For every embarrassed person who has walked into a grocery store or pharmacy in Lebanon and bought a few extra things so the cashier didn't think condoms were the trip's sole purpose, there's now a way to avoid this predicament: Order online in bulk.
Yalla Condoms, launched just over a week ago, is an entrepreneurial venture concocted by two Lebanese 20-somethings during a party in Beirut. Based on their perception of wide Lebanese discomfort when buying condoms, they decided that what the country needed — and what they could provide — was a discreet way to provide a vast array of condoms, lubricants and various sex-related accessories. It would enable the masses to practice safe sex and broaden their horizons, all in one place. In a society where the neighborhood pharmacy may be owned by the family’s landlord, not having to go endure the awkward dance of buying contraceptives — particularly nontraditional ones — such a service is appealing to many.
Yalla Condoms co-founder Zadi Hobeika owns an advertising agency in Lebanon, but he has lived abroad most of his life. He left Google Dublin to return to Lebanon, seeking new challenges in his career. He is startlingly tall and perpetually vacillates between mock seriousness and laughter. It's immediately clear that Hobeika and his business partner, Robert Tabet, are having fun with their new venture.
Co-founders of Yalla Condoms, Zadi Hobeika (R) and Robert Tabet explain future plans for their new business and how orders are placed online.
Despite his time outside the country, Yalla Condoms is a project that Hobeika has been thinking about for a long time. But it was not until he met his high school acquaintance, Tabet, at a party in January 2014 that it became a reality.
Young-faced Tabet, the other co-founder, is quieter than his partner. The Lebanese family man comes off as the more serious, business-minded half of the two. Tabet works in the pharmaceutical industry and has had seen firsthand the difficulty some people have not only with buying condoms, but with even more sensitive sex-related products.
“I told [Hobeika] condoms are just the name of the website. Because usually, people are ashamed to ask, for example, for extra-small condoms or [other more obscure products]. I wouldn’t even see myself going to a pharmacist, ‘Hey, do you have something that delays ejaculation?’ It’s tough to say.”
The two are currently working out of Hobeika’s office, on the eighth floor of a building off the Zalka highway, about 20 minutes from downtown Beirut. For now, their operations are slow and steady, not needing more than a couple of shelves, a computer or smartphone and large box full of products. Their pre-delivery happens in a small office where they keep the stock they have bought in bulk, mostly from local pharmacies. The two double-wrap the products in nondescript brown envelopes to be brought to Aramex, from where they are shipped to customers.
Lebanon’s image is that of one of the most open countries in the Middle East, but Tabet said he believes that one of the reasons they are getting so much attention is that people still do not talk much about sex. Across the sectarian divides in the country is a common thread of conservatism when it comes to premarital sex, in particular.
Nevertheless, things are slowly starting to change, especially for the younger generation.
“We are more open because the people are changing their point of view on virginity,” said sexologist Sadrine Atallah. “You see more people that would think it's normal to have sex before marriage. There is a different attitude toward sex nowadays.”
One Beirut pharmacist who chose to remain anonymous believes that, though Beirut is an open city where “people go to the extremes,” he believes that there are still many taboos surrounding anything related to sex in today’s society.
“This will help [Yalla Condoms], but it won’t change the problem. … It’s the old-school mentality. It will really help with preventing STDs and infections, but you won’t cure this problem of character,” he says.
The appeal of the website, Yallacondoms.com, lies in its simplicity. Under a cartoonish logo, a carousel promises discreet delivery, free shipping on orders over $30 and 20% off your first order if you create an account.
Aside from requests for product guidance, Hobeika said the majority of the emails they have received through the website have asked for even more diversity in the products — along with pregnancy tests, people have expressed their desire to be able to order emergency contraceptive pills (the morning-after pill) and sex toys. But for legal reasons, the company won’t be selling either anytime soon. Sex toys are illegal in Lebanon, and the morning-after pill is something that they can’t currently get involved with.
Clearblue, a pregnancy test, is a popular item among Yalla Condoms customers.
“We started by going to all of the pharmacies and grocery stores to see what they had on their shelves. If the product is being sold next to the cashier, we can [sell it] too. The first thing [is] no one is really doing this, so there’s no benchmark. Can we do it? Can we not do it? How far can we push it?’” wondered Hobeika, laughing.
Every order arrives in an unmarked package within 48 hours and is paid for in cash on delivery. Surprisingly, the majority of the approximately 30 orders they have filled so far have been from outside of Beirut, from villages in the south to areas outside of Byblos, in the north of the country. The company has shipped twice to the Bekaa Valley, as well. Hobeika and Tabet believe this is due to the fact that in villages, there are an even more limited number of pharmacies, usually run by someone the person knows.
For the founders of Yalla Condoms, though, their mission is not just about money or even making it less awkward to buy condoms, but to raise awareness about sexual health. They are planning to partner with initiatives and non-governmental organizations and use returns on their investment for charity work related to sex education and disease prevention.
It is clear that soon, Hobeika and Tabet will no longer have to roam the Beirut pharmacies, looking for items that are constantly out of stock. Distributors are already coming to them, and a few new brands will appear on the website in the coming days.
Though many initiatives and trends in Lebanon go viral and disappear just as quickly, Yalla Condoms is confident they have the brains, business savvy and the market need to stay around a while.
“It’s a way to have fun, be safe, make some money, bring awareness, overcome taboos,” Hobeika said, while Tabet added: “Plus, I don’t know if you know the feeling of being the first to do something. That’s a great feeling, to be innovators.”
All photos by Omar Al Kalouti/Transterra Media
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