When Ibrahim Saleh began working in tech, barely anybody else understood what he did. It was 2006 and his home country of Yemen, torn by decades of coups, conflicts and civil wars, was 26 years into the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman who had risen to power after the assassination of predecessor Ahmad al-Ghashmi.
Soon, everything changed. Saleh was forced out of power in 2012. A subsequent civil war has claimed thousands of lives and reduced huge swathes of the country to rubble. So dire has the situation become, that this year Yemen is suffering the world’s worst outbreak of cholera.
Saleh, soft-spoken but direct, left Yemen in 2015 for Istanbul. He is one of three million displaced during the war. Yet business is booming: since the violence erupted that March, it began “to grow better actually,” he tells Red Herring.
Buoyed by the success of his digital agency, Saleh decided to try something different. Last December he began work on Wagbat, a food delivery platform. This March, having onboarded two employees, five motorcycles and an office in Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, Wagbat opened for business.
Now the firm employs nine, and has even received some modest local VC cash. “There is no food delivery culture in Yemen: we don’t call restaurants and someone will deliver to the home,” says Saleh. “In the beginning nobody believed in us, and we made a list of the risks we may face: perhaps people wouldn’t pay or so on.
“We’ve never found a fake order so far.”
Saleh is not alone. Yemen has surprising pedigree when it comes to tech – not least for having fostered the Middle East’s largest online real estate platform. But as the country sinks deeper into destruction, with no end to the war in sight, it has become the task of entrepreneurs and NGOs to keep its fragile ecosystem on life support until better times arrive.
Yemen is one of the most populous nations in the Arab world with around 28 million inhabitants. It has a rich agricultural and trading history–its Hadrami trading families helped found Singapore, for example–and large deposits of oil.
But its economy was already overdependent on crude before the conflict. It has since dwindled. So have exports, exacerbated by the lack of a fixed exchange rate with the US dollar. Infrastructure has been destroyed by the war, which has pitched Houthis loyal to Saleh against the current government, which is based in second city Aden. It has also drawn in forces including Al Qaeda, ISIS and Saudi Arabia, whose bombing of civilian targets has been roundly criticized by the international community.
According to the CIA over 80% of Yemen’s population requires humanitarian assistance and over half are food insecure. Entrepreneurship isn’t just a way for Yemenis to work outside of traditional industries, therefore: it’s a route away from economic ruin.
It is no easy task. Yousef M. Hamidaddin is chairman of Innovative Yemen, an Amman, Jordan-based organization trying to foster Yemeni tech talent. So dire was the situation when he began, that even NGOs and charities were giving up.
“All of the discussions we had with NGOs, they said they had limited resources, and the problems go beyond their capacity,” Hamidaddin says. Sana’a, an ancient city home to over two million people, has been completely cut off from the rest of the nation. Its inhabitants have found themselves “in a position of complete standstill,” he adds. “It’s a story in itself. It’s agonizing, it’s painful. It’s a nightmare.”
As the crisis deepens, Yemenis’ access to the wider tech world has gotten far worse. Countries have tightened their visa rules for the country. Jordan, Egypt and even Malaysia have made it almost impossible for Yemenis to travel. Yemen is on the list of six countries whose citizens will be banned from traveling to the United States. “It’s very tough for entrepreneurs to be active in any stage,” says Hamidaddin.
“People get afraid of us,” adds Saleh. “We are coming from an undeveloped country, where war is taking place. You almost cannot go anywhere. So people become frustrated.”
Take a recent startup challenge in Copenhagen, at which local group Innovative Yemen participated: for most people the trip would cost around $1,500. For the Yemenis it rose to $7,500. The cost of insurance was higher than the airfare.
And that’s just for those based in Sana’a. Everybody else can pretty much forget it, Hamidaddin says.
And yet: Yemen is producing startups–many of them–that plug gaps in the country’s leaky economy. There is Solar Ray, a solar panel firm aiming to ease the country’s chronic electricity shortages. Skoolsbook is an online education platform, and Tamween is an e-commerce group whose tailored approach to the Middle Eastern market has been likened to an early Alibaba.
Anamehani.com is a website that links prospective employers with workers across a wide number of professional fields. CEO and founder Saeed Alfagieh, who started the firm in 2015, says that creating a space around startups is essential to build a strong and stable network of entrepreneurs.
“We need to invest in the youth to qualify and develop them,” says Alfagieh, who has himself run into visa difficulties when trying to attend conferences outside Yemen. The country needs to provide “facilities to the Yemeni entrepreneurs to accessing and attending any entrepreneurship events, conferences, competitions etc, because we…face so many restrictions accessing any country due to the current unstable political situation in Yemen,” he says.
“We always get refused because of this,” adds Alfagieh. “I really lost many opportunities that could help open my success doors.”
Anamehani, like most other Sana’a-based tech companies (almost all activity is based in and around the capital), received investment from NGOs. Hamidaddin believes that while war rages, keeping NGOs engaged in Yemen is the most vital thing to keep its ecosystem alive.
“The narrative we want to get out there is even with the country being cut off, the real cut-off is when organizations decide they can only work within their contacts, or walk away from the country,” he says. “Which is understandable, but you need a paradigm shift. We need to be engaged with the country, and reach directly into the country with whatever bandwidth allows us to talk to them on the ground. We need to rethink how we are deploying investments and spending on the country.
“The more (NGOs) know, the more they can participate and become part of the local community,” adds Hamidaddin. “Yemen can become an open lab for applying ideas, and in some areas we can leapfrog because we are working with local funds at the level of innovative frameworks.”
Even before the war, 60% of Yemenis lived below the poverty line. The country’s median age is 19 and mobile subscriptions are 64% of the population. Internet penetration, however, is just 24.6%: startup founders today must move ahead of the market.
Neither do locals with the money to pump into startups know much about tech. “People want to see a physical product,” says Mohammed Hareth, an Australia-based head of Startup Yemen, an incubator. “It’s really hard to convince them into buying something they can’t see.”
Companies like Mocha Hunters, a coffee firm that recently received $150,000 from US angel investor Dave Goldblatt, have begun to generate some buzz. “If we talk tangible items, that’s already starting,” says Hareth. “If we talk technology? That’s not quite there yet. We need success stories.”
Hareth only began hearing about a bona fide startup community three years ago, he adds. “It’s pretty raw, and there are few businessmen in the space.” Some are bucking the trend. The ROWAD Entrepreneurs Foundation’s BlockOne program is one of a handful helping young startups to get off the ground.
“A lot of Yemenis, because the term of entrepreneurship is still new, we tried to help them scale to other countries,” adds Hareth. “But a lot of ideas are just within Yemen. And when we brought investors, their concern was that it was only Yemen, and the Yemeni market is very, very small.”
The war has put Hareth’s work, and that of many others, on hold. It was a disaster for Yemen’s SME crowd: 35% of medium- and 27% of small-sized firms disappeared after the conflict broke. In total, Yemen has lost a quarter of all its companies since March 2015.
Many of those who’ve flourished have moved abroad, like Saleh in Istanbul, or the team at Aqarmap.com, the Middle East’s largest real estate platform. It was founded by Yemeni Amad Almasodi in 2011 but quickly moved to Cairo to scale. Today it employs over 100 staff and is valued above $10m.
Aqarmap and others prove that Yemenis have what it takes to succeed in tech, says Saleh. But, he adds, “the political situation killed the country, and most of the brilliant people left.”
Hence the work of Hamidaddin and others to make those outside Yemen understand its potential, so that opportunities abound when the guns fall silent. “The outcome of that is that we want to work with innovative access outside, and educate them about Yemen,” he says. “In any innovative hub circle, not many are aware of Yemen at all.”
When peace comes Ibrahim Saleh and many others can return to Yemen and bring it the success stories it desperately needs. Then it can grow a real culture of entrepreneurialism that will help rebuild one of the world’s most shattered economies – perhaps piggybacking on Yemen’s history of trade and oil wealth. “Within ten years the country can make something,” he says. “And there’s a market for it: 85% of our orders are coming from mobile websites.
“I think there’s a good future in Yemen.”