of-society approach to sustainability. The mission of creating a better future for people and the planet is becoming integral to everyday life, work, and action – from an increasingly conscious citizenry to government departments tasked with the remit of wide-ranging policy-making to create healthy and happy communities, prevent the depletion of natural resources, promote smaller environmental footprints and encourage inclusive climate action. In a business context, multiple efforts are underway as companies aim to cut emissions, lower energy usage, source local or fair-trade products, repurpose their waste, practice diversity, and ensure the well-being of their staff and all stakeholders.

The UAE is acknowledged as a global first mover on sustainability, and also looked upon as a responsible and trusted international partner as it continues to drive consensus on practical and purposeful solutions around the world, whether it is in renewable energy, equality and empowerment for women, balanced societies, or more sustainable business practices.

A significant part of this success is thanks to the trailblazing work of individuals, and the institutions they are affiliated with. The initiatives founded or fronted by them are helping enhance the nation’s sustainability landscape, and taking it beyond borders to benefit others. The trifecta of the UAE Union Day, COP28 and Year of Sustainability is a fitting forum to showcase some of these individuals, who spoke to GN Focus in exclusive conversations.

Dr Reem Lebhar, Lead, Sustainability and Women Empowerment at HBS Club GCC, Senior Advisor at The Private Office of Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum

Dr Reem Lebhar

After 20 years of helming strategy and transformation at blue-chip firms and government organisations in the UAE, Dr Reem Lebhar spearheads a regional remit to promote diversity and equality as an integral component of sustainable business.

“We serve as a catalyst for change, to fuel active collaboration between industry leaders, policymakers, and the public and private sectors,” she says of her leadership role at HBS Club GCC, where membership is exclusive to Harvard Business School alumni, many holding C-suite and board positions. The club also supports Abu Dhabi Resident Office (ADRO) and impact agency Aurora50, on various sustainability initiatives.

Dr Lehbar’s experience in the male-dominated spheres of aviation and consulting makes her a zealous advocate: “I was pushed to be equal to men, to appear more serious, senior, and credible, but my gender was never a hurdle to my growth,” she recalls, while highlighting contemporary issues: “In many organisations, the 4Ms – Marriage, Maternity, Motherhood, and Menopause – are seen as big issues, and it is felt that these conditions pose challenges to women’s careers.”

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), especially women’s empowerment, is an important if overlooked aspect of sustainability frameworks, and she praises her nation for commendable levels of gender parity recognised by high global rankings, although the region lags. Her focus is to fill these gaps and help corporates tackle challenges like gender bias, stereotypes, insufficient mentorship and training, and work-life balance. “There is much room for improvement especially in leadership positions. In the GCC, board representation of women is approximately 7 per cent, compared to the global average of 20 per cent,” she points out.

Dr Lehbar, who has a PhD. in Economics and is on the advisory team at Sheikh Saeed Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum’s private office, pushes for progressive policies: “Let us acknowledge the inherent differences while ensuring that women have an equal seat at every table.”

She emphasises that women’s empowerment is not a female discussion. “This is a societal imperative. By recognising this, we can advance society, strengthen the economy and continue on the path to sustainability.”

Denisa Fainis, Associate, Three Eight Six Development, and Secretary General, Middle East Solar Industry Association

Denisa Fainis

As an Associate at Three Eight Six Development, a renewable energy private equity fund based in Dubai and Riyadh, Denisa Fainis has a portfolio of responsibilities that exemplifies solar power – from project financing and project negotiations to energy market trend analyses and local legislations. She actively manages channel partners, conducts due diligence, spearheads initiatives for lead generation and market development, and ensures project alignment with lender preferences in different locations.

Donning another hat as Secretary General of the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA), she has strategic engagements with the solar industry as she represents the association at meetings and events, while staying abreast of ever-evolving trends.

With more than 16 years of international business development experience, she describes herself as a solar energy aficionado and is completely in sync with the pulse of the solar industry. Encouraging the use and integration of solar photovoltaic (PV), especially its potential for zero capital expenditure on energy costs, comes very naturally to her. “Balancing work-related travel and team meetings with the excitement of nurturing new leads, I am deeply immersed in the dynamic landscape of business development,” says the avid Romanian national.

“My commitment to promote sustainability is deeply rooted in both academic knowledge and practical initiatives,” she explains. “I have actively contributed to the renewable energy sector and built a reputation for championing eco-friendly solutions. Now, equipped with a comprehensive understanding of global governance structures, I advocate for sustainable practices in high-energy-consuming businesses.”

Fainis’ early interest in sustainable practices led her to win an international contest on preventing food waste, in 2014, and she recently completed her Master’s in Global Governance and Sustainable Development, adding to her credentials in social and legal sciences. “Many of my earlier initiatives underscore my deep and longstanding commitment to sustainability. This positions me well as an advocate for practical, impactful, and cost-effective sustainability solutions for business.”

Aruna Narayanan, Founder and Chief Impact Enabler at Real Impact Solutions and Co-owner of an eco-farm in India

Aruna Narayanan

Although she spent half of her 20 working years in marketing, Aruna Narayanan realised her career and life had changed when she was hired by a waste management firm in Dubai, placing her on the path to sustainability.

“During the last 10 years I had the chance to work on various sustainability projects across the UAE – in recycling, community engagement, impact investing and women empowerment,” she says. She noted that while many companies are keen to start or accelerate their sustainability journeys, most do not have the internal resources, capacity or expertise, and incorporated Real Impact, under Masdar City’s Women Entrepreneurship programme in Abu Dhabi, to address this.

“We were symbolically born on World Environment Day, in the Year of Sustainability. Our aim is to enable every organisation – irrespective of size, scale, industry – do their parts for people and the planet.” She is emphatic it will make their business more resilient, profitable and sustainable.

“Being a sustainability enabler makes every day interesting,” says the Indian alumna of Harvard Business School and Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. “Since we support a diversity of companies, I could be at a café understanding fair trade coffee, exploring sustainable uniforms at a school, or talking about sustainable regenerative agriculture. We recently went eco-hiking in the Himalayas for a client’s high altitude clean-up campaign.”

In a parallel life, she is the co-owner of Bhoomi Farms, an eco-farm in southern India that is fully powered by renewable energy, uses locally available or recycled material, and provides village women with stable livelihoods.

Narayanan says this variety embodies the holistic approach to sustainability. “In a typical week, I interact with C-suite executives on impact investing, listen to young people’s views on climate change and engage in with activists, investors and farmers. My work makes me a student of sustainability every day.”

Kerry Adler, Founder, President and CEO of SkyPower Global, public speaker and policy advisor

Kerry Adler

Kerry Adler helms the company he founded more than two decades ago, to promote renewable energy and make it the cornerstone of a far-reaching strategy to deliver nature-centric solutions. SkyPower Global positions the UAE as a pivotal nexus for renewable energy initiatives in regions grappling with the effects of climate change, such as sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and key areas in Asia. The company develops, finances and deploys solar energy projects by harnessing the UAE’s robust solar capacities. It also includes educational endeavours in its operational ethos, addressing both, people directly affected by climate change and those who play a role in influencing it.

“My perspective on the UAE’s sustainability journey, particularly in light of its commitment to COP28, is one of great admiration and optimism,” says the Canadian entrepreneur, citing it a model nation that is leading by example. “The UAE is at the vanguard of a critical era when climate change poses a significant existential threat to humanity. This commitment is more than a pledge, it reflects the country’s historical ability to transform dreams into tangible realities through decisive action.”

Adler’s acumen in public-private partnerships and his strategies for renewable energy funding have been instrumental in generating billions for catalysing transformative ventures in the renewables sector, in dozens of countries. SkyPower is a signatory of the UN Global Compact, and Adler was among their 2016 SDG Pioneers.

Vociferous about climate change, he advises global policymakers on energy security and climate change strategies, and is a frequent speaker at global forums that help shape international discourse on renewable energy and climate action.

“My participation in international forums and events is a core aspect of my advocacy efforts,” he explains. “I focus on influencing individual behaviour, corporate responsibility and international collaboration on the critical importance of climate action – by highlighting its urgency and presenting effective strategies for sustainable development.”

Abdulla Al Kamda, Founder, Homie

Abdulla Al Kamda

Abdulla Al Kamda is passionate about one thing — giving back to the world.

This has translated into his cash-back app, Homie, which goes live mid-December and hopes to make every transaction profitable for its user. But it also has other far-reaching goals — to encourage people to be sustainable.

“We’re working with the authorities towards a system where app users can ride bicycles that are branded by the Homie app or they can walk to get their steps in, and when they do, they actually get rewarded with cash,” he says.

The app works through partnerships. “We partner with merchants who are very generous, and we call homie. These are the merchants who give us the margin of cashback which we give back to our customers,” he explains.

He hopes to get enough partnerships to make every transaction a rewarding one. “I don’t want Homie to be just a hotel or a dine-in platform. I want that even when you get an Uber you get cashback, when you order a food delivery, you get cashback. I want to ensure you can’t go anywhere without being rewarded in the UAE – this is our 10-year plan,” he says.

Reducing its carbon footprint is also part of his business strategy. “We are working on a reward option where you can donate your cashback reward to be carbon neutral,” he explains.

It’s his love for the UAE that drives him, says Al Kamda. “UAE is the country of opportunities. Since I was born, I got nothing but support from the UAE. Whenever an Emirati opens a company, the government pushes us to excel. It would be a shame to fail after all the opportunities the country has given me. This is what drives me – to give back to my country and the community. And what better way to do it than to do it the right way — and that’s financially?” he says.

The app is easy to use – users can translate most of their transactions from dining to grocery buying into a cashback venture in real time. And it’s an effort in embracing financial sustainability, something that’s dear to his heart. “To me, sustainability means creating a better planet than what we currently have,” he says.

- As told to Gaurav Nandkeolyar, Special to GN Focus

Maryam Al Mansoori, Founder and General Manager, Rebound Limited

Maryam Al Mansoori

Maryam Al Mansoori got into sustainability early in life thanks to a fascination with elephants. “And so, at a young age, I started to talk about the environment and the impact of habitat degradation and human activity on animals and our planet.

“With time, as I learned about finance and economics, I had an interest in finding out how things work, and how globalisation plays a very important role in our lives. So I got into the field I am in now, which merges economics and environment,” she explains.

She is the founder and general manager of Abu Dhabi-based Rebound. The company’s mission is to keep plastics out of the environment. It is committed to being a part of the solution and reduce plastic pollution, she says.

This is a big job – humans, says German data platform Statista, produce more than 350 million metric tons of plastic waste per year. But Al Mansoori seems to have considered the scope of operations and come up with a plan.

“We are based in Abu Dhabi and other global markets. Our mission is undertaken through two arms, our platform and our solutions. Our platform is a B2B digital marketplace that connects buyers and sellers globally. We have created a unified global common language for the processes of the trades from a technical perspective, which ensures quality; and we also support regulation, compliance and policy assurance,” she says.

Al Mansoori recalls working for the cabinet of ministers when the idea for Rebound came about. “I did my own research, embarked on feasibility studies and other aspects of starting a business. And then, it was time to source investments. It’s not easy being an entrepreneur. But generally speaking, the journey has been very fulfilling, because you learn something every day and that’s very exciting.”

She couldn’t have done it without the help of the UAE. Al Mansoori believes the UAE is the only country that’s capable of taking on any new ideas and giving them shape and a robust life. She explains that the leadership’s vision and the policies favouring the environment have helped her meet her goals. “It’s also helping, in general, to raise the voice on the [global] climate agenda.”

- As told to Gaurav Nandkeolyar, Special to GN Focus