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

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.”


UN agency for Palestinian refugees on tenterhooks over probe

A Palestinian refugee holds a placard at a school belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in the town of Sebline east of the southern Lebanese port of Saida, on March 12, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 19 min 33 sec ago

UN agency for Palestinian refugees on tenterhooks over probe

  • UNRWA’s budget for this year is $1.2 billion, with around 90 percent of that being linked to paying for the 30,000 staff it employees, most of them teachers, doctors and nurses

BRUSSELS: The UN agency for Palestinian refugees is waiting anxiously on the outcome this month of a probe into alleged mismanagement that has dented its already severely depleted funding, one of its top officials said Monday.
The UN Relief and Works Agency hopes the results of the investigation will enable it to get past the scandal that has worsened a cash crunch threatening the school and health services it provides to 5 million Palestinians.
UNRWA’s director for West Bank operations Gwyn Lewis told AFP in Brussels: “We’re waiting with bated breath because it obviously has financial implications.”
She said the conclusions of the probe are expected to be delivered “around the end of October” to UN chief Antonio Guterres, who would then issue public and internal “follow-up steps.”
The timing is crucial as the agency’s three-year mandate is up for renewal this month, and money is tight.
UNRWA has been skating on very thin financial ice since last year, after US President Donald Trump decided to suspend, then yank entirely his country’s contribution to the agency’s budget, robbing it of its top donor.
Those woes were compounded by the allegations of abuse by the agency’s management, leading other key donors — the Netherlands and Switzerland — to snap shut their purses.
That has left the agency struggling to provide the schooling, medical and sanitary programs it runs for Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza.
According to a copy of an internal UN report obtained by AFP in July, senior management at UNRWA engaged in “sexual misconduct, nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain.”

FASTFACT

The UN Relief and Works Agency hopes the results of the investigation will enable it to get past the scandal that has worsened a cash crunch threatening the school and health services it provides to 5 million Palestinians.

Lewis did not confirm those allegations, noting only “rumors” and leaks to the media.
“None of us have actually seen it,” she said of the report, adding: “Our sense is that it’s not about financial misappropriation or corruption, it’s linked to management and human resources issues.”
She did note that the agency’s deputy chief, Sandra Mitchell, had been replaced in August by an acting deputy commissioner-general tasked with strengthening human resources and financial oversight.
Lewis said she was in Brussels for two days of meetings with European Commission officials to shore up UNRWA’s mandate renewal and, importantly, to maintain funding.
Despite program cutbacks, the agency faces an $89 million shortfall for the rest of this year, she said, and “financial uncertainty” beyond that.
UNRWA’s budget for this year is $1.2 billion, with around 90 percent of that being linked to paying for the 30,000 staff it employees, most of them teachers, doctors and nurses. Making up for the pulled US funding was a “challenge,” she said.