Mixed fortunes for startups during the financial crisis in Lebanon

many residents lost their life savings after Lebanese banks decided to withhold the savings of individuals and organizations.( Reuters/File)
many residents lost their life savings after Lebanese banks decided to withhold the savings of individuals and organizations.( Reuters/File)
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Updated 16 January 2022

Mixed fortunes for startups during the financial crisis in Lebanon

Mixed fortunes for startups during the financial crisis in Lebanon
  • Some fledgling businesses were unable to weather the storm but others found a lifeline by shifting operations to other countries and are determined to survive

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s financial woes began with the protests in October 2019, when a series of peaceful sit-ins escalated and became a national revolution against the ruling class.

Soon, there was a steep decline in the value of the Lebanese pound against the dollar. The official rate is still 1,500 pounds to the dollar but the currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value and now trades at about 30,000.

Meanwhile, Lebanese banks decided to withhold the savings of individuals and organizations, a decision that resulted in many residents losing their life savings and the closure of numerous organizations, family businesses and startups.

“I lost $350,000 of my money because of the crisis,” Rana Chmaitelly, the founder of The Little Engineer, an educational startup for children, told Arab News. “I lost the product of my sweat, blood and tears — they took it all away. But I didn’t give up.”

In a stroke of good fortune amid the despair, toward the end of 2019 Chmaitelly was expecting a large transfer of money from a business partner. Having been denied access to the cash in her own bank account in Lebanon, her only solution was to swiftly establish an offshore, and later a freezone, company in the UAE, to which the money her partner owed her could be safely transferred.

“That transfer to the UAE saved me and my team, or else we would now be owing a lot of money to our partners,” Chmaitelly said.

Her story is not unique among Lebanese startups. The founders of Cherpa, another educational startup, which offers technology training courses to teenagers, also relocated in part to the UAE at the onset of the financial crisis. They were able to open a freezone company there and obtain residency.

“Having our money withheld by banks was awful; there was a lot of frustration,” cofounder Bassel Jalaleddine, told Arab News. “I used to waste my time queuing up in banks all day just to get $300.”

Online platforms Mint Basel Market, Kamkalima and Ounousa are just some of the other startups that relocated operations, at least partly, to the UAE.

Tech giant Arabnet has studied the effects of the multiple crises in Lebanon on the startup ecosystem, surveying 60 startups and 15 stakeholders. Its report, which has yet to be published, reveals that about half of the startups have moved their headquarters or parts of their businesses outside of Lebanon, Omar Christidis, Arabnet’s founder and CEO, told Arab News.

As if having their capital withheld by banks was not bad enough, startups had to deal with another devastating blow at the end of 2019: the suspension of Circular 331 by Banque du Liban, the country’s central bank.

Announced by BDL in late 2013, Circular 331 was a mechanism that injected more than $400 million into the Lebanese enterprise and tech markets. The limit was raised in 2016 to $650 million to foster even more innovation and encourage banks to invest more in startups. It was hailed as a “holy grail” for businesses in the country.

The benefits were felt for six years, said Elias Boustani, the former chief operating officer with startup consultant Wamda, despite concerns that a bubble had formed that was leading to ridiculously high valuations of startups, and affecting salaries in the tech sector.

“The circular is a BDL issue and this allowed the banks to use their own equity and to be subsidized by BDL in order to invest in startups or in funds investing in startups,” said Walid Hanna, the founder and CEO of Middle East Venture Partners in Beirut.

HIGHLIGHTS

Capital locked away in banks. Circular 331 put on hold. Brain drain and the August 4 blast. How have Lebanese startups survived?

Lebanese startups are feeling the pinch. Engulfed by multiple crises, they are facing a unique set of challenges they have never had to contend with before, and are desperately looking for solutions.

“The money they allocated to the funds and to the startups was 100 percent used and depleted; it was all spent or invested. And now BDL and the (commercial) banks have no intention to reinvest in startups according to Circular 331 because, obviously, they have other priorities.”

These other priorities include attempts to address a crippling economic crisis and adjust to the hyperinflation of the currency.

MEVP told Arab News that the number of Lebanese operational startups before the crisis began in 2019 was 25. This number has fallen to 15, with seven of those struggling to remain afloat.

“The financial and economic crisis in Lebanon has impacted the ability of startups to invest in markets outside Lebanon,” according to MEVP. “The Lebanese (pound) has lost more than 90 percent of its value, making it impossible for Lebanese startups to generate substantial revenues.

“Previous funds raised are frozen in banks; these ‘Lebanese dollars,’ dubbed ‘lollars,’ stand at 19 percent of their US dollar value, making it impossible for Lebanese companies to invest in their growth.”

Some sources of funding, such as regional accelerator Flat6Labs, have put financial support to their Lebanese branches on hold.

“I remember we were among the last batch to receive funding in 2019 before the (suspension of Circular 331),” Adnan Ammache, the founder and CEO of gifting platform Presentail, told Arab news. “We received funding that was worth a little bit over $100,000.”

Six other startups received funding that ranged from $30,000 to $100,000, according to Ammache. No representative of Flat6Lab was available for comment.

With no end in sight to the crises, Lebanon is experiencing its most severe brain drain in more than a century. The minimum wage still stands at 675,000 pounds a month, which is now worth a meager $24.This has led to a severe loss of talent in several sectors, including technology, leaving startups at a disadvantage.

Startups that want to try to retain their human resources must pay employees in dollars, which places additional strain on already tenuous finances, said MEVP’s Hanna.

Avo Manjerian, the cofounder and CEO of shift-scheduling startup Schedex, told Arab News: “Finding and retaining talent is hard and costly but the goal is not the money; it’s creating the incomparable, flexible and broad-minded culture in our small startup.”

Schedex soft-launched in October 2019, just as the economic crisis was beginning.




A woman wearing a face mask walks past a money exchange office in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP/File)

“We pay our employees in fresh dollars from our investment because we want to be fair and we don’t want to take advantage of the situation,” Manjerian said.

Other startups such as Cherpa and Mint Basil Market said they also pay in dollars, in an effort to be “fair,” and having a bank account in another country, such as the UAE, helps with this.

Boustani said that some startups concerned about losing employees are also offering staff the chance to relocate to the UAE, Turkey or other countries and work remotely. Murex, for example, helped workers in Lebanon move to the company’s offices in France.

The devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, delivered yet another blow to Lebanese startups. Buildings in the Beirut Digital District, the hub for Lebanese entrepreneurs, were badly damaged, including the offices of several startups including Schedex, Sympaticus and Moodfit.

Businesses in other parts of the city were also affected by the explosion, including Buildlink, FabricAID, Compost Baladi SAL and Basma, according to the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center. The center launched an aid initiative that distributed $100,000 equally among 10 high-impact Lebanese startups affected by the blast.

Looking to the future, to say that the Lebanese are resilient is an understatement. They are a stubborn, determined people, and this is reflected in the determination startup founders to succeed at all costs.

“We have been operational since May 18,” said Hussein Sleiman, the founder of Find a Nurse, an award-winning online platform that supplies trusted caregivers.

“We have stopped at nothing. And while we of course aspire to expand to be a global startup, we plan to make our headquarters in Lebanon — where we can employ people residing in Lebanon and benefit our country.”


Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’
Updated 21 May 2022

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’

Dual impact from oil and non-oil sectors ‘to propel Saudi GDP growth by 10 percent’
  • Capital Economics says it will be the highest annual growth rate in over a decade, if this happens

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product is expected to grow by 10 percent this year, driven by increased activities in the oil and non-oil sectors, according to a recent note from Capital Economics.

The London-based independent research firm said it will be the highest annual growth rate in over a decade, if this happens.

Capital Economics expects the Kingdom to achieve the projected 10-percent growth due to a  significant increase in oil output combined with an expected loosening of fiscal policy that is set to encourage growth in the non-oil sector.

This projection follows the flash estimate for the first quarter GDP released earlier this month which showed the economy grew 2.2 percent since the last quarter of 2021, and 9.6 percent year-on-year — the highest growth rate in 11 years.

In regards to performance on a quarter-on-quarter basis, the growth is attributed to a 2.9 percent rise in oil GDP due to increased output on the back of the OPEC+ deal and a 2.5 percent growth in non-oil activities.

The increase in energy prices, which has been the largest since the 1973 oil crisis, together with the war in Ukraine — which altered the global patterns on trade, production and consumption — have contributed to this record GDP growth.

SPEEDREAD

The projection by London-based Capital Economicsfollows the flash estimate for the first quarter GDP released earlier this month which showed the economy grew 2.2 percent since the last quarter of 2021, and 9.6 percent year-on-year — the highest growth rate in 11 years.

Though Saudi Arabia still hasn’t met its OPEC+ quota, it is one of the few members raising produc- tion significantly. With other member countries struggling to meet their quotas and an expected decline in Russian output, Capital Economics predicts the Kingdom will increase oil production faster than anticipated under the current OPEC+ agreement.

According to the World Bank, energy prices are expected to rise more than 50 percent in 2022, before easing in 2023 and 2024.

As oil prices remain elevated, policymakers are expected to relax fiscal policy to stimulate non-oil activities, with a reduction in the value-added tax a possibility, the note from Capital Economics pointed out.

The Kingdom’s non-oil sector has also expanded at the fastest rate in over four years, according to the Saudi Arabia PMI survey.

This has been due to new business and activity that boosted sharply as client demand recov- ered after COVID-19.

The increase in business also came in line with Vision 2030, a reform plan that aims to diversify the country’s economic resources.

The 10 percent figure projected by Capital Economics is much higher than recent projections from the IMF, which predicted the Saudi economy to grow by 7.6 percent in 2022, as mentioned in its World Economic Outlook released in April 2022.

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Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms
Updated 21 May 2022

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms

Flash Entertainment plans a KSA office as sector booms
  • The new office will be a stand-alone; it will create jobs for Saudi citizens: CEO

Flash Entertainment plans to open a stand-alone office in Saudi Arabia within 3 months as the Kingdom is becoming a hotspot for events and leisure.

The entertainment firm, based in the UAE, is one of the Middle East’s leading live entertainment companies known for organizing some of the biggest global events, including several Formula One Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, the FIFA Club World Cup, UAE National Day, the AFC Asian Cup — arguably the biggest event in the region prior to the upcoming Qatar World Cup — and even Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE in 2019, which saw over 180,000 people in attendance.

“The new office will be the Saudi headquarters, it’s a stand alone, it’s not a branch,” the company’s CEO John Lickrish told Arab News. “We have a branch office in Dubai but here we wanted to set up our own office.” The new office will create 25 jobs for Saudi citizens. Lickrish who was in Riyadh for the fourth edition of the Saudi Entertain- ment and Amusement Expo this week was attending the event to touch base with the local commu- nity in the sector.

“I’m here to touch base with the local community suppliers and decision makers and try to make people aware that we’re entering the market,” he said. “We have done events here but now that we’re establishing an office, we want to integrate the GCC into a network of reliable promoters and suppliers that we can count on, and that’s the real goal of this.”

HIGHLIGHTS

This year’s event brought together some of the leading products, services, and technology brands in the industry from more than 25 countries, as part of the Kingdom’s plans to become the entertainment and leisure hub of the Middle East.

The show offers a global platform for top manufacturers and suppliers of entertainment and leisure products and services to do business with investors, distributors, government officials and owners of malls, cinemas and family entertainment centers, as well as key procurement professionals involved in small and mega Saudi entertainment and leisure projects.

The SEA Expo, held at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center, is the first trade event dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning entertainment and leisure industry, with sellers from around the world showcasing the latest and greatest advances in the sector.

This year’s event brought together some of the leading products, services, and technology brands in the industry from more than 25 countries, as part of the Kingdom’s plans to become the entertainment and leisure hub of the Middle East.

The show offers a global platform for top manufacturers and suppliers of entertainment and leisure products and services to do business with investors, distributors, government officials and owners of malls, cinemas and family entertainment centers, as well as key procurement professionals involved in small and mega Saudi entertainment and leisure projects.

“The office will mostly have people from KSA,” Lickrish said. “We are going to be training them in our systems and processes, but they need to be here on the ground. Right now, we’re looking at 25 (local hires) based on our business plan for the next three years. From there, the sky is the limit.”

Flash Entertainment covers everything from event ideation, event management, marketing and communications, ticketing and sales, talent procurement and full operational and production delivery, as well as managing a portfolio of assets, including the Etihad Park and the multi-purpose state-of-the-art Etihad Arena on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.

A location for the office has yet to be decided, however, with Jeddah and Dammam as potential cities to set up the shop.

“This is a big populous, so for us, that’s interesting, and it’s an emerging market in the region as well.” Lickrish said. “I think what is important for us now is really setting the foundations, making sure that the country and the region is represented as not only capable but excelling in this field. And then we’ll go on to the regional talent and develop the local markets.” According to Lickrish, the company created the first citywide integrated enter- tainment program for Formula One in 2009 that has since been emulated with subsequent grands prix around the world. “So that was an innovation that we brought into the global market.”

Lickrish himself has been in the entertainment business for over 30 years and in the region for 14. He hopes to bring his exper- tise to Saudi Arabia that plans to invest $64 billion in the devel- opment of the entertainment industry over the next decade as part of Vision 2030.

“My goal is to see a self- sustaining, vibrant, regional business that has international recognition and ultimately a footprint globally,” he said. “We want to be giving them a unique experience, as well as a cultural and international experience.”


FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology
Updated 21 May 2022

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology

FII Institute unveils new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology
  • The institute is investing $527,515 in Timbeter, a leading green tech company specializing in timber measurement
  • Timbeter provides an AI-driven photo-optics app that accurately determines quantities of logs in an area with precise length and diameter

LONDON: The Future Investment Initiative Institute hosted a summit in London about Environmental, Social and Governance in emerging markets, involving world leaders, global CEOs, international investors, thought leaders and heads of sustainability.

The event unveiled a new inclusive ESG framework and scoring methodology to inform and accelerate investments in emerging economies.

The new methodology aims to give unbiased ratings for companies in emerging markets who currently receive less than 10 percent of ESG flows, despite being home to nearly 90 percent of the world’s population and roughly half of global GDP.

ESG rating agencies are one of the main barriers to increasing investment in emerging markets. Currently, mainstream rating agencies employ key perfor- mance indicators not relevant to emerging markets. The existing frameworks focus too much on disclosure and ignore year-over- year performance improvement.

The new framework, developed with the support of Ernst & Young, values performance improvement over time more than breadth of disclosure, emphasizing sectoral challenges rather than country risks, to ensure fair competition between companies in both emerging markets and developed markets.

The FII Institute is investing €500,000 ($527,515) in Timbeter, a leading green tech company specializing in timber measurement. Timbeter provides an artificial intelligence-driven photo-optics application that accurately determines quantities of logs in an area with precise length and diameter.

Timbeter is a software as a service workflow management solution for the timber industry, founded in 2013 at the Nordic Hackathon by Anna-Greta Tsakhna, its CEO, and Martin Kambla, CTO.

Forestry continues to be an important and controversial issue, with world forests decreasing by a third in size over the last century due to reckless practices.

This technology is key to a more proactive management of forests and a more sustainable sector.

Meanwhile, the ESG white paper is designed to encourage greater ESG investment in emerging markets. It calls on investors to publicly commit to raising the portion of capital allocated to emerging markets from less than 10 percent today to a minimum of 30 percent of committed and invested capital by 2030. It also calls on governments to encourage emerging market-headquartered companies to become more proactive at disclosing relevant information through their normal reporting channels.

Richard Attias, CEO of the FII Institute, said: “Central to our work at FII Institute is to increase awareness about the weaknesses in current ESG standards and their impact on global sustainability prospects, and to advocate for an inclusive and equitable application of ESG through driving real action by key players globally.

“ESG has been one of the fastest-growing investment strategies over the past few years, accounting for one-third of all assets under management. But this growth is not even. Working with our partners at EY, we identified and removed the barriers to ESG investment in emerging markets, which are often overlooked,” he added.

“By launching the Inclusive ESG Framework and Scoring Methodology, investing in a global sustainable solutions company, and publishing our recent ESG white paper — we are making tangible actions to create a better future for humanity. And we are confident that our partners around the world will help us drive those actions further.”


Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target
Updated 20 May 2022

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

Saudi sovereign wealth fund considers new hydrogen company; developing 70% of vision 2030 renewable target

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is now establishing a new hydrogen company and it will be like a mediator in many of the PIF’s initiatives.

Speaking in a regional forum on ESG organized by the Future Investment Initiative in London, the governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan said the sovereign wealth fund  plans to develop 70 percent of renewable energy targets under vision 2030.

The fund owns companies that are already developing hydrogen such as NEOM and Aramco. 

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PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit
Updated 20 May 2022

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

PIF governor and BlackRock’s CEO leads discussions on ESG in emerging markets in FII’s first regional summit

RIYADH: The Future Investment Initiative Foundation will host its first ever regional summit on Friday, in Rosewood London, England, entitled Inclusive Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance in Emerging Markets.

The most prominent participants in the event include the FII Chairman and Governor of the Public Investment Fund, Yasser Al-Rumayyan, Egypt’s Minister of Environment, Yasmine Fouad and Blackrock CEO Larry Fink.

The summit will bring together international investors, world leaders, thought leaders, policy makers, global CEOs, and chiefs of sustainability to discuss and shape the future of ESG, particularly in emerging markets.

“The planet has major problems with climate, with destruction of nature, peace and security. But we also have tremendous resources, including our common humanity,” Executive Director of the FII Institute, Richard Attias said.

“We believe that ESG is an important tool to bring us together and channel capital to meet these challenges,” he said.

Using ESG standards to make investment decisions is a global boom, with assets expected to reach $53 trillion, about a third of global assets under management, by 2025, a statement showed.

Still, the lack of a framework for the effective implementation of ESG in emerging economies represent a stumbling block for investors. 

The FII says it will finally have the tool needed to develop sustainable investment strategies in these markets, through its proprietary measurement framework, developed in collaboration with investors, global companies, and FII’s strategic partners.

The Foundation works to impact humanity across four focus areas: artificial intelligence, robotics, education, health care, and sustainability.

The event is part of a series of events hosted by the Foundation, which will culminate in the sixth edition of the annual FII Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in October.

 

The PIF view

The PIF understands that being engaged in ESG is the right thing to do, Rania Nashar, head of compliance and governance at the fund, told the conference.

PIF companies are announcing emission reductions but it's not only about the destination, it is about the journey, she added.

“We approach the ESG through multiple aspects. Through creating platforms, sponsoring events and launching initiatives,” she said.