Sudan’s startup ecosystem is seldom highlighted as one of opportunity due the country’s weak economy, high level of inflation and growing tensions toward the government. But amid the challenges, a handful of startups have emerged, including Tirhal, the country’s most successful ride-hailing application.
Founded in September 2016 by Mohamed Elzakey, Omer Elzakey, Yaser Abba and Siddig Eltaj, the company now employs 300 people and has amassed 45,000 drivers who complete 1.5 million rides every month.
Prior to Tirhal, Mohamed Elzakey, who trained as a software engineer, worked at Kushite, one of Sudan’s largest information technology companies. He quit his job in 2015 and embarked on a soul-searching year of travel before deciding on his business venture.
Today, Tirhal has become one of Sudan’s most recognisable and successful brands, operating across four cities in Sudan with plans to expand to the rest of the country and the wider African market. Elzakey is looking to raise $10 million to fulfil these expansion plans.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
I started my first business when I was in primary school, I sold sweets on the streets and then in college, I launched 20 businesses. Some of them succeeded and some of them failed. I started an online bookshop, I also tried to work in gold exploration, Sudan has a lot of mining areas. It is in my nature, I do not give up, I will try and try and try, this has been my behaviour my whole life.
When did you realise it was the right time to leave your job?
I worked at Kushite for seven years. When I left I was the training centre director. It was a difficult decision, I had a huge salary, I had all the benefits. But I didn’t want to be an employee. For one year I did not have a job until Tirhal.
What was the reaction when you launched Tirhal?
Everyone said ‘you will not be successful’. When establishing a business in Sudan it is very challenging, the businessmen are not ready to invest their money in a new idea.
But I think this is changing because the Sudanese culture is supportive. The ecosystem is very supportive when it comes to technology. The mobile and smartphone penetration is high.
What was your growth strategy?
After half an hour of launching our marketing campaign in September 2016, we had our first order and we were very happy. When we first started we had just three cars, my uncle’s and two of my friends’. We now have 45,000 drivers and 4.5 million customers. We saw growth day by day, we saw the demand. We have no official transportation or taxi company in Sudan. The taxis don’t have air conditioning, but from the first day we had the competitive advantage with clean cars and air conditioning.
My first decision was to be competitive, we take only 10 per cent [of the fare] from drivers. When we started the minimum cost of a trip was SD30 ($0.63), our competitors’ minimum was SD45.
What is next for Tirhal?
We have plans to go to Africa. My vision is to be the first Sudanese unicorn company. We are now doing some studies on countries in Africa, we will start with Nigeria, Ethiopia and Tanzania, these are the three countries we plan to go to in 2019.
Careem recently launched in Khartoum, what has been the impact?
We have a minimum of 30 ride-sharing applications in the market with four main players. We have a strong plan to compete against deep pocket competitors. We have reached the conclusion that the geographic expansion in Sudan as well as in Africa puts Tirhal in a position that it can compete with Careem. We are going to bigger markets to enable us to finance the company. We have very strong connections to Africa, the culture is quite similar in Sudan compared to these countries.