Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, more than 5.7 million people have fled the country mainly to Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq while 6.6 million people are internally displaced of which close to 3 million people are in hard to reach and besieged areas, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The ongoing crisis has had a devastating effect on the country’s infrastructure, basic services, such as sanitation and electricity and healthcare. Needless to say, it has also damaged what was a promising entrepreneurship sector.
Data around entrepreneurship in Syria is limited but it appears that many startups have shut down or are struggling to operate in the country. With sanctions in place, entrepreneurs are left with very little or no access to financing since support entities are mostly unable to send money to Syria, while private investors are reluctant to invest in a conflict zone.
Ahmad Sufian, a Syrian entrepreneur and the regional manager of Techstars in the Middle East and Africa, founded a Syria-based startup for making customised gifts in 2010 and successfully raised funding but then had to shut it down after the conflict started.
“We were not able to sustain our business, not because we did not raise funds, not because we did something wrong but because the market shifted a lot, there was no need for customised gifts. We had to shut down the business,” says Sufian.
Another Syrian entrepreneur, Khldun Said, who now lives in Iraq, recently co-founded a food waste management startup, which won the Startup Roadshow semi-finals in Erbil, a competition for Syrian entrepreneurs in the Middle East, organised by Jusoor and Spark in partnership with Startups Without Borders.
Said says that Erbil was a better choice for him than Syria to launch his startup because of the political instability, economic fluctuations and investment restrictions on Syria. He believes that while entrepreneurs can operate their startups from within Syria, he does not recommend that they primarily target the domestic market.
Even Syrian entrepreneurs who operate elsewhere face a different set of challenges when launching their startups in host countries. Challenges include financial and services restrictions on refugees in some countries as well the need to get acquainted with new laws and regulations of host countries.
One other challenge according to Said is the sense of insecurity. Like many others, Said is afraid that he may have to leave to another country at any time since his residency status is not guaranteed. Moreover, for the 3.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, understanding a new market, culture and language is yet another challenge.
However, there are several Syrian entrepreneurs who have managed to found startups with success and tackle issues in their host country. A business that might have started out based on necessity and need, end up seizing an opportunity and driving change.
“For the people in host countries, it is kind of a new opportunity and a new life, so the risk and challenge that has been on them to leave everything behind and move to a new country, make them hustle to become great entrepreneurs,” says Sufian. “They try to see what challenges exist in the new host country and try to find a proper solution for them. That is why we see the refugees are more likely to become entrepreneurs than the host people.
“For some refugees, where they do not get much support, entrepreneurship becomes their way to start and make some living for themselves and their families with the smallest resources available.”
Not only do some Syrian entrepreneurs help solve the host countries’ problems, but some of them also tackle the needs of their local community, even after locating to a new country.
When Sami Al Ahmad left Syria for Egypt in 2012 to continue his undergraduate study in dentistry, he decided to launch his first startup to help his fellow countrymen apply to study and work in Egypt after he was contacted by several Syrians asking him about his experience.
A few years later, Al Ahmad decided to open up the service and he co-founded Marj3, which today is one of the region’s largest databases of scholarships available to students in the Middle East.
“There is a huge internally displaced population in Syria that is outside of the education system. Online education is huge and that is a big space and a big opportunity. The second is the healthcare sector because the healthcare infrastructure needs a lot of support and with all of the new medical technologies that are available out there; there is a big area for entrepreneurs to work in, something like online psycho-social support for those who have been affected by the conflict inside as well as outside Syria,” says Rama Chakaki, co-founder of Syria Digital Lab (SDL), a technology ecosystem that aims to bring Syrians together in digital space. SDL was established in 2018 and implemented as a VIP Fund venture, led by Rama Chakaki and Malik al-Abdeh.
In addition to offering solutions to the local Syrian community and alleviating their situation, research by Sufian indicates that entrepreneurship in Syria can also help combat the rising unemployment rate in the country. Sufian says that the conflict in Syria had inspired a “new wave of innovative youth to tap into unexplored fields that generate new ideas”. The research revealed that 17.6 per cent of Syrian youth tried to work on startup ideas in 2014, and that percentage increased to 31.2 in 2015.
“People started to believe entrepreneurship and innovation is part of the solution to their main challenge which is unemployment. In conflict, unemployment is very high so entrepreneurship is the only option left for them. So instead of looking for a job, they start offering other people jobs,” says Sufian.
For some Syrian founders, entrepreneurship is a way to survive.
“They do not want to be the next billionaire or the next Mark Zuckerberg,” says Sufian. “I see a lot of people in Syria who are working in entrepreneurship are mostly working on educational businesses and healthcare rather than seeing them working on gaming or dating applications.”