By Ali Al-Makhzomy, for The Station. Re-published with permission by Iraq Business News.

Five One Labs recently hosted an online Start-up Showcase to celebrate the graduation of their first-ever Arabic incubator program in c.

Over 90 attendees joined the event from Iraq, Germany, USA and other places.

Ten of the entrepreneurs gave brief overviews of their businesses, and then answered audience questions. At the end of the event, Five One Labs announced that three startups would receive seed funding:

  1. Al-Ruaa for CNC, a company providing services, workshops, maintenance, installation and providing spare parts for the CNC machines, came in first place and won $15,000;
  2. For second place, EcoLift, a company providing an alternative power system (potential energy recovery system) to power elevators instead of using electricity, was awarded $10,000;
  3. And finally, Mosul Solar, a company providing and installing solar cells for houses, was awarded $5000.

IBBC Tech Forum hosts investor panel on ‘ What Iraq can do to boost its Tech Start up Economy’

The Iraq Britain Business Council (IBBC) has held a well-attended panel discussion on Iraq tech start up economy, with leading investors and practitioners, including :

  • Mohammed Khudairi, partner of Khudairi Group and Co-Founder of Iraq tech Ventures;
  • Dawssar Charchafchi, MD of Media World digital agency;
  • Bassam Falah, CEO of Innovest and Ruwad Al Iraq start ups;
  • Bilal Qureshi, Manager of GSMA Innovation Fund; and,
  • Patricia Letayf, Operations Director of Five One Labs.

The vibrant discussion covered the evolution of investment from idea to start up and scale ups, articulating some of the challenges and reforms that investors need to enable further investment in Iraq’s tech market.

Of particular note is the observation that Iraqi talent is no different from elsewhere, but the conditions for it to flourish are more challenging on a number of levels, not least Government bureaucracy, lack of long term patient capital, the need to encourage corporate families to invest in innovation and access to internet and sufficient tech skills for start ups.

The IBBC is noting the key obstacles and formulating suggestions for reform, not just for Tech start ups but also Fintech requirements that will speed up and enable the adoption of new businesses and tech into Iraq.

Please watch the recording of this webinar on the link below

Watch here

The next panel is with the World Bank to discuss their recent report on ‘transforming Iraq’s digital economy.

For more information please contact london@webuildiraq.org

(Source: IBBC)

By Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf, Co-Founders of Five One Labs. Any opinions expressed are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Iraq’s Startups will Overcome Coronavirus – And Be More Important Than Ever

Over the past months, coronavirus has changed the world as we know it. Almost every person’s family, community, and livelihood has been affected. Societies have had to adapt to social distancing, and economies have suffered the consequences.

After forecasting that the world’s economy would contract by 3% in 2020 – the worst downturn since the Great Depression – the Chief Economist at the IMF noted, “The magnitude and speed of collapse in activity that has followed is unlike anything experienced in our lifetimes.

As is happening across the world, startups in Iraq are suffering from the ripple effects of coronavirus and the country-wide lockdown, which, in Iraq, has included closing all non-essential businesses and restricting movement between and within cities. At the beginning of April, Five One Labs sent out a survey to all of our alumni, startups that have graduated from our full-time startup incubators, and community  to see how they were affected by coronavirus.

Out of the over 40 startups that responded, close to 60% of them were experiencing challenges with financing their businesses and funding delays. Another 60% were not able to sell or deliver their product because of the lockdowns, and around 40% responded that they either could not get the materials to make their products anymore or the demand for their products had suffered due to the lockdown and subsequent economic downturn.

In response to the needs of our entrepreneurs, Five One Labs recently published our “Startup Survival Kit: Rebuilding After Corona.” The guide has resources and tools for managing a startup through crisis, but also has case studies and lessons learned from other startups in Iraq in terms of how they’re adapting to the situation.

As the case studies in the Survival Kit and our recent Facebook Live interviews have shown, there’s no end to the resilience of Iraqi entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are buckling down and doing what needs to be done to survive: 50% have reduced non-staff expenditures, and 10% laid off staff or reduced salaries to make ends meet. Entrepreneurs are reporting that they’re spending more time communicating with their customers, learning new skills, and working on building out their strategy for the future.

With the lockdown also came an increased demand for delivery and app-based services. In Kurdistan, startups like CharaPlus in Sulaimani (a pharmacy-delivery service) or Tdallal in Erbil (grocery delivery) are experiencing a growth in demand. On-demand delivery service Lezzoo added new features, like delivery of water, gas, and groceries from Carrefour in both Sulaimani and Erbil. With even local governments sharing information about grocery delivery services to encourage their use, the lockdown has introduced a larger part of the population to e-commerce. This shift could have a lasting impact on the success of tech startups moving forward.

What we’ve seen in Iraq is that startups here are built to weather crisis and fluctuation. Many startups have approached growth as “camels,” a new term coined to show a potentially smarter approach than the “unicorns” made famous in the Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs in Iraq grow sustainably, ensuring that their costs in general don’t exceed the revenue they’re bringing in. They make sure they have reserves on hand to adapt to the ups and downs of the economy, and they’re innovative in the face of obstacles.

This resilience after crises is more important now than ever. In Iraq, coronavirus comes on the heels of the economic hit caused by the global drop in oil prices along with growing regional instability. The coronavirus response has shown the ability of startups to adapt quickly to local challenges.

Moving forward, there’s a chance for startups to have an outsized impact on Iraq’s economy moving forward as they fill gaps in the market and help the country diversify its economy. So, to all the entrepreneurs out there – time to start rebuilding!

If you are interested in reading our Startup Survival Kit, you can find it here. Five One Labs published the Startup Survival Kit with the support of the German Federal Government through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. We will also be running a series of brainstorms and workshops for startups on how to rebuild after coronavirus. If you’re interested in joining one of the workshops, please email us at info@fiveonelabs.org.

___________

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.

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

Investing in Iraq: Lessons Learned from 2 Startup Deals in 2019

2019 showed an exciting development for Iraq’s entrepreneurial ecosystem: the investments in two Iraqi tech startups – e-commerce company Miswag, which received investment from Iraq Tech Ventures, and Lezzoo, the first Iraqi startup to join Silicon Valley’s premier accelerator Y Combinator.

In October 2019 Five One Labs hosted its second delegation of regional and international investors to the Kurdistan Region to expand understanding of the Iraqi business environment and startup ecosystem; to build bridges between international and Iraq business communities; and to expose local entrepreneurs to global best practices.

Through conversations with both early- and growth-stage entrepreneurs and discussions with local businesses and government representatives, the group of 17 investors received first-hand information about the business environment and entrepreneurship ecosystem on the ground in Iraq.

We spoke with the investors from the trip and had conversations with Yadgar Merani, co-founder of Lezzoo, and Laura Olivier, Executive Director of Iraq Tech Ventures, to dive into key challenges and opportunities for investment in Iraq, from the investor and entrepreneur perspectives.

Iraq’s lack of market data and challenging regulatory environment make it hard for investors and entrepreneurs to agree on the level of risk and opportunity.

According to Merani, one of the main challenges Lezzoo faced when speaking to investors outside of Iraq was convincing them of the country’s market size and providing them with accurate answers to specific market-sizing questions. Obtaining accurate estimates of the market is of course important for investors as it impacts projections of cash flow and potential valuation.

While data on numbers of pharmacies or schools, for example, are publicly available in other countries, the lack of easily-accessible market data and the reluctance of certain government ministries to provide this data has forced entrepreneurs in Iraq to rely on assumptions when sizing the market. Merani says that while Lezzoo tried to gather this information from various ministries, the team was often told that the information Lezzoo was seeking was either unavailable or confidential.

Additionally, the lack of general understanding of the Iraqi market and the risks of investing in a post-conflict environment mean that entrepreneurs may need to provide potential investors with additional information — and this is a point that has been expressed by a number of Iraqi startups seeking to raise their seed rounds. Merani said that on multiple occasions when trying to raise funds in the US, he was repeatedly asked questions like, “What happens if the internet goes out in the whole country? What would you do?” And this uncertainty or concern over volatility in Iraq may result in lower valuations for startups.

This added scrutiny also extends to the investment itself. The syndicate of investors that invested in Miswag’s seed round (four angel investors and one institutional investor) experienced legal challenges from the outset. When trying to create a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for Miswag in the financial free zone Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM), ADGM repeatedly asked for more documentation given the startup was incorporated in Iraq. After several months, the investors eventually decided to invest directly into Miswag’s bank accounts in Iraq rather than through this SPV.

Olivier of Iraq Tech Ventures also mentioned another challenge:

“One difficulty we experienced recently was that many of the investors’ transfers were heavily delayed due to banks needing extra documentation due to the scrutiny that goes into processing transfers to Iraq.”

However, local and regional investors are willing to put in the work, and entrepreneurs are rising to the challenge.

One of the Five One Labs investor trip participants, Anas Elayyan, said:

“Since inception, iMENA Group has been on the lookout for extraordinary founders and startups operating in under-served markets. The new wave of founders and entrepreneurs that we met in Iraq in the last few months are the real assets for Iraq’s future. Those entrepreneurs have been hustling in the system to mark a new digital era for Iraq. We, at iMENA Group, are very excited to be part of that era.” 

For Miswag, the success of the syndicate’s investment can likely be attributed in part to the fact that the investors were familiar with the market. Four of the five investors were Iraqis who work in Iraq but live outside of the country. Because of their knowledge of the operating environment, they were willing to invest directly rather than establishing an offshore entity.

Both on the investor and entrepreneur side, there are key innovators who are willing to take higher risks in order to show that high-growth startups can be built and grown in Iraq. “There are so many opportunities for entrepreneurs in Iraq to take the lead,” Merani says, “because Iraq needs so much.

Looking ahead to 2020, we look forward to seeing more investments in Iraq’s tech startups and to welcoming another delegation of international investors to the Kurdistan Region later this year.

Please click here to download the full report in pdf format.

___________

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.

By Padraig O’Hannelly.

This week at Iraq Business News, we are delighted to welcome two new Expert Bloggers to our ranks:

Sharing an Expert Blogger slot, Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf are the co-founders of Five One Labs, the hugely impressive start-up incubator that helps refugees and conflict-affected entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses.

Launching first in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, it aims 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.

Its 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.

Alice Bosley

Alice is passionate about business approaches to humanitarian challenges. She was an Innovation Specialist with the UN Refugee Agency’s Innovation Unit, using design thinking to solve humanitarian challenges worldwide.

She has also worked at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and consulted with Mercy Corp’s Social Ventures team. For the past two years, she served as the Design Lead at the Columbia Entrepreneurship Design Studio.

Alice has a Master of International Affairs from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she focused on humanitarian action, economic development, and entrepreneurship. She obtained her BA in international relations from Stanford University.

Patricia Letayf

Patricia’s main interest is Middle East politics and she has traveled extensively throughout the region for both work and academic research.

Prior to Five One Labs, Patricia worked as a Middle East political risk analyst with a focus on Iraq and North Africa for the Dubai office of consultancy Control Risks. She is also a volunteer facilitator for the Soliya Connect Program.

She obtained her Master of Public Administration degree in Economic Development from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she concentrated in economic and political development, and her BA in International Relations and Economics from Tufts University.

You can find their first Expert Blog here, and we look forward to reading more of their perspectives on the start-up scene in Iraq.

By Padraig O’Hannelly.

This week at Iraq Business News, we are delighted to welcome two new Expert Bloggers to our ranks:

Sharing an Expert Blogger slot, Alice Bosley and Patricia Letayf are the co-founders of Five One Labs, the hugely impressive start-up incubator that helps refugees and conflict-affected entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses.

Launching first in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, it aims 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.

Its 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.

Alice Bosley

Alice is passionate about business approaches to humanitarian challenges. She was an Innovation Specialist with the UN Refugee Agency’s Innovation Unit, using design thinking to solve humanitarian challenges worldwide.

She has also worked at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and consulted with Mercy Corp’s Social Ventures team. For the past two years, she served as the Design Lead at the Columbia Entrepreneurship Design Studio.

Alice has a Master of International Affairs from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she focused on humanitarian action, economic development, and entrepreneurship. She obtained her BA in international relations from Stanford University.

Patricia Letayf

Patricia’s main interest is Middle East politics and she has traveled extensively throughout the region for both work and academic research.

Prior to Five One Labs, Patricia worked as a Middle East political risk analyst with a focus on Iraq and North Africa for the Dubai office of consultancy Control Risks. She is also a volunteer facilitator for the Soliya Connect Program.

She obtained her Master of Public Administration degree in Economic Development from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, where she concentrated in economic and political development, and her BA in International Relations and Economics from Tufts University.

You can find their first Expert Blog here, and we look forward to reading more of their perspectives on the start-up scene in Iraq.

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.

___________

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. 

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.

___________

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. 

Five One Labs is pleased to announce IGNITE, our very first entrepreneurship program focusing on achieving product market fit.

This program will help you better understand the market you are competing in and how you can create the most value for your customers.

We are now recruiting tech-entrepreneurs from communities all around Iraq to participate in this month long program.

If you are passionate about a tech-focused startup idea and want to learn the skills to turn it into a business, this program is right for you!

Apply by May 21 at 11:59pm to be considered.

More details here.

(Source: 51 Labs)

The Iraq Britain Business Council (IBBC) held Iraq’s first International Tech Conference in Baghdad at the Babylon Rotana Baghdad Hotel on 30 April, hosting government ministers, private industry, entrepreneurs, investors, and representatives from the leading UK and Iraq Tech companies.

The purpose of the Conference was to drive confidence, investment and awareness of the power of the new tech economy and how it can benefit Iraq.

The event – Iraq Tech Conference – was led by Ashley Goodall, IBBC’s Marketing Adviser. Keynote addresses were given by H.E. Dr Sami Al Araji, Chairman of the National Investment Commission and Mr Ashraf Al Dahan, Chairman of the CMC Board of Commissioners.

The agenda for the day comprised four panels: Consumer Tech panel, E-Government Panel, Business Fintech and a Consumer Fintech Panel.

Fintech in particular is making strides forward with the blessing of the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), as Mr Waleed Eidi, Advisor to the Governor of the Central Bank, explained and encouraged the adoption of steps to include Women, those excluded from banking and the digital economy and young people.

The CBI is being ambitious in encouraging banks and financial institutions to modernise and offer new ways to distribute the flow of funds for investment and those who need it. This will also have a big impact on the overall economy and growth.

Ahmed Elkady of EY echoed the importance of Fintech as he led the Consumer FinTech Panel discussion onto technical infrastructure and what needs to happen to grow the opportunity for financial transactions. He was ably supported by National Bank of Iraq’s Eyad Mahmoud and Roger Abboud of Arab Payment Systems – who are modernising banking transactions – and Douglas Way of Almaseer Insurance – who are enabling business to reduce risks and transact insurance products rapidly and scalably.

The conference also embodied eight presentations:

  • “How technology is driving the business and consumer world in Iraq and Internationally” by Zain Iraq;
  • Online Literacy” by Dr Victoria Lindsay, Country Director – Iraq for the British Council;
  • Automating & digitising BP and Iraq” by Zaid Elyaseri, Country Manager-Iraq for BP;
  • Restrata Product Announcement” by Botan Osman, CEO for Restrata;
  • “Five One Labs” by Patricia Letayf, Co-Founder and Director of Operations for Five One Labs;
  • Blockchain and AI – The Future Talk” by Muhana Almrahleh, Director – Head of Information Technology Advisory for KPMG (Jordan); and,
  • How Re:Coded are Training the Next Generation of Technology Leaders in Iraq” by Zahra Shah, Country Manager-Iraq for Re:Coded.

Attendees were able to enjoy one-to-one meetings and conversations.

As part of the Tech Conference on April 30, IBBC hosted an Evening Reception for Entrepreneurs and Start-ups at The Station, Baghdad, the evening prior on 29 April. The evening, planned in partnership with Iraq Tech Ventures and Arabnet, showcased the growing tech community in the country and gave an outstanding platform for some of the leading start-ups and entrepreneurs in a more informal setting.

The participating start-ups pitched their business in 5 minutes to a panel of seven judges composed by: Mohammed Khudairi, Managing Partner of Khudairi Group and Founder of Iraq Tech Ventures; Hal Miran, CEO of MSelect and Founder of Bite.Tech and TechHub; Richard Greer, Venture Capital Investor in Asia, Middle East, & UK and Philanthropist in Northern Iraq; Zahra Shah, Iraq Country Manager for Re:Coded; Ali Ismail, Co-Founder of Fikraspace and Co-Founder & Partner of Solo Creative Studio; Patricia Letayf, Co-Founder and Director of Operations for Five One Labs and Maryam Allami, Advisor for Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

Through this first international Tech Conference in Iraq, IBBC aims to provide a foundation, a platform and focus for Tech in Iraq and give inspiration and confidence to those building a modern Iraq.

For more information on the Iraq Britain Business Council, visit our website at https://www.iraqbritainbusiness.org/

To contact IBBC for Interviews, registration and sponsorship please contact london@webuildiraq.org

(Source: IBBC)