Mixed fortunes for startups during the financial crisis in Lebanon

many residents lost their life savings after Lebanese banks decided to withhold the savings of individuals and organizations.( Reuters/File)
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Updated 16 January 2022

Mixed fortunes for startups during the financial crisis in Lebanon

  • Some fledgling businesses were unable to weather the storm but others found a lifeline by shifting operations to other countries and are determined to survive

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s financial woes began with the protests in October 2019, when a series of peaceful sit-ins escalated and became a national revolution against the ruling class.

Soon, there was a steep decline in the value of the Lebanese pound against the dollar. The official rate is still 1,500 pounds to the dollar but the currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value and now trades at about 30,000.

Meanwhile, Lebanese banks decided to withhold the savings of individuals and organizations, a decision that resulted in many residents losing their life savings and the closure of numerous organizations, family businesses and startups.

“I lost $350,000 of my money because of the crisis,” Rana Chmaitelly, the founder of The Little Engineer, an educational startup for children, told Arab News. “I lost the product of my sweat, blood and tears — they took it all away. But I didn’t give up.”

In a stroke of good fortune amid the despair, toward the end of 2019 Chmaitelly was expecting a large transfer of money from a business partner. Having been denied access to the cash in her own bank account in Lebanon, her only solution was to swiftly establish an offshore, and later a freezone, company in the UAE, to which the money her partner owed her could be safely transferred.

“That transfer to the UAE saved me and my team, or else we would now be owing a lot of money to our partners,” Chmaitelly said.

Her story is not unique among Lebanese startups. The founders of Cherpa, another educational startup, which offers technology training courses to teenagers, also relocated in part to the UAE at the onset of the financial crisis. They were able to open a freezone company there and obtain residency.

“Having our money withheld by banks was awful; there was a lot of frustration,” cofounder Bassel Jalaleddine, told Arab News. “I used to waste my time queuing up in banks all day just to get $300.”

Online platforms Mint Basel Market, Kamkalima and Ounousa are just some of the other startups that relocated operations, at least partly, to the UAE.

Tech giant Arabnet has studied the effects of the multiple crises in Lebanon on the startup ecosystem, surveying 60 startups and 15 stakeholders. Its report, which has yet to be published, reveals that about half of the startups have moved their headquarters or parts of their businesses outside of Lebanon, Omar Christidis, Arabnet’s founder and CEO, told Arab News.

As if having their capital withheld by banks was not bad enough, startups had to deal with another devastating blow at the end of 2019: the suspension of Circular 331 by Banque du Liban, the country’s central bank.

Announced by BDL in late 2013, Circular 331 was a mechanism that injected more than $400 million into the Lebanese enterprise and tech markets. The limit was raised in 2016 to $650 million to foster even more innovation and encourage banks to invest more in startups. It was hailed as a “holy grail” for businesses in the country.

The benefits were felt for six years, said Elias Boustani, the former chief operating officer with startup consultant Wamda, despite concerns that a bubble had formed that was leading to ridiculously high valuations of startups, and affecting salaries in the tech sector.

“The circular is a BDL issue and this allowed the banks to use their own equity and to be subsidized by BDL in order to invest in startups or in funds investing in startups,” said Walid Hanna, the founder and CEO of Middle East Venture Partners in Beirut.

HIGHLIGHTS

Capital locked away in banks. Circular 331 put on hold. Brain drain and the August 4 blast. How have Lebanese startups survived?

Lebanese startups are feeling the pinch. Engulfed by multiple crises, they are facing a unique set of challenges they have never had to contend with before, and are desperately looking for solutions.

“The money they allocated to the funds and to the startups was 100 percent used and depleted; it was all spent or invested. And now BDL and the (commercial) banks have no intention to reinvest in startups according to Circular 331 because, obviously, they have other priorities.”

These other priorities include attempts to address a crippling economic crisis and adjust to the hyperinflation of the currency.

MEVP told Arab News that the number of Lebanese operational startups before the crisis began in 2019 was 25. This number has fallen to 15, with seven of those struggling to remain afloat.

“The financial and economic crisis in Lebanon has impacted the ability of startups to invest in markets outside Lebanon,” according to MEVP. “The Lebanese (pound) has lost more than 90 percent of its value, making it impossible for Lebanese startups to generate substantial revenues.

“Previous funds raised are frozen in banks; these ‘Lebanese dollars,’ dubbed ‘lollars,’ stand at 19 percent of their US dollar value, making it impossible for Lebanese companies to invest in their growth.”

Some sources of funding, such as regional accelerator Flat6Labs, have put financial support to their Lebanese branches on hold.

“I remember we were among the last batch to receive funding in 2019 before the (suspension of Circular 331),” Adnan Ammache, the founder and CEO of gifting platform Presentail, told Arab news. “We received funding that was worth a little bit over $100,000.”

Six other startups received funding that ranged from $30,000 to $100,000, according to Ammache. No representative of Flat6Lab was available for comment.

With no end in sight to the crises, Lebanon is experiencing its most severe brain drain in more than a century. The minimum wage still stands at 675,000 pounds a month, which is now worth a meager $24.This has led to a severe loss of talent in several sectors, including technology, leaving startups at a disadvantage.

Startups that want to try to retain their human resources must pay employees in dollars, which places additional strain on already tenuous finances, said MEVP’s Hanna.

Avo Manjerian, the cofounder and CEO of shift-scheduling startup Schedex, told Arab News: “Finding and retaining talent is hard and costly but the goal is not the money; it’s creating the incomparable, flexible and broad-minded culture in our small startup.”

Schedex soft-launched in October 2019, just as the economic crisis was beginning.




A woman wearing a face mask walks past a money exchange office in the Lebanese capital Beirut. (AFP/File)

“We pay our employees in fresh dollars from our investment because we want to be fair and we don’t want to take advantage of the situation,” Manjerian said.

Other startups such as Cherpa and Mint Basil Market said they also pay in dollars, in an effort to be “fair,” and having a bank account in another country, such as the UAE, helps with this.

Boustani said that some startups concerned about losing employees are also offering staff the chance to relocate to the UAE, Turkey or other countries and work remotely. Murex, for example, helped workers in Lebanon move to the company’s offices in France.

The devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, delivered yet another blow to Lebanese startups. Buildings in the Beirut Digital District, the hub for Lebanese entrepreneurs, were badly damaged, including the offices of several startups including Schedex, Sympaticus and Moodfit.

Businesses in other parts of the city were also affected by the explosion, including Buildlink, FabricAID, Compost Baladi SAL and Basma, according to the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center. The center launched an aid initiative that distributed $100,000 equally among 10 high-impact Lebanese startups affected by the blast.

Looking to the future, to say that the Lebanese are resilient is an understatement. They are a stubborn, determined people, and this is reflected in the determination startup founders to succeed at all costs.

“We have been operational since May 18,” said Hussein Sleiman, the founder of Find a Nurse, an award-winning online platform that supplies trusted caregivers.

“We have stopped at nothing. And while we of course aspire to expand to be a global startup, we plan to make our headquarters in Lebanon — where we can employ people residing in Lebanon and benefit our country.”


World Economic Forum to return in-person as it aims to shed light on ‘History at a Turning Point’

Updated 18 May 2022

World Economic Forum to return in-person as it aims to shed light on ‘History at a Turning Point’

  • This year’s meeting will bring together about 2,500 leaders and experts from around the world, including more than 50 heads of state and government, more than 1,250 leaders from the private sector and nearly 100 Global Innovators and Technology Pioneers

LONDON: The World Economic Forum announced on Wednesday that the theme of its annual meeting for 2022 will be ‘History at a Turning Point: Government Policies and Business Strategies’ in its return to an in-person conference since the pandemic forced it to go virtual since 2020.

“The Annual Meeting is the first summit that brings global leaders together in this new situation characterized by an emerging multipolar world as a result of the pandemic and war,” said Klaus Schwab, the WEF’s founder and executive chairman.

This year’s meeting — which is happening in the spring rather than its usual January slot — returns after a two-year hiatus and will bring together about 2,500 leaders and experts from around the world, including more than 50 heads of state and government, more than 1,250 leaders from the private sector and nearly 100 Global Innovators and Technology Pioneers.

“The fact that nearly 2,500 leaders from politics, business, civil society and media come together in person demonstrates the need for a trusted, informal and action-oriented global platform to confront the issues in a crisis-driven world,” Schwab said.

Civil society will be represented by more than 200 leaders from NGOs, social entrepreneurs, academia, labour organizations, faith-based and religious groups, and at least 400 media leaders and reporting press. The Annual Meeting will also bring together younger generations, with 100 members of the Forum’s Global Shaper and Young Global Leader communities participating.

Against a backdrop of the global pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and geo-economic challenges, the meeting convenes at a strategic point where public figures and global leaders will meet in person to reconnect, exchange insights, gain fresh perspectives and advance solutions.

Topics that will be discussed at the annual meeting range from COVID-19 and climate change to education, technology and energy governance.

These include the Reskilling Revolution, an initiative to provide 1 billion people with better education, skills and jobs by 2030; an initiative on universal environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics and disclosures to measure stakeholder capitalism; and the One Trillion Trees initiative, 1t.org, to protect our trees and forests and restore the planet’s ecosystems.

The programme will have six thematic pillars, including fostering global and regional cooperation; securing the economic recovery and shaping a new era of growth; building healthy and equitable societies; safeguarding climate, food and nature; driving industry transformation, and finally; harnessing the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


Bank of England official warns of tough times for crypto

Updated 17 May 2022

Bank of England official warns of tough times for crypto

  • G7 to discuss crypto-asset regulation, says French central banker

RIYADH: Investors in crypto currencies should expect more difficult times ahead as tightening financial conditions around the world stoke appetite for safer assets, Bank of England Deputy Gov. Jon Cunliffe said on Tuesday.

Asked at a Wall Street Journal conference if rising interest rates would ramp up pressure on crypto currencies, Cunliffe said: “Yes, I think as this process continues, as (quantitative tightening) starts in the US ... I think we’ll see a move out of risky assets.” Cunliffe added that the conflict in Ukraine also had the potential to cause a renewed flight to safer assets.

Bitcoin, the world’s largest cryptocurrency, fell as low as $25,401 on Thursday, its lowest since Dec. 2020. It hit a record high of $69,000 in November. 

However, it traded higher on Tuesday, up 0.2 percent to $30,418 as of 08:52 a.m. Riyadh time.

Ether, the second most traded cryptocurrency, was priced at $2,077, up 0.32 percent, according to data from CoinDesk.

G7 meeting

The regulation of crypto-assets is likely to be discussed at a meeting of Group of Seven finance chiefs this week in Germany, French central bank head Francois Villeroy de Galhau said on Tuesday.

“What happened in the recent past is a wake-up call for the urgent need for global regulation,” Villeroy told an emerging markets conference in Paris, referring to recent turbulence in crypto-asset markets.

“Europe paved the way with MICA (regulatory framework for crypto-assets), we will probably ... discuss these issues among many others at the G7 meeting in Germany this week,” he added.

Grayscale to launch digital assets

Grayscale will list an exchange-traded fund in Europe made up of companies representing the “Future of Finance,” the world’s largest cryptocurrency asset manager said in a statement on Monday. 

The ETF, tracking the “Bloomberg Grayscale Future of Finance Index,” will be listed on the London Stock Exchange, Italy’s Borsa Italiana and Germany’s Deutsche Börse Xetra and begin trading on May 17. It is the first time that US-based Grayscale has listed a fund in Europe.

The index contains a mixture of companies involved in digital currencies including asset managers, exchanges, brokers, technology firms, as well as firms directly involved in cryptocurrency mining. “For us, the digital economy is primarily being driven through the proliferation of digital assets,” said Grayscale CEO Michael Sonnenshein.

Related


NEOM ‘fully under Saudi sovereignty, regulations,’ says government official refuting inaccurate media reports

Updated 16 May 2022

NEOM ‘fully under Saudi sovereignty, regulations,’ says government official refuting inaccurate media reports

RIYADH: NEOM, a project fully owned by Saudi Public Investment Fund, is “completely under Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and regulations,” the Saudi Press Agency reported early Monday, citing an official source.

The clarification came after NEOM's tourism sector head Andrew McEvoy made comments to media during his participation at Arabian Travel Market in Dubai about demographic status within the megacity, suggesting that residents within NEOM will have a special status, distinguishing them from others.


Read More: NEOM seeks to regenerate the area, offer ‘guilt-free’ vacations


NEOM City will have some special regulations related to investment reflecting its strategy as part of the Kingdom's Vision 2030, to make 'the city of the future' an effective driver in supporting the Saudi economy and the prosperity of the region, according to the company.

Economic legislation specific to the project area will be developed to achieve the best concepts of governance of economic zones in the world, making NEOM one of the most important attractions globally, SPA quoted the source as saying.

The point was underlined by Manar Al-Munif, chief investment officer of NEOM, while speaking at the Saudi-Thai Economic Forum in Riyadh on May 16.

She said the $500-billion future city will have its own regulations based on best practices from around the world that will allow businesses to grow and develop.

Al-Munif revealed that NEOM is the largest Environmental, Social, and Governance initiative in the world, and added that the project will create several investment opportunities for businesses. 

“We have identified a number of investment opportunities across 16 sectors in NEOM. These sectors represent the future, and we have outlined 150 investment initiatives. Each of these initiatives is going to have hundreds of opportunities regardless if it is a direct investment, joint venture, or merging,” Al-Munif added. 

She also said the NEOM project is trying to reinvent and introduce environmental factors, thus ensuring harmony with nature. 


Top CEO Conference and Awards to recognize industry leaders in GCC

Updated 15 May 2022

Top CEO Conference and Awards to recognize industry leaders in GCC

  • Publicly listed firms in GCC bourses are evaluation on their annual financial performance

DUBAI: Braving the setbacks they had faced during the pandemic, head honchos of top companies will be attending the Top CEO Conference and Awards to be held in the city from May 17-18 to celebrate leadership in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

According to the organizer’s statement, the Top CEO Awards are based on the financial performance, size and corporate governance of GCC-listed companies.

Julien Hawari, organizer of the TOP CEO, Special Edition, said in the statement: “All of the publicly listed companies in the Arabian Gulf stock markets are evaluated on their annual financial performance, and the ranking is not a result of a nomination by a jury relying on undisclosed metrics.”

The statement added that companies are evaluated if they are listed on any of the seven GCC stock markets. Moreover, Hawkamah Institute has provided corporate governance guidelines developed by the Top CEO in partnership with INSEAD Business School.

One of the Big Four has audited the results, and KPMG is auditing the Top CEO ranking for the 2022 awards, the statement said, while adding that Arab News and Al Arabiya News channel were chosen as media partners of the event.

According to Hawari, the awards were created in 2012 to recognize those who created value and boosted the region’s economy while maintaining transparency and good corporate governance.

FASTFACT

One of the Big Four has audited the results, and KPMG is auditing the Top CEO ranking for the 2022 awards.

The statement added that there are 10 categories of companies to be divided into, and the Top 10 CEOs in each category are recognized, totaling 100 awards.

The 10 categories are banking, energy and utility, financial services and investment, insurance, logistics and industrials, malls, real estate and construction, mining, metals and chemicals, retail, FMCG and consumer care, Shariah-compliant banks and financial services and telecom, tech and media.

Commenting on the event, Hawari said: “Global market forces are coming together in the post-pandemic economies to rebuild communities and businesses, and our region is no different.”

Compared to the pause of business in 2020 and slow growth in 2021, the first three months of 2022 saw Arabian Gulf stock markets increase by the most since the global financial meltdown.


Pakistan’s oil, food bill swells to $24.8 billion amid rising commodity prices, rupee depreciation

Updated 15 May 2022

Pakistan’s oil, food bill swells to $24.8 billion amid rising commodity prices, rupee depreciation

  • Petroleum products make up for 26% of Pakistan's overall imports worth $65.53 billion
  • Finance minister says he will talk to the IMF but refuses to withdraw energy subsidies

KARACHI: Pakistan’s oil and food import bills have swelled to $24.8 billion during the current fiscal year due to increasing global commodity prices and weakening national currency, according to official data and analysts. 

The oil and food import bills of the South Asian country, which is struggling with a worsening balance-of-payment crisis in the face of declining foreign exchange reserves, rose by 96 percent and 12.3 percent respectively from July 2021 till April 2022. 

Pakistan imported oil products worth $17.03 billion during this period, compared to imports worth $8.69 billion during the corresponding period last year. It contributed 26 percent to the country’s overall $65.53 billion imports, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS). 

The food import bill during the period stood at $7.75 billion against the $6.9 billion recorded during the same period last year. The import of palm oil worth over $3 billion alone made up for a major share of the import bill, which surged by 44 percent from July till April. 

“The surging global commodity prices are a major reason behind high oil and food prices, mainly due to the Russia-Ukraine war and revival of COVID-19 that have disrupted the supply and demand balance,” Ahsan Mehanti, chief executive officer of the Arif Habib Commodities investment firm, told Arab News on Sunday. 

“Inflation triggered by the import of energy and food items at higher prices will continue to persist as long as the rupee does not recover.” 

The Pakistani currency continues to hit new lows against the United States (US) dollar as the demand for import payments continues to build pressure on the rupee. On Friday, the rupee hit yet another historic low as the greenback closed at Rs192.53 in the interbank market.    

The US dollar has gained 6 percent or Rs10.98 against the rupee since April 16, when it was trading at Rs181.55.  

Experts believe the Pakistani currency will recoup some of the lost ground after Islamabad and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sign a deal for the revival of $6 billion loan program. 

“We see the dollar hitting Rs200 mark against the rupee before falling back to around Rs180,” Mehanti said. "We expect the rupee to recover after Pakistan signs a deal with the IMF next week." 

Pakistan and the IMF are currently negotiating the country's seventh review under the $6 billion Extended Fund Facility (EFF), which has so far disbursed $3 billion. Islamabad is expected to receive another $1 billion after the completion of the review.    

The review has been stalled since the previous government announced in February around $1.7 billion relief in energy prices while deviating from the objectives of the IMF program.  

“I am going to talk to the IMF and will find out the solution to the issue amicably,” Miftah Ismail, the Pakistani finance minister, said at a press conference in Islamabad on Sunday. 

“The government has no intention to further increase the petroleum prices. The prime minister has refused to burden the people further.” 

Pakistan’s imports of machinery also posted an increase by 20.5 percent to $9.5 billion from July till April as compared to $7.9 billion during the same period last year. Imports of telecom equipment jumped by 14 percent to $2.4 billion, while mobile phone imports rose by 7.4 percent to $1.8 billion.   

The South Asian nation imported vehicles worth $3.7 billion, which shows over 60 percent growth in 10 months of the current fiscal year.   

Pakistan suffered $39.3 billion trade deficit from July till April due to the highest ever imports of $65.53 billion. Experts call for addressing the situation by restricting the import of non-essential and luxurious goods.