Through the fog of war, Syria’s entrepreneurs see opportunities

A file photo of Syrian entrepreneurs taken by Techstars during Startup Weekend in Damascus in 2014.
Updated 14 December 2017
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Through the fog of war, Syria’s entrepreneurs see opportunities

DAMASCUS: Think of the Syrian economy and the first issues that come to mind are sanctions, hyperinflation, unemployment and poverty — but not entrepreneurship.
Surprisingly, however, although the war has taken a toll on business, entrepreneurs are thriving. And even more surprisingly, many of them are women.
A report this year suggests that 17.6 percent of entrepreneurs tried to work on new startup ideas in 2015, and the figure climbed to 31.2 percent in 2016. In addition, women now comprise 22.4 percent of entrepreneurs in Syria, compared with only 4.4 percent in 2009.
“This increase was triggered by the growing role that Syrian women have been playing in society as breadwinners and supporters of their families, while many of the men have been forced to either flee or join the armed conflict,” said Ahmad Sufyan Bayram, a Syrian researcher and social entrepreneur who compiled the report from interviews with 268 experts and Syrian entrepreneurs.
Syrian entrepreneurs face some of the world’s toughest business conditions. Syria performs poorly in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business surveys — its global ranking in 2017 was 174 out of 190.
“Unlike with entrepreneurs in other parts of the world, building a startup for Syrians isn’t all about making a fortune. In a country that has had enough bloodshed, entrepreneurs look at entrepreneurship as the only way to keep their dreams alive and restore their hopes of a better future,” Bayram told Arab News.
His report identified 10 challenges that most entrepreneurs encounter in starting a business — insecurity and political instability, scarcity of financial support, limited access to markets, collapsing infrastructure, sanctions and payment restrictions, increasing economic burdens, dwindling human skills, diminishing market size, unfriendly regulatory environment, and a dysfunctional entrepreneurship education.
Ghalia Turki, a Palestinian-Syrian entrepreneur, founded Magma Academy, a youth development startup in Damascus, in 2015. She decided to start her project in Syria because of the need to prepare young people for the world of work. “Education in Syria has noticeably regressed, and universities here no longer prepare students for the labor market,” she said.
She said her project was going well given the economic, social, and security situation in Syria. “We are preparing to take the startup to the next level in January 2018.”
When asked about the challenges facing her project, Ghalia said: “The volunteering culture in Syria is still premature, and this made a good number of Magma Academy’s students inattentive simply because we provided training courses at no charge.
“Also, people here volunteer just to add this experience to their CVs. They don’t believe it necessary to commit, nor for their work to be of high quality.”
Business incubators such as Afkar and ICT support Syrian entrepreneurs, but “the level of support provided by incubators inside the country is limited, mainly due to the fragile economy,” Bayram said.
The most significant challenge to entrepreneurs was their inability to believe in the potential of their country and their people, said Fadi Mujahid, Syrian entrepreneurship consultant and co-founder of Game Power 7, the first online gaming company in the MENA region.
“Many of them cannot picture the war ending and Syria prospering again, but only those who took a firm stand and believed their business can thrive in Syria will reap what they have sown.”
Whether a startup would thrive in Syria under the current circumstances depended on the project’s purpose, he said. “If the project met the needs of the country’s market, or if it operated in Syria but met the needs of other markets, it will succeed for sure. For example, a housekeeping robot is doomed to failure because there is no need for it inside Syria and it cannot serve clients abroad.”
Few Syrian entrepreneurs possess advanced technical skills, which is why some Syrian startups are technology-based but are mostly micro and small businesses, Bayram said. “Technology is an easier alternative to old-fashioned trends. Modern trends include food and travel services, as well as a variety of artistic hobbies-turned-startups.
“Some examples of thriving startups in Syria are Remmaz, a platform that teaches coding in Arabic; LiBeiroot, the Syrian alternative of Uber that operates between Damascus and Beirut; and Mujeeb, an artificial intelligence platform that builds customer support chatbots in Arabic. It is one of the few AI-powered startups in the region.”


Dozens arrested in protests against fifth term for Algeria president

Updated 23 min 46 sec ago
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Dozens arrested in protests against fifth term for Algeria president

ALGIERS: Security forces arrested 41 people during angry protests that rocked Algeria's capital against ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seeking a fifth term, authorities said Saturday.
Police fired tear gas on Friday to block a protest march on the presidential palace, prompting demonstrators to respond with stone-throwing.
The Directorate General for National Security (DGSN) said Saturday it had detained 41 people over "public disorder, vandalism, damage to property, violence and assault".
Despite the arrests, protests around the country were largely tolerated by authorities, even in the capital, where demonstrations have been strictly banned since 2001.
The police did not give an estimate of the number of protesters, but a security official speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP some 20,000 people had demonstrated nationwide, around a quarter of them in Algiers.
The official said 38 of the arrests were in the capital, and that no security personnel had been wounded.
Some demonstrators in Algiers scaled the outside of a building and tore down a poster bearing the portrait of Bouteflika, the country's 81-year-old president.
French-language daily El Watan said crowds also gathered in the city of Ouargla where "thousands of demonstrators chanted 'the people want the fall of the regime'," the slogan of the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
Activists had used social media to call for nationwide protests against Bouteflika after Friday's weekly Muslim prayers.
Analysts on Saturday played up the scope of the demonstrations in several cities as unprecedented as well as the absence of any serious incidents.
"At the national level and with this size, taking place simultaneously and with the new use of social media, I think it's a first," said Louisa Dris-Ait Hamadouche, a professor of political science at Algiers University.
A foreign diplomat posted in Algiers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the scale of the demonstrations in defiance of the ban signalled "a change in the political order".
Dris-Ait Hamadouche praised both the demonstrators and the security forces for their apparent restraint.
"Algerians have shown that they can demonstrate without turning it into a riot," she said. As for police, "they were no doubt given instructions to avoid any escalation".
The authorities must have wanted "to avoid any spillover that could damage Algeria's image as a stable state", she said.
Bouteflika, who uses a wheelchair and has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013, announced on February 10 that he will run for another term in an April presidential election.
He spoke of an "unwavering desire to serve" despite his health constraints and pledged to set up an "inclusive national conference" to address political and economic reforms.
The president's office has announced that Bouteflika will travel to Switzerland on Sunday for "routine medical checks" ahead of the April 18 election.
He has had a long battle with illness and has frequently flown to France for treatment.
Bouteflika is Algeria's longest-serving president and a veteran of its independence struggle, who has clung to power since 1999 despite his ill health.
When the Arab Spring erupted in January 2011, Bouteflika rode out the storm by lifting a 19-year state of emergency and using oil revenues to grant pay rises.