Mixed fortunes for startups during the financial crisis in Lebanon

Special 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.”


NRG Matters: Egypt, UAE agree to establish 10 GW wind power project; Shell to build Europe’s largest hydrogen plant


NRG Matters: Egypt, UAE agree to establish 10 GW wind power project; Shell to build Europe’s largest hydrogen plant

Updated 13 sec ago

NRG Matters: Egypt, UAE agree to establish 10 GW wind power project; Shell to build Europe’s largest hydrogen plant


NRG Matters: Egypt, UAE agree to establish 10 GW wind power project; Shell to build Europe’s largest hydrogen plant


RIYADH: On a macro level, Egypt and the UAE agreed to establish a 10GW wind power project. Zooming in, British oil firm Shell has decided to build Europe’s largest hydrogen plant from renewable power. 

Looking at the bigger picture

• Egypt and the UAE have agreed to establish a 10 GW wind farm, Ahram newspaper reported citing Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker. 

Without providing further details, Shaker added that the deal is set to be signed after the Eid Al-Adha holidays. 

• The EU plans to become the top investor in the world’s tallest dam in Tajikistan, Reuters reported citing EU officials.

It is part of the strategy aimed at helping the Central Asia cut its reliance on Russian energy. 

Through a micro lens:

• South Korea’s Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction will implement Saudi Aramco’s estimated $500 million Jafurah cogeneration independent steam and power plant project, according to MEED.

• British oil firm Shell has decided to build Europe’s largest plant producing hydrogen from renewable power, according to Bloomberg. 

The Holland Hydrogen I will include 200 MW of electrolyzers, powered by a wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands, which is 10 times the size of the largest existing green hydrogen facility in Europe. 


Techies in Dubai boast top-dollar salaries 

Techies in Dubai boast top-dollar salaries 
Updated 06 July 2022

Techies in Dubai boast top-dollar salaries 

Techies in Dubai boast top-dollar salaries 
  • Software engineers in Dubai earn nearly 30% more than workers in London, Amsterdam and Berlin

LONDON: Software engineers in Dubai with at least three years of experience earn the third highest salaries in the world compared to other global technology hubs, according to global consulting firm Mercer.

When compared to other global tech hubs such as London, Amsterdam, and Berlin, software engineers in Dubai earn nearly 30 percent more.

This reaffirms the UAE’s ambition to attract top digital talent and become a global tech talent magnet that fuels the digital economy’s growth.

Mercer’s Cost of Living 2022 survey also revealed that while Dubai ranked as the 31st most expensive city to live and work in for expatriates this year, its cost of living remains significantly lower than most tech hubs, including London (seventh), Singapore (eighth), New York (11th), San Francisco (19th), and Amsterdam (25th).

Almost 60 percent of UAE employers provide flexible working, reducing employees’ transportation costs. Dubai is also less expensive in terms of housing and rental costs, which accounts for a significant portion of the cost of living in a city.

“Dubai’s status as a global business hub, coupled with its income tax-free environment, world-class infrastructure, safety, and high quality of life make the emirate a very attractive market for talent,” said Vladimir Vrzhovski, workforce mobility leader at Mercer Middle East.

He added: “The demand for tech talent, in particular, will continue to grow in the UAE given the nation’s drive to be a global capital of the digital economy. Above all, a key incentive for tech talent is the opportunity for a significant uplift in salary when compared to other tech hubs, where the cost of living is higher in terms of transportation and housing.

“While inflation and rising fuel costs are a pressure on the cost of living around the globe, Dubai is building a nurturing and highly competitive tech ecosystem that pays highly competitive salaries — creating an environment that promises to attract and retain the best talent globally.

“Over the years, the UAE has also implemented several initiatives that make it easier for talent to live, work and stay in the country. The launch of the Golden Visa program in addition to Dubai’s recently announced Talent Pass aims to attract global professionals in the fields of technology amongst other key areas.

“National initiatives, such as the National Program for Coders launched last year, is designed to attract 100,000 coders from around the globe and set up 1,000 digital companies by 2026.”


Ben & Jerry’s sues parent Unilever to block sale of Israeli business

Ben & Jerry’s sues parent Unilever to block sale of Israeli business
Updated 06 July 2022

Ben & Jerry’s sues parent Unilever to block sale of Israeli business

Ben & Jerry’s sues parent Unilever to block sale of Israeli business

NEW YORK: Ben & Jerry’s on Tuesday sued its parent Unilever Plc to block the sale of its Israeli business to a local licensee, saying it was inconsistent with its values to sell its ice cream in the occupied West Bank, according to Reuters.

The complaint filed in the US District Court in Manhattan said the sale announced on June 29 threatened to undermine the integrity of the Ben & Jerry’s brand, which Ben & Jerry’s board retained independence to protect when Unilever acquired the company in 2000.

An injunction against transferring the business and related trademarks to Avi Zinger, who runs American Quality Products Ltd, was essential to “protect the brand and social integrity Ben & Jerry’s has spent decades building,” the complaint said.

Ben & Jerry’s said its board voted 5-2 to sue, with the two Unilever appointees dissenting.

Unilever, in a statement, said it does not discuss pending litigation, but that it had the right to sell the disputed business and the transaction had already closed.

“It’s a done deal,” Zinger’s lawyer Alyza Lewin said in a separate statement. The sale resolved Zinger’s own lawsuit in March against Ben & Jerry’s for refusing to renew his license.

The dispute highlights challenges facing consumer brands taking a stand on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Most countries consider the settlements illegal. In April 2019, Airbnb Inc. reversed a five-month-old decision to stop listing properties in the settlements.

Last July, Ben & Jerry’s said it would end sales in the occupied West Bank and parts of East Jerusalem, and sever its three-decade relationship with Zinger.

Israel condemned the move, and some Jewish groups accused Ben & Jerry’s of anti-Semitism. Some investors, including at least seven US states, divested their Unilever holdings.

Unilever has more than 400 brands including Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Knorr soup and Vaseline skin lotion.

Ben & Jerry’s was founded in a renovated gas station in 1978 by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield.

No longer involved in Ben & Jerry’s operations, they wrote in the New York Times last July that they supported Israel but opposed its “illegal occupation” of the West Bank. 

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