Young entrepreneurs in Syria: 'they'll rebuild what the war has destroyed'
As the war enters its sixth year, an entrepreneurship programme in Lebanon is training the next generation of Syrian business owners
|#investodia Many have sought refuge outside of the country, but 18 million people still live in Syria amid rising poverty and high unemployment. Some are now building their own businesses to create opportunities. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images|
It could be any other startup bootcamp. Thirteen teams nervously chatter among themselves, waiting for Dania Ismail, director of Jusoor, to open proceedings. But these entrepreneurs are from Syria and many will have gone to great lengths to travel to Lebanon to take part. “We had a participant coming from Aleppo and it took him 26 hours to get to Beirut,” Ismail says. “It’s usually a six-hour journey. He got on a bus that drove off the road because Isis was shooting at them … it was a big adventure but he made it.”
Eyad Al-Shami is among the 2017 cohort and says his taxi ride from Damascus was less eventful. The 25-year-old is the co-founder of Mujeeb, an artificial intelligence platform that builds customer support chatbots in Arabic. “It started out as research, not a company,” he says. “There’s no natural language processing for Arabic language, so we figured we’d build a platform to support it. That idea developed into chatbots after I read an article in TechCrunch.
“But we all have a technology background. We don’t know how to sell an idea, form it into a product, and how to do the marketing. Jusoor opened our eyes [and taught us how] to build something that can be marketed.”
Their attendance this year paid off. The Mujeeb founding team won $10,000 (£7,600) after pitching the business to 150 attendees and a panel of judges.
Jusoor is an NGO run by Syrian expats that has been offering scholarship, education and career development initiatives for Syrians since 2011. It’s the third year the organisers have run the entrepreneurship programme, which includes a two-week bootcamp and pitching competition in Beirut, as well as mentorship. The team has worked with 100 participants so far and considered more than 700 applications. The majority of the founders (60%-70%) are still based in Syria, while others have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Europe.
An estimated five million people have sought refuge from the war outside the country. But 18 million people still live in Syria amid rising levels of poverty and high unemployment. The Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates more than half (52.9%) of working age Syrians left in the country are now unemployed, rising to 78% among young people. Before the war started, the countrywide figure was 15%.
In the wake of a war that has entered its sixth year, a recent report has found [pdf] that entrepreneurial spirit is growing among those who can’t find work. Researchers interviewed 268 people over 12 months and found a marked increase in the number of people working on a startup idea in 2015 (65.8%), compared with the year before (52.2%). The numbers are particularly stark if you focus on the change for women – female entrepreneurs now account for 22.4% of founders, up from 4.4% in 2009.
“There are entrepreneurs [in Syria], just like everywhere else,” Ahmad Sufian Bayram, the author of the report, says. He’s a regional manager at Techstars and a social entrepreneur, who has helped organise Startup Weekend in Damascus since 2014. “For the majority of women, they’re starting small businesses to support their families, making handmade items, for example, jewellery, homemade clothes. [Others] are doing freelance work, such as translation services. When we asked them why would you like to be an entrepreneur, it was one of the only options left to make money.”
Ismail, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Dubai, where she runs an event business, says the progress of the Syrian founders she meets is inspiring. “While the region has been growing in terms of startup entrepreneurship and investment, Syria’s lagged behind because they’ve been in a state of war. Our mission is to bring them up to speed, [so they can] stand in front of an investor and not feel less than a startup coming out of Jordan or Lebanon. It’s fantastic to see that transformation. You’re training a generation that could become the future SME founders in Syria.”
As a country, there has arguably always been entrepreneurial ambition in Syria. The most recent figures from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor show that in 2009, 54% of people in Syria had entrepreneurial intentions and 88% saw it as a good career choice. By comparison, 2016 figures for the UK show 9% have entrepreneurial intentions and 58% see it as a good career path. Now initiatives such as Jusoor, Startup Weekend and the UNFPA innovation fund endeavour to bolster that ambition again.
Majd Khawam launched his business, Entrepreneurial Summer School, in 2014 and attended the Jusoor bootcamp in the same year. He has also participated in Startup Weekend in Damascus and went on to organise a youth version for 80 13- to 18-year-olds in 2016. He says attending Jusoor was a life-changing experience and he had never seriously considered starting his own company before.
Attendees of the 2016 Start up weekend youth in Damascus
“Everyone would love to be the captain of his own ship but [running my own business] was a dream. I wasn’t aware that I can do such thing due to the limited resources we have in the Middle East and particularly in Syria,” Khawam adds. “I suffer the most from power cuts, a slow internet connection and payment restrictions [as an entrepreneur]. If I want to buy materials or books to use in the summer school, for example, I have to ask someone from outside the country to buy them and send them to me. That adds to the costs and is definitely more time consuming.”
Bayram’s report identified 10 key challenges that restrict the potential of entrepreneurs in Syria. As well as insecurity and political uncertainty, business owners face a collapsing infrastructure and restrictions on the movement of people and goods, payment restrictions (all e-payment methods including PayPal, Visa and Mastercard are banned), a diminishing market, a lack of financial support and investment, and insufficient entrepreneurship education. But there are also positives – startup costs are relatively low and there are skilled people looking for work. Modern technology (when it is available) has also proven a great enabler in growing the startup community.
Also in Damascus, Lean Darwish co-founded Remmaz in November 2015. After studying computer science and running small web development workshops for local NGO Wikilogia, the 23-year-old and her co-founder Muhammad Sultan developed a web platform and app to teach coding in Arabic. An estimated 8,000 students have already taken their first course. She received a grant of $3,000 (£2,300) from the UNFPA innovation fund and shared the top prize of $15,000 (£11,500) with another company at the 2016 Jusoor competition.
She says the country’s uncertainty has provided opportunities, particularly for young people. “Big companies are closing, new needs are appearing. Many problems facing our community are known very well by young people. This is great opportunity for [them] to create small, easy and intelligent solutions that cost less and make it better using their own tools. Nowadays everyone has the chance to learn anything they want because of the internet and open-source revolution.”
It’s an inspirational story in the face of adversity, the consequences of which have been devastating for many. Al-Shami is visibly upset when asked how the war has affected his life as an entrepreneur. “On the human side, it’s hard. You are trying to be successful but you know there are still people under fire every day. We are trying to do our best. Not for ourselves – believe me, not for ourselves – but for all of us. It’s not about building the next Google. But I want to exist. I want to do something.”
Khawam is firmly focused on the potential of the next generation. He has plans to relaunch his summer school this year, and says he will continue Startup Weekend Youth as long there is demand for it. “These young people are the future of Syria. They are the ones who will rebuild what the war destroyed. They show that time and age doesn’t matter – if you set your mind to something, you can accomplish what you sometimes feel is impossible,” he says.
Darwish agrees – she is not surprised there is rising entrepreneurial spirit in Syria. “People want to change the situation.”