When entrepreneur Ambareen Musa founded financial comparison website Souqalmal in Dubai in 2012, little did she know that it would serve to highlight one of the biggest personal finance issues that people face worldwide: a lack of smart money skills to build fiscal resilience.
However, it was during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic that the issue came to a head, when Ms Musa started to receive phone calls from companies seeking help for employees whose salaries had been cut.
“The CEOs were saying that the level of productivity had dropped, people were stressing out, taking their kids out of school and, ‘We’ve suddenly realised that 20 per cent less of a salary has thrown people completely off guard and they can’t survive’,” Ms Musa says.
And that is when the idea for her second start-up, Yabi by Souqalmal, was born. At the same time, Ms Musa was in discussions with Dubai-based investment bank Shuaa Capital to acquire a majority stake in Souqalmal, which means “money market” in Arabic.
The deal was completed in March last year for an undisclosed amount and Ms Musa retains a minority equity stake in the company.
“As we were discussing the acquisition, Shuaa Capital asked me, ‘What’s next?’” Ms Musa, founder and chief executive of Yabi by Souqalmal, says.
“I told them about Yabi and gave them the business plan because I thought this would be the next business to do. They did invest and put seed money into the new venture and that’s how we started Yabi.
“It was basically based on my experience with Souqalmal; my own vision that nobody should get into the workforce without a proper education on how to manage their first pay cheque.”
After the deal was completed, Shuaa said its investment would provide growth capital to Souqalmal and allow it to execute an ambitious growth plan over the next 24 months.
“We believe that Souqalmal and its financial education arm have the ability to empower customers to understand, manage and grow their finances in a better way,” Fawad Khan, managing director and head of investment banking at Shuaa Capital, said at the time.
“As Souqalmal strengthens its personal and wealth management offering, Shuaa will be well positioned to help the company access new pools of capital, products and, more importantly, knowledge.”
The pandemic raised widespread concern over personal financial issues as millions of people globally were either furloughed, lost their jobs or had their salaries cut, highlighting the importance of saving, having an emergency fund for short-term cash needs and enough money for retirement.
Retirement savings is the biggest financial challenge faced by employees in Gulf Co-operation Council countries, followed by childcare and education expenses, and saving for other commitments such as housing, day-to-day costs and emergencies, according to a survey published by global advisory company Willis Towers Watson in January.
About 78 per cent of employers in the GCC are planning to develop financial well-being strategies for employees over the next two years to help them bridge their retirement savings gap, the survey found.
Last October, National Bonds, the Sharia-compliant savings and investment company owned by Investment Corporation of Dubai, launched a Golden Pension Scheme to help private-sector foreign employees with their retirement planning.
In April this year, National Bonds unveiled its Second Salary programme that aims to generate a supplementary income for Emiratis and residents during retirement.
Dubai also launched a savings retirement scheme last year for foreign employees working in the emirate’s government and public sector.
The system is in addition to the existing gratuity scheme, which is a defined end-of-service benefit that all employed residents in the UAE are entitled to after completing at least one year of service.
Watch: How to open a bank account in the UAE
Officially launched two months ago, Yabi by Souqalmal is an app that offers structured personal finance masterclasses to employees of UAE companies that have signed up for the service.
Knowing how to budget, save, invest and make informed decisions when it comes to loans and credit can help people to avoid financial pitfalls and take control of their financial lives, Ms Musa says.
And while many new financial literacy start-ups focus on teaching children smart money skills, Ms Musa says Yabi by Souqalmal is for adults.
“We're starting where people need the help most, which is the adult level, the employee level,” she adds.
“If parents don’t understand it themselves, then how will the kids? I want to indulge it at the high level … get employees to manage their retirement, the first generation, and then escalate to the next generation.”
The Yabi by Souqalmal masterclasses cover topics such as budgeting, asset allocation, investing in cryptocurrencies, how to buy a home, calculating retirement income and how to invest.
The courses have been localised for the UAE market and Yabi by Souqalmal has signed up a range of experts to teach the masterclasses.
“We’ve got the chief financial officer of du, the chief investment officer of Emirates NBD, the chief executive of Al Etihad Credit Bureau, the director of the Health Insurance Authority, the general manager of General Motors … we’ve got experts in the industry, in the country,” Ms Musa says.
“We filmed them and the courses are bite size, 25 minutes each, three minutes per chapter and you can come in for, what we call, your ‘financial workout’.”
The app is able to read users’ bank statements and analyse their spending over the past six months. It also offers users access to financial coaches and financial health checks.
Companies pay for a licence to use the app – businesses that have fewer than 1,000 employers pay Dh129 per user per year and companies with more than 1,000 workers are charged Dh79 per user annually.
“Another [payment] model is when we come in [to a company] and introduce Yabi to the employees and they pick it up on their own,” Ms Musa says.
So far, 10 UAE companies have signed up for Yabi by Souqalmal, including Dubai-based super app Careem, Majid Al Futtaim, one of Dubai's biggest private sector companies and the Middle East's largest mall operator, and Emirates Catering Services.
While Ms Musa faced challenges developing the start-up, she says they were similar to what she experienced with Souqalmal, including the right talent acquisition.
“The challenge is more learning and building the ecosystem as we build the business, so [there] is a lot of education for the HR department,” she says.
Future plans include launching Yabi by Souqalmal in Saudi Arabia in October. It will cover similar content as the UAE version but will be in Arabic and feature local financial experts, Ms Musa says.
The company has also had requests to launch in other countries, but Ms Musa says the company will focus on a gradual expansion.
“I think financial education is not something that is done overnight but takes time and it is an ongoing process,” she says.
“We want Yabi to be in the region but localised to each country and be the financial education platform used by all companies and government agencies to promote and raise the level of financial literacy in their country.”
Q&A with Ambareen Musa, founder and chief executive of Yabi by Souqalmal
What other successful start-up do you wish you had started?
That's an interesting question. I do not have an answer to this but I am always thinking about how to solve customer problems in every situation I am in. I think I am in the exact place a start-up should be.
Who is your role model?
What new skills have you learnt since launching Yabi by Souqalmal?
I think I have applied a lot of what I learnt from Souqalmal. It is the first time I am building a business-to-business company, so this has been an interesting learning curve.
Where do you want to be in five years?
I am still trying to figure out the next 12 months! I do not plan so far ahead as I like to be able to adapt to what is thrown to me and make the most of opportunities that arise.
If you could do it all differently, what would you change?