Iraq’s local start-ups that are helping to rebuild a nation

Special Iraq’s local start-ups that are helping to rebuild a nation
A buffalo dairy farm is one business benefiting from assistance. (Reuters)
Updated 17 May 2019

Iraq’s local start-ups that are helping to rebuild a nation

Iraq’s local start-ups that are helping to rebuild a nation
  • Five One Labs sets up shop in Iraq to help refugees and conflict-affected entrepreneurs launch their businesses 
  • So far, it has graduated 11 businesses, including a buffalo dairy farm, a babysitting firm and a medical tech platform

LONDON: As war-torn Iraq emerges from decades of devastating conflict, fledgling new start-up businesses are emerging.

In a sign of progress, Five One Labs has set up shop in Iraq as the nation’s first start-up incubator to help refugees and conflict-affected entrepreneurs launch their businesses in the Middle East.

Launched in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, it aims to empower individuals to rebuild their lives and contribute to the economic growth of their communities.

Five One Labs entrepreneurs are provided with training, mentorship by world-class entrepreneurs, and a community of creative change-makers 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,” said Patricia Letayf, co-founder and director of operations at the incubator. “The conflict really has disrupted the system, and that’s why we were really pushed to start this organization.

“For example, one of our entrepreneurs was displaced multiple times before ending up in Kurdistan, and he went to four different universities in four different cities before he finally finished his degree.

“We’re just giving that small boost of support, especially if you’re displaced so you lack a local network and you don’t have access to capital,” she said.

Five One Labs has so far graduated 11 businesses, including a buffalo dairy farm, a babysitting firm and a medical tech platform. Letayf said she is looking to recruit 10 more businesses in the summer of 2019.

Despite being a war zone for more than a decade, Baghdad has been home to a “thriving” start-up scene for many years, Letayf said. “Iraq’s start-up scene overall is in the early stages, but it’s really been booming recently. There are several tech companies that are generating a fair bit of revenue, things like grocery delivery and ride-hailing apps.

“In the wake of the economic crisis over the past few years, there’s been increased interest from young people to start their own businesses because there are limited jobs available. People have been taking their future into their own hands. We’ve really been lucky from that perspective to have a lot of young people interested in entrepreneurship.”

Letayf admitted that Iraq is a “really challenging” business environment. However, the operations director insisted: “The infrastructure is quite good, there’s very good 3G coverage across the country, and people are well connected. From a scale perspective, people are ready to start businesses.

“But there are obstacles that come from the legal system. For example, it can be quite costly to register a business. You’re also required to have your own office space, a lawyer and an accountant on hand if you’re an actual business.

“The environment in Iraq doesn’t favor entrepreneurs for now, but there’s a big push by the World Bank, which has come in to do an assessment and give recommendations to the government so it’s easier for people to start and register their own businesses.”

Five One Labs is currently donor-funded, but Letayf hopes in time to see more corporations and venture capitalists come on board with investment.

“There are multiple reasons to invest in Iraqi start-ups,” she said. “From an impact perspective, it’s time that the country rebuilt itself, so it’s a really good way to help do that and give back to the country.

“There are so many smart and talented people who have great ideas, and from my perspective, the best people there who are going to build it up are the local entrepreneurs. For people interested in higher risk markets, there are so many opportunities in Iraq, because it’s an open field right now.”