Generation start-up: how UAE's Ziina is working to boost financial literacy in Middle East

Founded in January 2020, the start-up aims to expand in Jordan next year

Andrew Gold, left, and Faisal Toukan, the founders of FinTech start-up Ziina. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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“A person either disciplines his finances or his finances discipline him.”

The famous quote by American author Orrin Woodward fits well in the case of entrepreneur Faisal Toukan, who founded FinTech start-up Ziina — the UAE peer-to-peer (P2P) payment application — with co-founders Sarah Toukan and Andrew Gold.

Founded in January 2020, the Dubai-based start-up is on a mission to bring financial literacy and economic freedom to every person in the Middle East and eventually transform their lives.

“Money is a very tough topic to navigate, both personally and in social circles … we aim to clarify both,” says Jordanian-American Mr Toukan, 28, chief executive of Ziina.

“This is done by painstakingly paying attention to users, understanding their relationship to money as individuals and the people around them.

“Over the past months, we have proudly built products that are viewed as world class and have even been patented. We don’t intend to imitate existing solutions in other countries but are currently pioneering solutions in Dubai on a global scale.”

Ziina offers a seamless way for friends and family to split payments. Users can set up an account and start getting paid in minutes. All they have to do is download the app, sign up with their phone number, provide their identity and proof of address, and they can start using the app to send and receive money instantly.

P2P payment technology allows customers to transfer funds from their bank account or credit card to others through the internet and is booming globally.

The market is projected to reach $4.5 billion by 2027, from $1.8bn in 2019, growing nearly 12 per cent annually, according to Statistics Market Research Consulting.

Ziina, which started with sending and receiving money for individuals, has extended its services to businesses, and is currently working on various pilot financial projects.

“We reduced the duration of sending and receiving money, which initially took more than 20 minutes and was quite an awkward process for both parties, to less than two seconds and made the process fun and quite seamless,” says Mr Toukan.

“We are integrating this core philosophy into our business products as well.”

“There are 208,000 micro businesses and 113,000 small businesses in the UAE. These businesses are overlooked and underserved. We are addressing their pain points in financial transactions and carefully dedicating our products to them.”

Ziina’s products are also tailored to large businesses. It offers solutions like quick response (QR) codes and customisable links that can be disseminated on a mass scale.

These solutions are “perfect for legacy businesses looking to make a quick transition into accepting online payments”, Mr Toukan says.

The company also launched its digital wallet for both consumers and businesses in February this year. Since then, Ziina has released new products and feature enhancements every two weeks, it says.

Ziina’s first investors were the founders’ friends and family members, who contributed $200,000 to start the company. Since its inception, the start-up has raised nearly $9.4 million but it also has its own share of ups and downs.

For example, for the first year, two of the co-founders did not take their salaries and one of the co-founders took a huge pay cut. But gradually things picked up as they attracted the attention of many investors.

“We are super privileged to have a wide base of strategic investors,” Mr Toukan says. “Each one brings different value to Ziina and have helped immensely in getting us to where we are today.

“The first bucket [of investors] includes international investors focused on growth and who have the capital reserves to aggressively double down on Ziina. The second bucket is of local investors. They have helped us with various aspects of the business such as commercial negotiations, regulations, banking and local talent.”

The company’s investors include Long Journey Ventures, Graph Ventures, Avenir Growth, Jabbar Internet Group, FJ Labs, Wamda Capital, Goodwater Capital and Jasoor Ventures, the venture capital arm of Oman Technology Fund, among others.

The company also qualified for the American seed money start-up accelerator Y-Combinator’s winter 2021 batch.

Currently, Ziina’s services are available across the UAE, the Arab world’s second largest economy. Its office is located in Dubai International Financial Centre and its operations are regulated by the Dubai Financial Services Authority.

The company aims to expand its operations to Jordan next year.

“This represents a sort of homecoming for me and one of the co-founders Sarah [Mr Toukan’s sister]. We are both Jordanian and grew up in Amman for a significant portion of our lives,” Mr Toukan says.

We want to build a generational company that propels this region forward ... Souq and Careem have paved the way, through their acquisitions, for a company like Ziina to be listed on the Nasdaq
Faisal Toukan, co-founder of FinTech start-up Ziina

While entering new markets, the company is focused on retaining the best talent to boost its core technology and ensure a rapid product development.

“Hiring the best talent continues to be our number one investment priority,” Mr Toukan says.

“We strongly believe that people drive everything we do at Ziina. We will also be putting significant capital into our expansion efforts as we work to put Ziina into the hands of more people in the Middle East.”

However, there is no plan to exit the business as the founders intend to establish it in the long term with a strong foundation.

“FinTech industry is booming and offers a lot of potential to entrepreneurs if they do things in the right manner. Our goal is for Ziina to become as big as Apple,” Mr Toukan says.

“We want to build a generational company that propels this region forward. Souq and Careem have paved the way through their acquisitions for a company like Ziina to be listed on the Nasdaq.”

The global FinTech market is projected to reach $332.5bn by 2028, from $112.5bn in 2021, according to the latest report by global payments company MasterCard.

There are more than 470 FinTech unicorns globally, with 40 of them added in the first quarter of this year. The Middle East and North Africa region is expected to have 45 FinTech unicorns — or start-ups with a valuation of $1bn and above — by 2030, a 10th of the global number, the report says.

Zinna, which is not yet profitable, is in no hurry to become profitable as it is focused on growth and establishing a strong foundation.

“Profitability is tied to how much growth you want to pursue,” Mr Toukan says.

“Start-ups are a series of experiments and every product we launch is an experiment. We validate whether a product is successful by its long-term ability to generate a profit. Once we complete that experiment, we move on to the next one.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, which upended many businesses and shook the global economy in the l two years, proved an opportunity for the Ziina founders.

“We actually noticed an uptick in the number of Ziina users … people had fewer opportunities to meet in person, so they resorted to remote modes of payments. They were also wary to handle physical cash to avoid possible germ contamination,” he says.

Q&A: Faisal Toukan, Ziina’s co-founder and chief executive

What is your mantra for success?

Great men compel and aren't compelled by others.

Are you in a hurry to make Ziina profitable?

Revolut took 5.5 years to become profitable, Facebook took nine years, and Amazon took 14. This wasn’t because they were bad businesses, it was because they continued to push their own boundaries and experiment rigorously. We are investing in long-term growth and working rigorously to produce disruptive financial technologies.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

We want to put financial freedom in the hands of every single person in the Middle East. We also want to redefine finance from something that’s awkward and full of friction to a true extension of yourself, that is emotive and frictionless.

We have been lucky to have plenty of financial support from our investors. The support is earned by continuously under-promising and over-delivering on milestones.

Are you a risk-taker or a cautious entrepreneur?

You can’t be a cautious entrepreneur.

What is on your mind while you hire a new employee?

We have an internal policy of raising the bar with every single hire. The key question we ask ourselves is: “Can we learn from this person if we bring him/her on board?” This has worked so far, as we have hired talented people from diverse backgrounds — 14 nationalities, with professional backgrounds in companies like Uber, Careem, Yandex, Netflix and Coinbase.

What successful start-ups do you wish you could have started and why?

We draw inspiration from Nike and Apple at Ziina. Because they took counterintuitive concepts and combined them. Apple combined design and hardware, while Nike combined everyday-wear (shoes) with inspiration. Our aim is to combine art with finance.

What new skills have you learnt in the process of launching Ziina?

Failure management. There is a famous quote that we follow:management’s job isn’t to prevent failure, it’s to build an effective recovery process”.


Company: Ziina

Started: January 2020

Founders: Faisal Toukan, Sarah Toukan and Andrew Gold

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: FinTech

Funds raised so far: $9.4m

Investors: Long Journey Ventures, Graph Ventures, Avenir Growth, Jabbar Internet Group, FJ Labs, Wamda Capital, Goodwater Capital and Jasoor Ventures, the venture capital arm of Oman Technology Fund

Aim: To launch operations in Jordan in 2023

Updated: October 17, 2022, 5:30 AM