Like most uni students, 25-year-old Zeina Khalili hoped that once she had graduated her computer science degree her life was going to change dramatically. And it did, she co-founded a tech start-up called Mujeeb straight after her graduation, but it was a bit harder than she expected.
Mujeeb, a small business based on a chatbot which any company can use to answer customer’s questions in Arabic, has managed to flourish despite the obvious disadvantage of existing against a backdrop of war. Although, according to Khalili, there are some advantages too: “Overheads are low,” she says. “You won’t get that much money, but you won’t spend much.”
What was once a booming tech industry in Syria, has now been reduced to a peppering of determined coders such as Khalili. Like every industry there, seven years of civil war has caused a steep decline in the tech sector. The situation has seriously taken its toll upon young people; millions of youngsters, including thousands that studied computer science, have left the country. Along with that, unemployment has more than tripled – from 15 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2015, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research.
Khalili won a national entrepreneurship competition when she was getting Mujeeb off the ground, that netted her $10,000 (a fair bit of cash, especially in Syria). She spent it on equipment that was essential to getting the project started. Her main aim now? To expand the workforce, develop her product and continue making a profit – despite having to operate the business within a warzone.
The team behind Mujeeb operate from a shared, not-for-profit working space which is run by the state who want to reignite the whole industry. They share the space with employees from seven other start-ups, including 19-year-old business student Mawaddah Kallas. He co-founded a company which developed a tool, ‘Mindzone’, which helps people who want to learn Arabic. With over 5,000 users registered already, they are doing well to say the very least.
“We started like a not-for-profit. Then we found out it can’t work like that,” Kallas, who is from Damascus, says. She’s now working on finding corporate sponsorships. Anas al-Sabe is a 24-year-old entrepreneur who sits opposite Kallas in the shared space, she’s trying to get an online grocery service off the ground. But, due to the on-going threat of terrorism, it could quite possibly be one of the hardest places to do that.
“We struggle in every stage that outside Syria they don’t even think of,” she explains. “We don’t have an ecosystem that helps us build our start-up.” Despite the fact that they are facing overwhelming difficulties, these people are determined to make their businesses successful. That, coupled with the dedication that the Syrian state have shown to rebuilding their waning tech sector, demonstrates a resilience that is nothing short of inspirational.
Featured image credit: Sana