Three years ago Wamda interviewed Iraqi Mohammad Al-Samarrai about his venture, the country’s first online food delivery site based out of Erbil, Easy Bites.
Today, the website no longer exists.
Al-Samarrai and his cofounder, German consultant Oliver Koch, set up Easy Bites in 2013 to bring seamless food delivery to the Kurdish capital. By April 2014, Koch was no longer in Kurdistan and the site had shut down.
It might seem easy to expect such a platform would fail in a country that is suffering from a myriad of problems and violent conflicts, but what else could be impeding the growth of a food ordering platform in Iraq?
Al-Samarrai said there were many challenges, most of all was an audience not quite ready for the Easy Bites delivery service.
There is a lack of postal addresses in the country, a problem felt throughout the Middle East. The cofounder told Wamda they had looked to Google for help in updating their maps of Iraq’s cities but to no avail. “We wrote to Google about five emails asking them to update the maps [the last update was in 2008] but it didn’t happen,” Al-Samarrai said.
In an effort to bypass this problem they collected “tag references” from users. For Erbil alone they collected 1,200 - any kind of reference point, from ‘the pharmacy on the corner’ to ‘the coffee shop in the middle of the street’ to ‘the large supermarket’.
Misdirected focus, misdirected marketing
Both founders had full time jobs. Koch and Al-Samarrai were working with the German Development Cooperation on building the National Information Technology Association (NITA) in Erbil when they came up with the idea of Easy Bites.
They could not devote as much time to the business as would have been beneficial, and diving head first into one aspect of the business often meant that they would neglect another.
“We assumed that young people would want to use our service,” said Al-Samarrai. Their lack of real market research led them down a path of totally misunderstanding their audience, and their potential user-base. “After two trials we saw we were mistaken, the main customers were actually expats.”
This in turn led to not focusing on aspects of the business in equal measure.
“At some point, with our focus on the customers, we forgot about the restaurants,” he told Wamda.
Just before their last phase of prepping before launch, they went to the restaurants and came against a wall - many were not interested in getting involved with Easy Bites. A service that was going to require the internet 24/7, was unpopular.
“Many of the restaurants famous for delivery didn’t even have a PC.” The team found themselves providing restaurants with laptops just to make it work. Then they found themselves forgetting about the customers again and a vital part of their business plan - their marketing campaign.
By the time they closed they were working with 16 restaurants in Erbil, eight in Baghdad and eight in Sulaymaniyah; they were taking between 20 and 25 orders a day and there were more than 5,000 registered users and 2,000 daily visits to the site.
Lack of talent
This is a repetitive cry in the region so it’s hardly surprising to hear that finding people to employ, with the appropriate experience, was a challenge.
Giving responsibility to people who couldn’t handle it was a problem, Al-Samarrai said.
Koch then got the opportunity to leave for Canada to pursue an MBA. As the most experienced amongst them, according to Al-Samarrai, his departure was a bump in the road but not a major one. Now he is a product manager at Google.
The market was not ready
“Iraqis were not not ready for Easy Bites,” said Al-Samarrai. “And they still are not, ready for any tech luxury app.”
He cited reasons for this being the security situation, the fluctuation in economy, lack of infrastructure - the basic needs of people in Iraq, plus a lack of awareness around the importance of SMEs.
“When you live in Baghdad, you live day by day, you don’t plan for tomorrow, back in 2005 and 2006 we were saying goodbye at the start of each day, as if it were our last. So, when I say that people are not ready for solutions like Easy Bites, it’s not because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to have it but it’s because they are busy with survival, getting water, electricity, gas…”
Easy Bites wasn’t solving a problem. However, others have not been deterred and have taken up the baton.
The Iraqi food sector is not a promising one, says Wamda contributor and ‘entrepreneurship evangelist’ Marwan Jabbar.
In terms of the startup scene in the country changing at all since Easy Bites made its debut, Jabbar is not sure much has changed at all. According to Jabbar it’s in ecommerce.
Sites like Miswag, and multiple Facebook pages acting as middlemen for those unable to purchase items from stores like Amazon, were very popular, said Jabbar. He even has his own ecommerce platform - Fekastore - which he says is doing very well after launching at the start of the year.
Al-Samarrai is now working as a content strategist and social media coordinator with InCoStrat, an American communications and media consultancy. He also has his own business, Moenovo, providing consultancy and training to a number of local NGOs and startups.
He told Wamda that instead of trying to work on his own startup he would use his experience to pave the way for others. “Many do consider Easy Bites a failure,” he said. “And back then it was, I have family, and there were many challenges. It’s not in our culture to take this leap of faith. Why shouldn’t [I help people with] this missing piece of the puzzle?”