The days when South African companies could hope to escape the attention of cybercriminals are long gone. That became evident once again in February…
For Fattoum Nasser the first thing anyone does when starting a tech business in Libya is to list all the things that might go wrong — from the internet connection constantly going down to your car being hijacked.
Experts estimate that over 10 000 people have been killed since a civil war began in 2014, while the UN Human Rights Commission believes over 200 000 Libyans have been internally displaced.
But somehow amidst all this chaos a generation of young tech entrepreneurs is forging ahead.
Nasser (pictured above) — who is from Sabha, a city located in the country’s unstable south — is one of these. Last year together with Aziza Adam she struck out and founded Yummy, a social enterprise and homemade food delivery app.
‘In Libya the first thing you do is list all the things that might go wrong — from internet connection going off to drivers cars getting hijacked’
The startup, which was placed third at Seedstars Tripoli earlier this month, currently employs 12 people. Nasser now plans to extend operations to Tripoli and Benghazi after the Eid holidays.
Her biggest challenge is the erratic electricity supply. Last month for example the power only went on at night or was only switched on every 12 hours.
It’s not just the infrastructure that is a challenge — Libyans have long looked down on tech startups. “If you declared that you have an idea for an app that would make money before, five or six years ago, you’d probably get laughed at,” says Nasser.
But things are now changing. “I see more and more joining along and creating tech solutions for the problems we’re facing now,” says Nasser. “I’m very hopeful.”
For Najla Almissalati, the co-founder of Benghazi-based social enterprise She Codes, the current situation in Libya has been “really difficult”.
She lost her her closest cousin in the war and says it’s not yet safe enough for some of her family who fled the conflict to return to Libya.
“I still have anxiety and occasional panic attacks, especially since we live down town, right where everything has happened and we didn’t leave our house in the fear of losing it. We got stuck for days when they closed the road or when the war got heavy,” says Almissalati, who adds that you learn to live each day “as if it were your last”.
Yet despite the immense danger, she opted to stay and start her business, which she co-founded with Omima Elkilani.
The startup aims to equip women and children with coding and computational skills. Like Nasser, Almissalati also pitched at Seedstars Tripoli. Her startup She Codes came second.
“I strongly believe that if we don’t make the change, then who will? If all the good people leave Libya and flee with their lives, then we are selling out a beautiful country and we are letting down our grandchildren.
“And now, in Libya, this is the best time to make a change, (to make a) positive impact, be a role-model for so many other young Libyan girls, and leave a print in this world. This is my drive and this is what made me stay and start a business,” explains Almissalati.
To get around the poor and irregular internet connectivity and constant electricity blackouts Almissalati and Elkilani have had to come up with creative work arounds — like pre-downloading materials and using power banks as back-up power.
Almissalati says she keeps getting promises of funding and investment, and suspects the lack of security in the country as well as the current economic situation is getting in the way of her startup raising funding.
‘Forget about trying to raise VC’
The problem, says Seedstars Middle East and North Africa associate Omar Barakat, is that it is “close to impossible” to raise venture capital in Libya.
“External investors don’t want to take the risk. Most investment is coming in the form of grants and competition money. There are a handful of high-net worth Libyans living abroad or in the country that are writing small tickets,” he says.
But he believes things are changing. In the last couple of years a few incubators have begun to emerge in various cities around the country in mainly universities. There are however, no accelerators in the country as yet.
Earlier this year, the Libya Enterprise Organisation held its third startup expo in Tripoli. Over 350 applicants applied to exhibit at the showcase, with 120 eventually getting the opportunity (see this video which shows some of the startups that were at the expo).
“One of the main drivers of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Libya is Expertise France, who are supporting many of these projects and other educational programs for entrepreneurship,” explains Barakat.
He says there is growing consensus among the various stakeholders in the ecosystem that tech entrepreneurs will play a large part in supporting the economy of the country in the coming years.
Says Barakat: “In five years, there will be a lot more startups, many more opportunities for entrepreneurs to learn and grow, and more capital backing these entrepreneurs”.
Until that happens women like Nasser and Almissalati will struggle on, while an ever increasingly pointless war continues to destroy their country.
Featured image: Yummy co-founder Fattoum Nasser (Supplied)