When the founders of Twig, a Dubai-based personal finance management application, started working on their FinTech start-up in 2021, their dream was to help solve the region’s low financial literacy rate and empower people to “branch out” and become regular savers.
Now that they have been granted in-principle approval to operate their platform from the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), that dream is fast becoming a reality, with the founders planning to formally launch the Twig mobile-only app later this month.
“Saving money and financial literacy is a global problem,” says Chafic Idriss, who has a background in financial education at the Institute of Finance in Lebanon and founded Twig with Karam El Dik and Rayan Antonios.
“For instance, three out of five adults in the UAE don't have any savings … so we are trying to provide people with an effortless and smart way to save their money, help them reach their desired goals in a less stressful way and embed healthy financial habits in their minds at the same time.”
The Covid-19 pandemic put financial literacy issues in the spotlight, with many people around the world realising the importance of a financial safety net, such as an emergency savings fund, after being laid off or furloughed during movement restrictions.
The UAE has introduced a number of financial literacy programmes over the past four years to tackle the rise of personal debt in the country.
In 2019, the UAE Central Bank signed an agreement with Emirates Foundation to launch a financial literacy programme through the Esref Sah initiative.
The Authority of Social Contribution — Ma’an has also launched the Ghaya financial literacy programme that aims to empower Emiratis with smart money skills to help them to contribute to Abu Dhabi’s long-term economic growth.
Watch: Ma'an's Ghaya financial literacy programme
“Our vision is really to complement the UAE government's efforts to be able to increase household savings and financial literacy across the UAE and even across our region,” says Mr El Dik, who has a background in developing digital banking products.
“[We] are aiming to … bring savings and financial well-being to the masses.”
Meanwhile, a 2019 financial literacy survey by Visa found that 43 per cent of respondents in the UAE aged between 16 and 24 felt they were not ready to manage their own money, while 53 per cent said schools did not prepare them enough to take care of their finances.
In a separate study by insurance company Friends Provident, about 45 per cent of UAE residents said they have yet to start saving for their retirement.
However, Mr Idriss and Mr El Dik are hoping to bridge the savings gap and lack of smart money skills with Twig, which features three “main branches”.
Firstly, it is an automated savings plan that allows users to channel funds towards their financial goals through a partnership with a local UAE bank, which they declined to name.
The app also contains a budget tool to help users track and understand their spending habits, and includes a financial literacy element to assist people in overcoming the complexities of managing their finances.
“We have tailored different automations to help them put more money aside without really thinking about it, but what we are providing differently is more insight to help people reduce their expenses and understand where their money is going and what they can do better,” Mr El Dik says.
“We allow people to think about short-term, medium-term and long-term growth that really matters to them.”
Twig was among 20 start-ups that participated in the first batch of the 2022 FinTech Hive Accelerator Programme, the region's first and largest FinTech accelerator that is organised by the DIFC.
The financial free zone set up the FinTech Hive Accelerator Programme in 2017 in partnership with New York-listed technology and consulting company Accenture.
Mr Idriss, Mr El Dik and Mr Antonios initially bootstrapped Twig for the start-up’s first year of development but have since entered a pre-seed funding round with family offices and angel and institutional investors for an undisclosed sum of about seven figures.
They expect to close the funding round shortly.
Future plans for Twig include expanding across the Mena region. Regulatory approvals are currently in progress in Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy.
The app will be available to download for free and the trio are aiming to introduce a subscription model sometime in 2023 that will provide users with additional features.
“We do aim to be the Mena region's financial companion and want to give people the tools, the knowledge, the savings plans to send them on the right path towards financial well-being and empower them to build healthy financial habits to branch out and achieve their dream goals,” Mr Idriss says.
“There is a saying that I always like to say: ‘Trees don't branch out overnight. But if you plant a tree and nurture it to grow, the sky's the limit’. So, that's really our ambition for the Mena region.”
Q&A with Chafic Idriss and Karam El Dik, co-founders of Twig
What other successful start-up do you wish you had started?
Mr Idriss: the idea of Twig is something that I have been obsessed with for close to a decade. I am passionate about it, to say the least, and I’m keen on seeing it come to fruition. I find it very fulfilling to grow a successful FinTech company that supports people in their journey to financial well-being, and I cannot imagine myself launching anything other than Twig.
Who is your role model?
Mr El Dik: I am quite inspired by Tony Fadell, co-creator of the iPod, iPhone and Nest Thermostat. I am in awe of his journey; it is so motivating to see how one’s dedication to inventing, engineering and designing great products can lead to a massive disruptive success and offer unparalleled experiences to people around the world.
What new skills have you learnt since launching your business?
Mr El Dik: an entrepreneurial journey involves wearing many hats and getting upskilled in many disciplines. I learnt how to design a product, how to market it, how to crunch the business’s financials, who to recruit and what the legal ins and outs are. I learnt about human psychology, behavioural science and project management … you name it! That is what it takes to run a company … don’t be surprised if you see me coding tomorrow!
Where do you want to be in five years?
Mr Idriss: Aside from scaling the business and reaching more people across the Mena region and hopefully beyond, I want Twig to be a true financial companion, one that is reliable, highly personalised, delightful and rewarding to use. We want to focus on bringing as much value to people as we can and reducing their financial stress and worries.
If you could do it all differently, what would you change?
Mr Idriss: I would have deployed to the market much sooner, so we can learn more from the way people are using Twig. We were really focused on releasing a well-rounded product that brought as much value as possible from the get-go, but shipping out features incrementally would have allowed us to get the application in the hands of users quicker and would have given us more insights we could have used to improve our product.