By Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf, Co-Founders of Five One Labs.

At Five One Labs, we work with idea or early-stage entrepreneurs from diverse communities to launch scalable, innovative businesses. We’ve had the privilege to work with tech startups like Dada, PHARX, Khanoo and more, and deeply understand the struggles that entrepreneurs who pursue apps, SaaS (software as a service), e-commerce solutions and more face in Iraq’s context.

Based on our work in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) over the past two years, we have been able to identify some of the most pressing challenges tech entrepreneurs and the startup community encounter.

The top five challenges are described below:

Challenge 1: Online-based businesses don’t legally exist in Iraq.

Registering businesses in Iraq is a costly and time-intensive process in the best of times, but it is made even more difficult because of the lack of law regulating online or technology businesses. E-commerce sites, SaaS, applications etc are not legally considered businesses, and cannot be registered as such. Entrepreneurs establishing tech startups are often left without the protection and freedom provided by being legally registered.

When entrepreneurs choose to register their tech businesses, they must register as a traditional business and open a brick and mortar location. They could choose to register as an “office,” which is the least expensive choice, but an ‘office’ registration could negatively impact the entrepreneur’s ability to take equity in the future. Other registration choices are more expensive and time-intensive.

The registration challenges that both tech and non-tech business face have been recognized by many, including Orange Corners, an initiative launched by the Dutch Government. In November Five One Labs and Orange Corners will release a “Roadmap” for business registration in the KRI, which will also highlight the registration experience of tech businesses. A similar roadmap will be published by KAPITA on the business registration process for Federal Iraq.

Challenge 2: The digital skills gap in Iraq increases the time and cost of launching a tech startup.

Launching a tech business, be it a mobile application or a website, requires a certain level of digital and technical skills, particularly as the business grows past its initial stages. And if an entrepreneur building a tech startup does not have the technical skills herself, she will need to enlist the support of developers and coders to build more complex prototypes to be able to test her product.

While digital skills and literacy are important for entrepreneurs — be they inside Iraq or outside — the skills gap in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, creates challenges for startup founders in the country. Data on computer programming education and skills are not readily available in Iraq, our experience working working with startups and anecdotal evidence suggests that the shortage of coders in Iraq has increased the time and cost of launching an app- or website-based business.

A number of non-technical founders that have gone through Five One Labs’ incubator program have found that coders and developers can be expensive, which increases their startup costs and causes delays in launching their businesses.

Additionally, a number have had to work remotely with developers, either in other parts of Iraq, or outside of the country entirely, to have their technical needs met, and many have gone through multiple freelance coders or developers in the early stages of the development of their products. Some non-technical founders also delay the hiring of CTOs, either because of the cost or because of a lack of understanding of the importance of having one on board from the outset.

The good news is that this reality is changing quickly, thanks to some amazing organizations across Iraq. Re:Coded, FikraSpace, and Preemptive Love Coalition’s WorkWell Program have been offering high-quality digital skill-building programs across the country to ensure that moving forward, the country’s youth are well-equipped to participate in the digital economy.

Challenge 3: The cost of launching a business is high — and there aren’t many ways that entrepreneurs can find financing to cover these costs.

In addition to the fact that the costs of building apps in Iraq can be high, tech founders also face high legal startup costs.

The lack of regulation regulating tech businesses can make registration more expensive, as entrepreneurs are forced to consult with and shuttle back and forth between multiple ministries and chambers of commerce who may interpret their startup as a different type of business, which impacts the cost.

Regulations also stipulate that businesses must have a physical office, and a lawyer and an accountant on retainer, which are immense costs for someone looking to launch a startup. Around the world many early-stage entrepreneurs, particularly tech founders, operate their registered businesses from home or from coworking spaces, but regulations in the KRI stipulate that an office (with four walls) is required, and so renting an office whereby a business can register from will likely add several hundred (if not thousands) of dollars in expenses for a new business depending on where in the country they are located.

Given these high costs — the million dollar question for tech founders (and entrepreneurs more generally) is where do they go to offset these expenses and find enough capital to build their business? While we will discuss this in more detail in future posts, options for financing in Iraq are extremely limited. For instance, Arabnet’s State of Digital Investments in MENA report for 2013-2018 shows no publicly-reported investments in digital business in Iraq during that period.

Many entrepreneurs thus self-finance or look to family and friends for funding, and for those who are able to find angel investors, the terms can often be stringent, or investors may seek a majority, rather than minority, stake in the company.

Challenge 4: Cash on delivery is still the norm.

Mobile and e-payment options are growing in Iraq. Asia Hawala, Zain Cash and Fast Pay are mobile payment methods that can and will change the way businesses in the country operate. Pre-paid credit cards, like Qi Card and Zain WalletCard, are starting to allow Iraqis to purchase things online that they were previously unable to purchase. However, there are still a number of challenges with e-payments that cause headaches and risk to technology entrepreneurs.

Nevertheless, mobile payment methods are not as widely used as in other countries. Debit card penetration remains low and only 11% of Iraqis have bank accounts, which means that the majority of online purchases still happen through cash on delivery. Cash on delivery causes a number of problems: first, there’s the risk that customers will not actually pay for what they ordered, and the startup will be left with the burden. Some startups, like ShopYoBrand, a startup that purchases and delivers items from international brands like Zara, IKEA and Amazon to Iraq, makes customers pay a small amount of the total up front to provide some insurance.

ShopYoBrand founder Randi Barzinji said:

“Cash is hard to manage… there are a lot of transactions on a daily basis to be calculated manually instead of having an automatic system do it for you. And this is because the majority does not use an e-payment method yet on a daily basis…The challenge is to convince people for them to gain our trust, so that they’ll pay us ahead of time [to reduce risk]…It’s also important that the customer understands that we can’t order anything either without knowing the customer [and trusting them].”

The lack of e-payments makes expansion extremely challenging as well. Startups operating across the country, like grocery delivery app Miswag or last-mile delivery service Sandoog, have to transport cash from across the country to their headquarters, which is dangerous and time consuming. Balancing budgets can take months, with delays in customer payments and then additional delays in cash transportation.

Challenge 5: Lack of international e-payment options makes international expansion challenging without a foreign bank account.

Iraq, to all intents and purposes, is still disconnected from the international financial system for reasons relating to sanctions and the risk of money laundering. While Iraqis can use prepaid cards to pay for some services – like freelance coders – online (though often these cards do not work), it is very hard to receive money from abroad in Iraq.

OFAC lifted the majority of country-wide sanctions against Iraq in 2003, but the risk of somehow funding proscribed groups is still enough of a barrier that most international e-payment methods do not connect to Iraq. Paypal and Stripe, among other payment services, have restrictions against operating in Iraq. This means that freelancers based in Iraq cannot be paid by foreign clients, and it also means that Iraqi entrepreneurs cannot easily provide their products or services to customers in other countries.

Conclusion

We are optimists, and understand the magnitude of the impact that these startups will have if they are able to succeed. It is up to us and other members of the ecosystem in Iraq (and globally) to better understand the obstacles that cause technology startups in the country to stumble, so that we can ensure that we provide them with the support necessary to overcome them. Our job is to ensure that our early stage entrepreneurs have the support necessary to launch scalable, innovative businesses.

This Sunday, we launched our first incubator in Sulaimani that is fully focused on tech startups. This program is only possible through the generous support of GIZ, and in partnership with IOM and AsiaCell, who will be providing seed funding and services to our entrepreneurs.

Donors and actors across the country are excited about tech entrepreneurship, and we are looking forward to positive improvements in the ecosystem as more people work hard to make meaningful change.

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Five One Labs is a start-up incubator that helps refugees and conflict-affected entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses in the Middle East. Launching first in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, we aim to empower individuals to rebuild their lives and livelihoods and to contribute to the economic growth of their communities.

Five One Labs entrepreneurs are provided with training; mentorship by world class entrepreneurs from the USA and the Middle East; and a community of creative changemakers to share their experiences with. 

Our vision is to develop an inclusive network of innovators and entrepreneurs that have the support, skills, and connections to positively change their communities and countries.