Souq founder Ronaldo Mouchawar remains MENA’s online guru at Amazon

Special Souq founder Ronaldo Mouchawar remains MENA’s online guru at Amazon
Ronaldo Mouchawar
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Updated 17 January 2022

Souq founder Ronaldo Mouchawar remains MENA’s online guru at Amazon

Souq founder Ronaldo Mouchawar remains MENA’s online guru at Amazon
  • Souq now attracts more than 45 million customers per month and offers 9.5 million products on its platform

RIYADH: MENA’s first man of the internet Ronaldo Mouchawar may have sold the firm he set up for $580 million, but has the same drive he had when he joined his first startup 20 years ago.

The Syrian entrepreneur built the largest online marketplace in the region, Souq.com, in 2005 and 12 years later sold it to US tech giant Amazon.

But rather than sunning himself on the most exclusive beaches around the world, he stayed on to become vice president of Amazon MENA.

Souq now attracts more than 45 million customers per month and offers 9.5 million products on its platform, ranging from consumer electronics, household goods, fashion brands to baby products. It employs 4,500 staff.

Mouchawar’s career is closely linked with the development of the web in the region.

Born in Aleppo, Syria, to a family of traders and engineers, Mouchawar was a basketball star at local team Jalaa SC Aleppo, before heading to the US’ Northeastern University in Boston in the late 1980s to study a bachelor’s and later master’s degree in computer science.




Ronaldo Mouchawar

He remained in the US, working at information technology firm EDS, founded by billionaire Ross Perot, who unsuccessfully ran for the US presidency in 1992. Mouchawar was kept busy at the business dealing in the emerging field of image processing and video scanning for car manufacturers, healthcare organizations and publishing companies.

As the web grew rapidly in the US in the early 2000s, Mouchawar returned to the Middle East, where digital firms were an emerging venture.

He joined Jordan-based Maktoob.com, whose founders Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury pioneered online services in the Middle East. At that time, little on the internet was in Arabic.

“Samih and Hussam built the first Arabic version of email,” Mouchawar told Arab News. “And many Arabic speakers across the world started using this tool because it enabled you to write in Arabic regardless of where you were and what operating system you were using. Maktoob also provided an Arabic language chat room and instant messaging.

“We immediately saw traction with young people. It was all about self-expression, because we did not produce our own content — it was entirely user-generated.

“We would get energizing emails from customers who were using our platform to communicate, post blogs and create forums.”

But while Maktoob was growing in popularity, its revenue was low. “We wanted to monetize our portals as the traffic grew,” Mouchawar said.

“And we thought that building an e-commerce section would make a lot of sense.”

Mouchawar led the effort to create Maktoob’s online shopping platform, offering an auction system modeled on eBay.

This prototype online market faced commercial challenges at the outset because, as Mouchawar, 52, said: “Our business model was driven by online advertising, and at that time almost all of a firm’s media spend was on traditional outlets — TV, outdoor, print, newspapers, flyers and so on. Digital was still a very small segment.

“But the fun part was that every month, we felt we were better than the month before. Even though not everything made a lot of sense to us. We were always wondering: ‘How can we get people to trade safely? How can we get people to trust us? How can we get merchants to sell and can we get customers to buy?’

“It was a bit of chaos theory at work, in terms of learning, trying many new things and building trust.”

But their work paid off and Maktoob was established as a key e-commerce site in the Gulf.

Mouchawar’s influence within the firm grew but he remained an employee, although he had ambitions to be his own boss.

With investment from Toukan, Mouchawar co-founded the Souq.com marketplace (souq means market in Arabic), which was founded in Dubai in 2005. Toukan became the other co-founder of the business.

“We were incubated in a way within the Maktoob ecosystem,” Mouchawar said.

He added: “With Maktoob, we were trying to cover the entire region. The mission of Souq was to use technology to break barriers and borders, and enable trade, but focused on only three countries — the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.”

Souq concentrated on business-to-customer and peer-to-peer selling, where ordinary users sell among themselves.

There was an influx of funds in 2009 when Maktoob was bought by Yahoo for $164 million. Toukan was a key shareholder but Mouchawar also benefited from stock options he held.

Mouchawar said: “At that point, we took a hard look at the customer journey. We decided to become an entirely business-to-customer site, and shut down some of the early community tools.

“And that was the pivot point, where we moved from a kind of community environment to more what looked like an Amazon offering.”

Souq achieved growth in three ways. Its sales numbers lifted, it bought rivals, and launched other related logistics and online payment startups. The entrepreneur said that the moves proved to be a virtuous circle, as these areas supported one another.

Mouchawar also brought in global talent, hiring senior staff from US multinationals such as Proctor & Gamble, Gillette and major international banks.

This led to Souq’s first venture capital investment round in 2012, with $40 million in equity funding led by US investment firm Tiger Global Management and South African fund Naspers.

“That investment took us to another level in terms of being able to focus on service and delivery,” said Mouchawar. “Over the next four years, we went from $60 million to $400 million turnover. It was insane growth. And we were bringing in new people — college graduates who within two or three years were managing teams of 40 people. That was life-changing for them.

“And we were serving our customers better, shortening delivery times and improving our payment proposition. We held our first White Friday (a regional version of US-inspired Black Friday sales held in late November) in 2014 for the first time, with big brands involved.”

Advisers tempted Mouchwar to expand into many different countries, but he was intent on growing the business within its existing territories.

“I say this to many entrepreneurs — sometimes by doing less, you do more. There are many bright people with good ideas, but you need to stand for something —and we wanted to stand for business-to-consumer e-commerce in this specific part of the world. We wanted to facilitate trade, gain trust and help entrepreneurs build businesses online.”

Another key funding round came in 2016, when Souq raised $270 million of investment led by Standard Chartered Bank and venture capital group International Finance Corporation.

“This was a large round. That’s when we surfaced on the global map,” said Mouchawar.

The company raised a total of $425 million across several rounds of funding by 2017, according to tech data website CrunchBase.

By now, Mouchawar added that Souq’s early investors were hungry for returns, and with interest from the world’s biggest tech firms, the chance of an acquisition grew.

Dubai real estate company Emaar had sought to buy the online business.

But a team from Amazon, lead by CEO Jeff Bezos, flew in to meet Souq’s top executives and toured the region, leaving impressed by what they saw.

A takeover of Souq by Amazon made sense for both sides, said Mouchawar. For Souq, the US giant would deliver a new level of infrastructure. For Amazon, Souq represented access to one of the world’s fastest-growing online marketplaces.

“I thought that with Amazon, we could build a large business with exciting innovations in a region with high mobile adoption, a young user base and a huge opportunity for commerce, cloud content and devices. Also, with more than 420 million Arabic-speaking people in the world, there are still many services that we could develop for them.”

The deal was signed in March 2017 when Amazon paid Souq for $580 million for the business.

However, Mouchawar felt compelled to stay on and accepted the position of vice president at Amazon MENA.

“Like some other colleagues at Souq, I didn’t feel the mission was done,” he said. “There was still a lot to do. I was excited to learn a lot more about Amazon and how things operate at that scale. We could employ more people, empower more people and build more talent.”

Sales at Amazon lifted 38 percent to $386 billion as net income jumped 84 percent to $21.3 billion last year, as consumers in lockdowns around the world ordered from the platform. The tech giant’s international sales, which includes Souq, surged by 40 percent over the same period.

Mouchawar said: “Since then, we’ve launched Amazon in Arabic in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And the December release of our virtual assistant Alexa in numerous regional dialects of Arabic was another key moment.”

Mouchawar seems comfortable working as the tech giant’s main man in the region.

He said: “For me, it’s always about working with smart, bright people, both locally and globally. As long as I’m learning how to bring new things to the region, I still feel excited about the role I play.”


France urges producers to cap oil price over Ukraine

France urges producers to cap oil price over Ukraine
Updated 26 June 2022

France urges producers to cap oil price over Ukraine

France urges producers to cap oil price over Ukraine

ELMAU, Germany: France on Sunday urged oil producers to cap the price of the commodity in order to put the squeeze on Russia which is benefiting from soaring energy prices.

Paris backs a US proposal for a maximum oil price, but said that “it would be much more powerful if it came from the producing countries,” said the French presidency.

To make such a measure work, it was “necessary to get into a discussion with OPEC+ and with the world’s oil producers,” said the source.

The US had suggested a price cap decided by consuming countries, a proposal that is due to be discussed by G7 leaders meeting in the Bavarian Alps on Sunday.

But Germany believes that the measure would be too difficult to put in place.

A senior German official said: “We are still intensively discussing how this would work and how that can fit in with the American, British, European and Japanese sanction regimes.”

EU President Charles Michel also said discussions were ongoing but “we want to go more into the details.”

“We want to make sure that ... the goal is to target Russia and not to make our life more difficult and more complex,” he said.


US aims to raise $200bn as part of G7 rival to China’s Belt & Road

US aims to raise $200bn as part of G7 rival to China’s Belt & Road
Updated 26 June 2022

US aims to raise $200bn as part of G7 rival to China’s Belt & Road

US aims to raise $200bn as part of G7 rival to China’s Belt & Road

WASHINGTON: The US aims to raise $200 billion in private and public funds over five years to fund needed infrastructure in developing countries under a G7 initiative aimed at countering China’s multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road project, the White House said on Sunday.
US President Joe Biden will unveil the plans, flanked by other Group of Seven leaders, some of whom have already unveiled their own separate initiatives, at their annual gathering being held this year at Schloss Elmau in southern Germany.

Partnership
Increasingly worried about China, G7 leaders first floated plans for the project last year, and are formally launching it now under a fresh title, “Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment” while dropping the moniker “Build Back Better World” first coined by Biden during his presidential campaign.
Biden will unveil several specific projects at a G7 side event, joined by leaders from Britain, Germany, Japan, the European Union and Canada, vowing to focus on projects that help tackle climate change as well as improve global health, gender equity and digital infrastructure. Notably absent will be French President Emmanual Macron who had formally joined the Chinese infrastructure program.
“The president’s not thinking that we need to spend dollar for dollar versus China ... though if you add up what the US and the G7 partners are going to be announcing, it comes pretty close to the number,” one senior US official told reporters.
The funds would be raised through grants and federal funds, and by leveraging private-sector investments, the White House said, adding that hundreds of billions of additional dollars could come from multilateral development banks, development finance institutions, sovereign wealth funds and others.

BRI scheme
China’s Belt and Road Initiative scheme, which Chinese President Xi Jinping launched in 2013, involves development and investment initiatives in over 100 countries, with a range of projects including railways, ports and highways.
White House officials say Xi’s plan to create a modern version of the ancient Silk Road trade route has provided little tangible benefit for many developing countries, with top jobs going to Chinese workers, while increasing rates of forced and child labor.
Biden will highlight several flagship projects, including a $2 billion solar development project in Angola with support from the Commerce Department, the US Export-Import Bank, US firm AfricaGlobal Schaffer, and US project developer Sun Africa.
Together with G7 members and the EU, Washington will also provide $3.3 million in technical assistance to Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal as it develops an industrial-scale flexible multi-vaccine manufacturing facility in that country that can eventually produce COVID-19 and other vaccines.

Childcare Incentive Fund
The US Agency for International Development will also commit up to $50 million over five years to the World Bank’s new global Childcare Incentive Fund, a project aimed at address the gap in suitable childcare infrastructure.


Saudi-Italian forum to explore opportunities to boost bilateral trade

Saudi-Italian forum to explore opportunities to boost bilateral trade
Updated 26 June 2022

Saudi-Italian forum to explore opportunities to boost bilateral trade

Saudi-Italian forum to explore opportunities to boost bilateral trade

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment will host a high-level Italian business delegation led by Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Luigi Di Maio on Monday.

With the aim of exploring mutually beneficial investment opportunities, the Saudi-Italian Investment Forum will see participation by a range of private sector representatives from both countries, according to a statement. 

The forum will focus on finance, infrastructure and mobility, tourism and culture, and renewable energy. 

It will conclude with bilateral business meetings. It will serve as a platform for Italian investors to explore the support services available from Invest Saudi, the Kingdom’s investment promotion platform.


Egypt’s chemical industry exports rise by 33% to $3.5bn 

Egypt’s chemical industry exports rise by 33% to $3.5bn 
Updated 26 June 2022

Egypt’s chemical industry exports rise by 33% to $3.5bn 

Egypt’s chemical industry exports rise by 33% to $3.5bn 

CAIRO: Egypt's chemical and fertilizer industries’ exports have increased by 33 percent to a record $3.5 billion during the first five months of 2022, compared to $2.6 billion during the same period last year, the latest official data revealed.

According to the Chemical Industries and Fertilisers Export Council, the sector ranked first in terms of the volume of its exports from Egypt's total non-oil exports.

The chemical and fertilizer sector accounted for around 22 percent of Egypt’s total non-oil exports. This was followed by the building materials sector, which accounted for 20 percent of the total exports, with a value of about $3.2 billion.

According to official data, most of the sector's exports witnessed increases in varying proportions.

Fertilizers ranked first, with an estimated export volume of $1.16 billion, compared to $768 million during the same period last year, with a growth rate of 51 percent.

Plastics exports came in second place, with exports estimated at $1.09 billion, an increase of 12 percent over the same period last year when exports amounted to about $970 million.

In third place came the inorganic chemicals, which witnessed a noticeable increase in the volume of their exports by 144 percent, rising from $225 million to $550 million. 


Egypt In-Focus — Fintech startups raise $167m; deal signed to import 180K tons of wheat from India

Egypt In-Focus — Fintech startups raise $167m; deal signed to import 180K tons of wheat from India
Updated 26 June 2022

Egypt In-Focus — Fintech startups raise $167m; deal signed to import 180K tons of wheat from India

Egypt In-Focus — Fintech startups raise $167m; deal signed to import 180K tons of wheat from India

RIYADH: Fintech startups in Egypt have raised $167 million in the first half of 2022, according to a report published in Fintech Galaxy. 

According to the report, the amount was collected in 31 transactions of which series A and B funding accounted for around 90 percent. 

The growth of the fintech sector in Egypt is primarily driven by the Central Bank of Egypt’s Sandbox and the recent launch of Nclude Fintech fund, the report added. 

Egypt to import 180,000 tons of wheat from India

The Egyptian government has successfully closed a deal to import 180,000 tons of wheat from India, Reuters reported citing Supply Minister Aly Moselhy.

The minister said that the contracted wheat will be shipped once it reaches the Indian ports. 

Strategic reserves

Egypt has strategic reserves of wheat sufficient for 5.7 months, the supply minister said in a news conference on Sunday, adding that the country has procured 3.9 million tons of wheat in the local harvest so far.

Egypt is one of the world’s biggest wheat importers.

He added that the strategic reserves for sugar were sufficient for more than six months and those for vegetable oils are sufficient for 6.2 months, while the country is self-sufficient for rice for 3.3 months.

 

(With input from Reuters)