Pakiza Abdulrahman is the head of startups at the Bahrain Economic Development Board
At a time when many businesses cannot serve their customers through traditional channels due to the ongoing global health crisis, online service providers are playing an ever more important role – whether for delivering food, enabling education or connecting corporations. And while major players such as Talabat and Zoom are already catering to many of these basic needs, it is smaller startups that are providing ‘outside world’ services in the comfort (and quarantine) of users’ own homes. The sector is one which thrives not only on resilience, but also on agility and fast roll-out of smart ideas without the traditional internal bureaucratic hurdles of larger corporations.
In Bahrain, an island kingdom in the Arabian Gulf with a population of just over 1.5 million, it is these fledgling firms that are leading the way. The country’s thriving business scene is home to a range of startups offering useful services to those following stringent Coronavirus guidelines – such as online grocery service GetBaqala, pharmacy delivery app Weyak and catering service Akalati. Beyond covering basic needs, startups are playing a significant role in maintaining a high quality of life for those staying indoors. Alrawi – an Arabic audio platform which allows users to earn a living by recording voiceovers from anywhere – has surged in popularity among the kingdom’s self-isolating population. Meanwhile, monitoring app Nakheel is finding that the lockdown (and subsequent decrease in the available physical workforce) has resulted in higher use of its artificial intelligence (AI)-based technology to help fight palm tree infestations.
For other firms operating in verticals such as remote working, healthtech and physical delivery, the crisis has been intrinsically linked to an uptick in demand. For example, Weyak, a successful graduate of Flat6Labs, is a cloud software service for clinics which allows doctors to prescribe medication to patients and then have it delivered by the time the patient reaches home, has seen massive success during this time. Additionally, Bahrain’s Hayatech, which helps individuals and large companies to achieve a healthy lifestyle, has witnessed a rise in interest about wellness technologies during the “testing times”. Sandra Knight, the company’s chief operating officer and co-founder, has watched as the cloud-based app’s users shared health tips and exercise ideas compatible with the current social distancing guidelines. “Our platform has served as a great escape from the cheerless conversations associated with the current state of the world,” she said.
Bahraini startup Skiplino has offered its award-winning contactless mobile queue solution free-of-charge for six months to government agencies and medical centres in response to the COVID-19 crisis in order to further support the implementation of safety measures.
Education has also taken a prominent role during the outbreak as schools seek to continue lessons for millions of students studying from home. Supporting the government’s official Amazon Web Services-powered online learning portal, the Telp platform is connecting tutors with students at a time when neither can leave their homes – and Springring is facilitating efficient communication between teachers and parents. With no end in sight to the current health situation, these services mean those in isolation no longer need to lose out on critical learning and development opportunities.
One thing all of these startups have in common is resilience and agility. These firms have worked to serve the needs of communities both local to Bahrain and globally by scaling their offerings to meet a sudden increase in demand. But in common with large firms, smaller enterprises are facing challenges, and many are entering ‘survival mode’. With already limited expenditure, the erratic changes in customer numbers caused by Coronavirus can mean closure for startups if contingency measures are not quickly put in place.
Of course, governments around the world – including in Bahrain – have revealed strong economic stimulus measures worth many billions of dollars. The kingdom too has a long history of offering a strong ecosystem in which startups can thrive, even during challenging times – with benefits including 100% per cent foreign ownership, a highly competitive taxation system, cost competitiveness and an attractive regulatory environment. We’re also seeing a lot of support for the ecosystem from corporates and the private sector here in Bahrain, but we must also work as one globally to provide even greater softer community support – from remote business advice to virtual knowledge-sharing opportunities. After all, it is not only the Bahrain’s startups facing these challenges – but organisations in China, Italy and hundreds of other countries impacted by the outbreak too.
During the current global health crisis, Bahrain’s startups have an opportunity to export their services to the global market. In doing so, it is essential that we work to connect with firms around the world to build upon our strength of unity and community.