Start-up scene rises from rubble of Iraq’s war-stricken Mosul city

Entrepreneurial projects fuelled by country's young population are driving city towards sustainable recovery

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Five years since declaring the end of the major military operations to claw the northern Iraqi city of Mosul back from ISIS, young tech-savvy entrepreneurs are turning away from government jobs and looking into starting their own businesses to revive their city.

Thousands were killed or displaced during ISIS's three-year reign and Mosul's subsequent war of liberation, with the city effectively turned to rubble during the gruelling conflict.

Once the people of Mosul reached rock bottom, the only way to go was up. Entrepreneurial projects fuelled by Iraq's young population are now driving the city towards sustainable recovery — and taking the prospects of women with them.

Omar Sinan, 22, and his taxi-booking service Wasla are one of the products of this new spirit, helped by a business incubator called The Station.

“After Daesh, Mosul started from scratch,” Mr Sinan told The National, using the Arabic term for the terrorist group that swept through large parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

An Iraqi member of a demining squad wearing safety equipment, takes part in an operation to clear mines planted by Islamic State militants, in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq July 4, 2022.  REUTERS / Khalid al-Mousily

“Everything was destroyed and problems and challenges were in every aspect of life,” he added, sitting on his desk inside The Station's glass-fronted multistorey building.

As he runs his burgeoning business from a laptop, other young Iraqis discuss projects and ideas over cups of coffee or tea, with books and products made by local entrepreneurs neatly organised on wooden shelves in the co-working space.

Great innovation is born from solving problems and one issue facing Mr Sinan and his peers is transport. Wasla, which offers a ride-booking taxi service mainly for university students, was developed in 2021.

Since its complete liberation in late 2017, normality has returned gradually to Mosul, but the city's young entrepreneurs see further room for improvement all around them.

Coming of age under occupation

When ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, Mr Sinan was 13 years old.

“It took us by surprise,” he said. “They took the whole city overnight and at the beginning, I didn’t realise what was going on but felt that something wrong was happening.”

His family immediately fled to the suburbs but returned few days later.

“There was no Iraqi army in the streets and Daesh was erecting their own flags around the city,” he recalled.

As schools shut their doors, Mr Sinan began working for his uncle's internet service business. Income from this job became crucial as his father, an artist, was ordered to stop his “heretical” work by ISIS.

“They were the longest and worst years in our life. We lived in a big prison and lost loved ones,” he said.

A new beginning for Mosul

A student walks past badly damaged buildings at the University of Mosul in 2017. AP

After the liberation, Mr Sinan made up the lost years in school. He is now studying business management at the University of Mosul.

While at college, he and two friends established Wasla, offering modern cars with decent air conditioning and carefully selected drivers who are trained as well as continuously monitored as they move about the city.

A variety of subscriptions are available, with prices between 25,000 and 80,000 Iraqi dinars ($17 to $55) per person for rides to and from the university, depending on the number of days required.

From the start, it was a feminist pursuit. Their first 15 drivers and 70 customers were all women, he told The National. They are now expanding the platform to an app and aiming for 2,000 student customers and 500 drivers by the end of this year.

“Entrepreneurship not only solves problems, but also creates jobs that the government can no longer offer, as well as develop the economy,” he said.

“This city needs my and others help and I feel proud of it, I feel part of it and I will not leave it and I encourage others to do the same.”

Nurturing entrepreneurs

More and more co-working spaces have been cropping up in recent years in Iraq, where the World Bank estimated the unemployment rate was about 14.2 per cent in 2021.

The country has one of the most youthful populations in the world, with about 60 per cent of its nearly 41 million people under the age of 25, the UN reported.

Decades of war, government mismanagement and the failure to encourage private sector initiatives have made many in Iraq look to the public sector as the only place to secure a steady job with incentives and pensions.

But a series of austerity measures in recent years have made government jobs scarce, prompting an increase in entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Station's first iteration was installed in Baghdad in 2018 as a non-governmental organisation, providing co-working spaces and training programmes.

It opened a branch in Mosul in September 2020 as part of the Yanhad — or “rise up” — project, which was funded by the European Union and the French Foreign Ministry under the aegis of The Station and the French international technical co-operation agency Expertise France.

The project offers hopeful entrepreneurs a three-month training programme and a space with internet, mentorship and other services for six months, free of charge.

“Despite Mosul being a disaster-stricken city emerging from a war, it has all the potential to prosper,” Zainab Azzam, a communication and public relations specialist for The Station, told The National.

So far, The Station has helped to establish 96 start-ups in Mosul, in sectors including technology, transport, tourism, education and even cinema, Ms Azzam said. She added that the ages of the entrepreneurs are between 18 to 35 years with women make up 48 per cent of them.

“Now is the perfect time for everyone to start his or her own business because the environment in the city is still raw, low competition and international support,” she said.

“The city needs everything and that there is a room for everyone and a high chance for success.

“This opportunity may not be available five years from now.”

And it isn't only for adults.

Malak Al Refaee runs a start-up club offering training to children interested in programming and technology.

“Ten years from now, [artificial intelligence] and data analysis will be among the most promising jobs, among the top 10, and we need the new generation to get ready for that technology,” Ms Al Refaee said.

Updated: July 06, 2022, 5:12 AM
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