Serving up Social Change with SMS at Souktel

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As youth continue to catalyze reform in the Middle East and North Africa, the mantra of the moment isn’t just “go home” to those who resist them. It’s “go mobile.” As regional mobile phone penetration pushes 80% (slated to hit 130% by 2015), while internet and smartphone use lag at around 33% and 14%, it’s evident that for the majority, SMS text messages, not mobile applications, are the best way to share information.

The meteoric rise of one Palestine-based company, Souktel, has made the power of SMS abundantly clear. Launched in Palestine in 2006 as the brainchild of Harvard and MIT fellows, Souktel has quickly become a regional darling due to its two main SMS-based services- “JobMatch” and “AidLink”, the first services in the Middle East to, respectively, help job seekers find local work and help aid agencies connect with the people they serve.

After finishing as the runner-up in the Harvard Business School’s Social Venture Business Plan Contest, Souktel garnered its first round of funding only a few months afterwards. The startup has since expanded into 10 emerging-market countries, partnering with organizations such as UN-OCHA, Al Jazeera, Mercy Corps, CHF, and The Near East Foundation to share information about medical and social programs.

Now serving over 10,000 job-seekers and 50,000 families a day, the company is well on its way to achieving its goals of breaking down societal barriers and improving global living standards by enhancing access to information. Yet far from being a charity, its lofty ideals belie a solid entrepreneurial model.

To uncover the process of building Souktel, Wamda asked founder Jacob Korenblum the Wamda Ten Questions.

1) How did you decide to create Souktel?

After spending long periods of time in the region without jobs, and with no resources to help us find work, we knew there had to be a better way of getting basic job information. With our backgrounds in the telecom industry, we knew that simple, cheap technology was the answer. We were equally frustrated by the lack of good communication between aid agency offices in the region, their staff, and the people they aimed to serve.

After coming together as a team in Ramallah, Palestine, it took us less than an hour to sketch out the concepts behind our mobile JobMatch and AidLink services. Three months of market research showed that our hunch was right: Most youth in the region couldn’t get good information about the job market, and most aid agencies were struggling to keep in touch with their staff and clients. And most people in countries from Dubai to Rabat use cell phones on a daily basis, while only a minority has web access.

2) Do you see your market as local, regional, or global? 

We see our market as a global one, without question. Our services are designed to be they’re accessible on any mobile phone, in any language, anywhere in the world.

We believe that our simplebut disruptive—innovation can narrow digital divides, and break cycles of poverty and unemployment, across the globe. 

3) What are your ambitions? How do you plan to grow?

We see strong potential for new expansion among our core user base in the Middle East and Africa. Despite the 2008 downturn, economies in both regions posted robust growth in 2009 (e.g. 5.1% in Egypt; 7% in Tanzania). Over 60 million people in East Africa and the Middle East will be looking for jobs this year, and most have basic literacy skills and own mobiles, making them ideal Souktel service users.


We’re working hard to grow our audio information services, which offer educational content, health and financial information, and job-find resources to people who can’t see or read. We’ve seen huge growth in the demand for this aspect of our technology since we began piloting it in East Africa last year. 

Finally, we’re growing into new regions. This year we’ll enter our second market, in the South America/Caribbean region, by launching a mobile service in Haiti that links small businesses with customers via SMS.

4) What were the most important decisions that you made in your company, or what was a key turning point in your approach?

One of the most important decisions we made early on was to base our main operational hub in Palestine. At first, many people thought this was a poor business decision, given the instability of the region and the constraints we face in a country under military occupation.

However, very quickly our “made in Palestine” approach became the key to our success. Being based here has taught us to be adaptable, to be problem solvers, and to work under extremely tough conditions. This has helped us establish a clear competitive advantage in similarly tough markets like Iraq, Sudan and Somalia; we’ve been able to succeed in these places while others have failed.

5) What is the biggest problem that you faced (or are facing) at Souktel?

One of our most basic challenges is meeting the growing demand for our technology, given the small size of our team. With fewer than 20 staff, we worry about burnout. Yet we often face a “chicken vs. egg” dilemma when contemplating hiring more staff, as we’re not sure whether to expand before new business is acquired, in anticipation of growth, or after business acquisition. Each scenario carries risks and constraints.

6) What is your role at Souktel? If you have partners, how do you manage your partnership? 

I’m the president of the company, and I oversee our global operations. My two incredible co-founders, Mohammad Kilany and Lana Hijazi, run many of our crucial services from Palestine. Our Palestinian team brings key skills and experience that enable us to serve Palestine and neighboring countries in a way that companies from outside the region simply can’t. We know the culture, we understand the markets, and we speak the language—even our North American staff all speak Arabic.   


7) Has owning a company made you financially more secure, or not?

Right now we’re financially secure, but we’ve worked hard to get here!
 

8) How does technology enable your business? What is a technical tool that you cannot live without?

As mentioned before, our services run entirely on basic mobile phones via SMS. Anyone can use their own handset—no matter how old or cheap it is

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