Hussam Zammar is one of those enterprising entrepreneurs who has dabbled in everything — from making exhibition stands and running a paintball company to creating sanitisation gates during Covid-19.
Having landed in Dubai 16 years ago with $200 in his pocket, which he believed to be a “very big amount” as he arrived from his home country of Syria, Mr Zammar started work as a foreman at a construction company before setting up his first venture, an exhibition stands business.
By 2015, the company was reaping millions of dirhams in revenue and Mr Zammar had branched into other ventures with partners, including an electromechanical company and an entertainment entity related to a restaurant and nightclub.
However, in 2017, Mr Zammar realised he was not happy with what he was doing and sold his stakes in all the businesses, despite most of them doing well financially. In Eat, Pray, Love style, he made trips to India and the Vatican searching for answers. Returning to Dubai, he decided he wanted to start something which “has to be about sustainability”.
“[All I was sure of was that] it has to be eco-friendly … It has to serve the people and make their lives better,” he says.
But Covid-19 hit and, stuck at home, Mr Zammar ventured into designing sanitisation booths.
He received orders for 1,000 booths in Dubai, amid strong demand at the time.
After the pandemic, Mr Zammar decided to once again focus on his plan for a sustainable business venture. The idea for a project that would fit the bill came when he was “waiting at a red signal”, the entrepreneur says.
Observing the many delivery motorcycles around him, he decided to launch Terra, which roughly translates from Latin to ‘Mother Earth’.
The B2B micro-mobility start-up has developed what it describes as an energy-efficient electric motorbike, which can be customised to suit different sectors, including aggregators and restaurants as well as the public sector.
The start-up, which raised $1 million in its pre-seed funding round, was set up in the Dubai International Financial Centre in 2021.
“Our bike is done as a prototype and between January and March, the plan is to get it regulated and certified,” Mr Zammar says.
The company, which currently has 11 employees, is also planning to boost its hiring in the first quarter, with a focus on people who have experience in areas such as start-up finance as well mechanical and battery engineers.
“From March to June, we need to try our bike with many aggregators, chain restaurants and the government sector," he says.
“Then, from April, our bikes will be on the road,” he says, with plans to start with 100 bikes.
“Then after that, we are open for huge orders.”
The start-up says its motorbikes will enable companies to decrease their carbon footprint, through reduced emissions.
The bikes are also aimed at offering improved turnaround times, fewer running costs, driver-tracking and overall efficiency.
Terra’s electric motorbike fleet presents a solution to the rising use of petrol motorbikes by "changing one motorbike at a time", according to Mr Zammar.
The company has plans for two-wheelers and three-wheelers, although it is awaiting special permission for the latter, since the testing has to be done locally.
“Customisation” is what the customer wants, he says, adding that the company will be able to tailor the bikes to suit various needs — such as delivery of food and non-food items.
Terra also aims to offer a battery-swap and drive subscription model, with plans to set up stations across the UAE allowing drivers to book and switch bike batteries through the platform’s mobile application.
At present, parts for the bikes are being sourced from Taiwan, Turkey, Poland and India, with assembly taking place in China.
“Hopefully, in the near future, if we have a big order, we need to localise manufacturing. The government also offers a lot of support for manufacturers," Mr Zammar says.
The UAE is focusing heavily on local manufacturing as part of its economic diversification agenda and in 2021 announced its Operation 300bn strategy. The 10-year programme is aimed at increasing the industrial sector’s contribution to gross domestic product to Dh300 billion ($81.68 billion) by 2031, from Dh133 billion in 2021.
The country has also launched the Make It In The Emirates campaign, which encourages local and international investors to manufacture and export products from the UAE.
“We are in communication with the Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology, but we cannot go now and make a big factory … we need to check the market. So, it's like a step by step process,” Mr Zammar says.
The micro-mobility market, which was hit hard during the pandemic, has picked up focus again amid the global push to move towards low-carbon solutions as governments worldwide embark on their net zero targets.
The global electric scooter and motorcycle market is expected to reach $28.9 billion by 2028, up from $7.5 billion at present, according to Mordor Intelligence.
The market’s growth is being driven by the rising need for sustainable transportation, increasing environmental concerns, favourable government initiatives, rising energy costs and competition among emerging energy-efficient technologies, the report said.
The UAE is among the world's top 10 countries as a market that is geared towards electric mobility, consultancy Arthur D Little said in a report in September.
The UAE electric vehicle market, which is currently in its early stages, is projected to grow at an annual rate of 30 per cent between 2022 and 2028, according to the global electric mobility readiness index 2022, compiled by Arthur D Little.
Passenger vehicles constitute about 95 per cent of the EV market in the UAE due to an increase in rental car services, it said. The Emirates ranks eighth on the index.
By Cop28, which the UAE is set to host in November, Terra aims to be operational on a “big scale”, Mr Zammar says.
While the market for clean mobility solutions is growing, especially in the UAE and the rest of the Middle East, he stresses that he is not worried about competition.
"An entrepreneur has to understand that if he's thinking about an idea now, there are a thousand others thinking about the same idea at the same time. [For Terra] the good thing is that we are the first mover and we are the first in the Middle East [to develop this concept]," he says.
Mr Zammar is also open to partnering with other start-ups and entrepreneurs. "I believe that joining efforts will give us more; I'm open to any idea," he says.
At present, Terra does not have any immediate plans to raise further funding.
Looking ahead, the strategy for the future is to significantly expand beyond electric motorbike fleets.
The company says it wants to build an "electric ecosystem that will connect communities and empower electric mobility across the UAE".
It is also aiming to expand its presence across the Middle East and globally as part of its growth strategy.
The plan is for Terra to cover Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and, "hopefully, we will go to the West and also to the East and to Africa", Mr Zammar says.
"By 2026, you will see Terra worldwide."
Q&A with Hussam Zammar, founder and chief executive of Terra
Who is your role model?
I don’t have a specific role model. I take different things from different people. And my enemy is me, that’s because sometimes when you're doing your business, you feel like you are unstoppable, and your ego will grow. This is what will make you fall down. You have to stay humble and keep calm. So my role model, in a different way, is me. The better me.
If you could start all over again, what would you do differently?
I thought I was a traditional guy so [in the past], I didn’t like doing any Zoom meetings, I didn't like to write emails. I didn’t like technology. But I found out [about their advantages] later on by force during the coronavirus pandemic.
So if I had to go back, I wouldn't have to think that I am a traditional guy. I have to continue learning.
My code is ‘teachable, undefeatable’, which means that if you are able to teach yourself to learn, you will not be defeated.
If you could start another company, what would it be?
My dream is to start a school or university for girls in Syria.
What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?
Persistence, adaptation and the third one is don't wait for even an hour — do it now.