Q&A: Michael Mascarenhas: “Businesses must help people with special needs"

Author: Criselda Diala-McBride | Date: 13 Oct 2015

Desert Group’s CEO says employers should focus on the potential of those with disabilities

Michael MascarenhasDubai-based horticultural company Desert Group launched its CSR initiative in 2005, focusing on people with special needs. But what started out as a philanthropic project soon turned into a programme that supported the company’s operations across the value chain. By 2012, group CEO Michael Mascarenhas, along with CSR manager Reem Al Ghaith, had decided to transform the programme into a unit called ENABLE to meet two goals – to train people with disabilities to work in certain functions in the private sector and to develop product lines within the group. Mascarenhas explains the wider benefits of engaging those with special needs.

What was the business case in promoting the inclusion of people with special needs into the workplace?
Most companies have long practiced some form of programme to look after people with disabilities, but more needs to be done to fully integrate and make them equitable members of society. We believe that cognitively challenged individuals have great potential, and with proper training can be productive and creative. And the way to do that was to look at how ENABLE could become a medium where the team members not only worked and earned a salary, but also created business value.
Today, members of our ENABLE team have started to produce their own line of flower and garden arrangements, which are being sold in our retail division, the Dubai Garden Centre, and in other outlets in Dubai. ENABLE is starting to become self-sufficient because the returns are being re-invested back into the programme. This shows how a coherent strategy and management engagement could have a significant impact. From a corporate perspective, our stakeholders are obviously happy that the programme is seeing organic growth and is now sustainable. But more importantly, from a social standpoint, members of our team have become more independent, motivated and equal members of society. It’s a win-win situation.
How many employees with special needs do you employ and how did you train them?
Currently we have 32 Emiratis [with special needs] working with us. They are assigned in our nurseries, doing routine tasks, in addition to supplying creative products under the ENABLE brand. Their level of intelligence is amazing. Most of them can provide the Latin names of plants – a skill that not many people possess. Again, it’s about using talent and enabling them to contribute to society. Reem Al Ghaith, our dedicated manager, has been with ENABLE since its inception and together with a pool of highly trained full-time professionals, who have experience working with people with special needs, they have developed training kits that are being used in training our special staff.
How are you extending the reach of your ENABLE programme to other private companies within Dubai?
We have now reached a stage where we can prove the programme is sustainable and could be economically viable as result. There are other like-minded organisations in Dubai, who are keen to include disabled people in their workforce, and we have begun to train their potential staff. We have also partnered with the Dubai Community Development Authority and the Ministry of Social Affairs to be able to bring the programme to other companies in the private sector.