It is almost a quarter-century since Omar al-Bashir appointed himself President of Sudan. In that same year, 1993, America deemed al-Bashir’s government a state sponsor of terror – a label it shares with Syria and Iran. Sanctions that prevent Sudan’s banks from making international transfers, and which prevent American businesses from dealing in the African country, have endured ever since.
They may soon be dropped, ending the isolation of one of the world’s largest countries by area. And while debate rages as to whether al-Bashir has done much to earn the move, a small but energetic entrepreneurial community could be set to win big.
Sudan, wedged between the Sahara, the Red Sea and East Africa, is a vast, largely desert state of 39.6m people. It has suffered devastating civil wars in its southern and western reaches that have been characterized by huge loss of life, government repression and famine.
The Sudanese Pound, introduced after the south’s split, suffers from a 20% inflation rate. However economic growth has rallied steadily in recent years, from just 1.6% in 2014 to 3.1% last year. Sudan’s GDP per capita is just $2,415, hit hard by the sanctions and the loss of 75% of its oil production revenue when South Sudan seceded in 2011.
Eighty percent of Sudanese citizens therefore rely on agriculture for their income. And while droughts and bad yields are all too commonplace, it is a sector which has received plenty of tech-based focus – as a countrywide entrepreneurial spirit begins to reap its own rewards.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has supported a nuclear technology drip irrigation project that began operation in 2015. DAL, Sudan’s largest agriculture corporation, has woken up to cutting edge technology, as it attempts to counter Sudan’s harsh and hot weather.
But Sudan’s tech breakthroughs have been limited neither to agriculture nor multinationals. A community of startup entrepreneurs has steadily grown around its capital city, Khartoum, whose urban area is home to around 7.7m people. Slowly but surely, they have been able to entice large companies and traveling tech events to the city.
Startup Weekend, the influential global tech workshop, first traveled to Khartoum in 2014, and held its most recent event in the city last November. The Sudan Startup Hub is the first coworking space in Sudan. It is home to large NGOs and corporations like the UN, MTN and Zain. But it is also an attempt to torment entrepreneurialism in Sudan – and has been proactive in encouraging women to join its growing freelance economy.
Ahmed El Murtada is Middle East regional director at Startup Grind. He also works with the University of Khartoum’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Community (IEC), one of Sudan’s loudest startup cheerleaders. El Murtada sees technology as a vital way to diversify and expand Sudan’s economy.
“Since 2013, the support for youth and entrepreneurship activities has been on the rise and Khartoum has witnessed a boom in the number of newly created startups, which aim to solve some of Sudan’s biggest problems by connecting the country’s local talent to the global entrepreneurship community,” he says.
Yet that connection is incumbent on the country’s sanctions being lifted – which El Murtada believes is the biggest thing holding back Sudanese tech success: “Although Sudan is filled with talented and innovative young university graduates, Khartoum is living under an ongoing economic and political blockade, which has caused tremendous economic losses for factories, businesses and individuals.”
Infrastructure, El Murtada adds, does little to help. Power shortages hamper online ventures. And an Internet penetration of just 26.4%, and mobile subscriptions at just 70% of the population, mean that entrepreneurs must get creative if they are to solve Sudan’s many issues sitting in front of a laptop.
Yet there have been some modest wins. Mishwar (“journey” in Arabic) is an Uber facsimile that has won many local plaudits. It even has local competition in Tirhal, which has been through the IEC system. Sudahosting is a Khartoum-based web hosting service that helps companies shift business to the cloud, while other ventures have focused on Bitcoin, software development and medical supplies.
Companies have, slowly, begun to see Sudan as a potential marketplace rather than political hot potato. A major recent tech coup has been the introduction of Islamic fintech firm, and Red Herring Top 100 winner, Path Solutions, whose platform has been adopted by almost all of Sudan’s leading banks.
Yet risk-aversion and government apathy towards tax and infrastructure needs have been major roadblocks for would-be startup founders. “The government is not paying much attention to support entrepreneurs in Sudan, and haven’t applied any policies to ease micro finance opportunities for entrepreneurs or any means of financial support,” says Moneera Yassien, of the IEC.
But the biggest problem by far is the sanctions, which cut almost all avenues to funding and support for local entrepreneurs. Sudan’s “total isolation”, as El Murtada calls it, prevents not only foreign VCs and companies from investing in the country, but also entrepreneurs in Khartoum from getting grants and loans from abroad.
The country’s current batch of tech pros have made themselves even without, for the most part, funding.
The Trump administration has indicated that it will drop sanctions soon. Many locals hoped they would be dropped altogether by this month. That may still happen. But the President has maintained that Khartoum must show its commitment to peace if the sanctions lift is to hold. “The Sudanese government knows that my administration will hold them responsible for any breach of obligations which came through strong bilateral ties and effective monitoring,” wrote Trump.
In anticipation of the sanctions lift, Sudan has already courted tech. The Korea International Cooperation Agency, a training center, will soon be inaugurated in Khartoum. Korean multinationals such as Daewoo, LG, Hyundai and Samsung already operate in the country.
In a surprisingly candid recent interview, Sudan’s investment minister, Mubarak Al-Mahdi even said that he wants to normalize relations with Israel, citing its democracy and open leadership. Asked if he was canvassing for potential Israeli investment in Sudan, he responded: “Well, I think that technology has no nationality. You shouldn’t care where you get that technology from.”
If and when the sanctions are lifted, El Murtada sees a country with much to contribute to the digital economy – especially with regards to beta testing, “because of its diverse population of more than 40m, which is comprised of Africans, Arabs and expats. The country also has 853 kilometers of coastline and access to the Red Sea through Port Sudan, (its) main port city.”
Sudan “continues to face countless social, economic and political challenges,” he adds. “However, this has not dampened the spirits of young Sudanese people, who are trying to use these structural challenges as a motivation to produce home-grown solutions in their budding startup ecosystem.”
For now Sudan’s entrepreneurs must wait and watch the White House for developments. If, after over two decades, its young people can finally reach out to the wider world, expect to see a flurry of movement from Sudan’s budding tech scene.