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The opportunity of peer-to-peer lending in Lebanon: Using fintech to unlock SME financing



Through conversations with Lebanese entrepreneurs, business owners, bankers, and politicians, I have had a number of eye-opening discussions into the challenges and opportunities faced by Lebanon’s SME ecosystem. Given the country’s long-standing tradition in financial services and its large banking sector, I believe fintech—with solutions such as peer-to-peer lending, machine learning to personalize insurance solutions, and the use of artificial intelligence for wealth management—stands as a serious contender to unlock the funding challenges faced by Lebanon’s SMEs. 

Opportunity for Lebanon 

So, what exactly are the factors that could see fintech—in particular peer-to-peer lending—transform Lebanon’s SME and digital ecosystem? Lebanon has several interlocking strengths, namely: its strategic location, its favorable tax system and free-trade zones, its entrepreneurial spirit, a good network of highly successful diaspora around the world, its local talent pool, and an educated and multilingual population.

SMEs, particularly micro-enterprises, are the main economic drivers in Lebanon. They constitute 95 percent of companies and account for 50 percent of employment. Yet, access to finance represents a major constraint; 42 percent of Lebanese SMEs struggle to get finance, according to the 2014 World Bank Enterprise Survey.  

Despite having a relatively large financial and banking sector, credit in Lebanon is mostly channeled to a small number of large firms, while SMEs struggle to access finance. Bank loans represent a modest source of real financing to SMEs with only 17.5 percent having access to this funding channel, often against mortgages and guarantees required by Lebanese financial institutions. Since financing of SMEs via the stock market is nonexistent and informal loans are not commonly used, self-financing is the main source of funding for the short- and medium-term. As a result, a large number of SMEs have disconnected from the banking sector altogether, and by doing so have lost growth opportunities. 

Peer-to-peer lending could be the solution to the financing problems faced by Lebanese SMEs. In the US and the UK—the two largest peer-to-peer markets in the world by volume—the emergence of the peer-to-peer lending sector has been in response to difficulties in accessing finance in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The model is a way to allow people to invest in small businesses belonging to their friends and peers. By comparison, the Middle East has one of the highest savings rates in the world, yet people do not use a lot of credit, and there are not many investment opportunities. The peer-to-peer model has the potential to place Lebanon at the receiving-end of savings to be channeled into a dynamic and exciting SME and startup ecosystem.

While Lebanon has more than its fair share of complex and long-term challenges, I truly believe that the country holds the potential to become the “Silicon Valley” of the Middle East. Of course, serious work still needs to be done. Lebanon still needs to continuously improve and enhance its business environment (mainly in infrastructures, world-rankings, ease of doing business,  and legal system transparency). 

The government has to play a pivotal role in further advancing the startup industry with measures such as: tax cuts for tech companies, removing bureaucratic obstacles to encourage hi-tech mergers, the creation of public-private partnerships to support homegrown venture capital, and high-tech incubator programs to support the sector. Entrepreneurial education is also an important component, and Lebanon’s top universities need to increasingly focus on running entrepreneurship programs to look internationally for talent and target underrepresented local populations. Other initiatives, such as a visa pilot for foreign entrepreneurs, must also be considered. 

Yet, underpinning it all is the emergence of a peer-to-peer lending sector that represents a serious opportunity to provide much-needed oxygen to Lebanese SMEs and help build a world-leading startup ecosystem. It also represents a practical solution to some of Lebanon’s funding challenges. 

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MENA startup ecosystem highlights in February 2020




Every month, MAGNiTT releases a Dashboard report, providing a condensed and data-driven overview of all the key activities that took place in the month from a venture capital and startup funding perspective.

With 25 deals taking place last month, as highlighted by this month’s Dashboard, February 2020 saw a decrease in the number of deals compared to the same period last year. However, due to a flurry of high-profile later-stage deals, February 2020 saw a significant increase in total funding, with $193M raised by MENA-based startups.

Looking at the countries, we see similar trends as previous years emerge. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) took the lead by total funding, with the country accounting for many of the high-profile funding rounds. Moreover, the UAE accounts for more deals than any other country in the region, with which it reclaims the top spot from Egypt in 2020 YTD, which saw the highest number of deals in 2019.

The development comes as multiple UAE-based government initiatives are being launched, with Dubai announcing the Dubai Future District at the beginning of the year, which includes a fund to support venture capital firms and startups. Simultaneosuly, Abu Dhabi is also increasingly focusing on entrepreneurship and venture capital, with Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) expanding its scope to include later-stage investments as well.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia saw an increase in the number of deals as well, with the country recently launching its new Ministry for Investment in a major government overhaul. As part of the move, the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) will become the Ministry of Investment, led by former Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih, the new Minister of Investment. SAGIA has increasingly focused on the startup ecosystem, including the signing of several international venture capital firms, to spur innovation and investment in the Kingdom.

This, along with many more data-driven trends on funding and venture capital in the MENA region, are included in this month’s Dashboard.

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Lebanon’s Basma, the digital dental startup secures US$1.2M Seed funding




Author: Basma

Basma, the Beirut-based digital dental startup, secures a Seed round of US$1.2M and opens up access to simple and affordable orthodontics in the MENA region.

This financing round was led by prominent Beirut-based VC firms, B&Y Venture Partners and Cedar Mundi Ventures, with the joint participation from iSME and various business angels.

Basma is a direct-to-consumer healthcare brand that wants to give customers straighter and brighter teeth. It’s a digital health company founded on the belief that affordable dental care should be accessible to everyone. 

According to their Founder and CEO, Dr. Cherif Massoud: “7 out of 10 people in the Arab world can benefit from straighter teeth. But we think that everyone deserves to smile confidently. Aligners are the best alternative to braces, by changing the distribution channel and putting everything online, Basma cuts the treatment cost by up to 65%. Patients are constantly connected to doctors on our advanced telemedicine platform and are able to receive the treatment kit that will have a series of clear custom fitted aligners, straight to their homes.”

“Basma understands the consumer desire to improve their smile discreetly and they have the tools to make it happen.” Their CEO adds: “Adults should not feel pressured to wear wired braces. They are looking for invisible braces that don’t affect their confidence and this is exactly what we can give them.”

Bassel Attieh, Chairman and Managing Partner of Cedar Mundi Ventures, says: “We see much appetite for HealthTech and cosmetics services in the Middle East, both from consumers and professionals. And the teeth aligner industry is only getting started here. We believe in Basma’s bright future, building on local entrepreneurial and tech talents, and leveraging internationally-acclaimed remote professional initiatives for and from the region.”

The funds will further push Basma’s tech base and fuel expansion in the MENA region.

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2019 is Record Year Investment for MENA countries; MAGNITT



Another record year for total funding when excluding the investments of Souq & Careem

Main highlight of 2019

2019 saw an increase of 12% in total underlying funding; This reflects a 33% 5-year CAGR as the ecosystem grows and matures. Egypt ranks first by number of deals for the first time

  • Egypt accounted for 25% of all deals in MENA in 2019
  • Saudi Arabia’s share of total deals increased by 4%

MENA deal flow hit a record of 163 investments in Q3 2019

  • 2019 saw a higher number of deals in each quarter compared to 2018
  • Q1 2019 was a record quarter for MENA investments when exc. Careem’s $200M funding in Q4 2018

FinTech ranks first by number of deals for the second year in a row

  • FinTech accounted for 13% of all deals in 2019
  • Accelerators and governments play a key role in supporting FinTech startups

What would MAGNITT expects for 2020??

While this was predicted for 2019, the funding gap left by the Careem acquisition was too big to cover by other, earlier-stage startups.
Moving into 2020, we expect this gap to be filled, as more startups look to raise growth capital, and government initiatives such as
Funds of Funds and matching programs come into effect.

Several industries in the region, including e-commerce and transport, are heavily fragmented, and investors and startups will look to
consolidate to gain a competitive edge. We will also see international interest in more established startups, as we have seen with the
likes of Careem, Souq, Harmonica, and others.

International startups will capitalise on the increased government initiatives to support startups in the region. With the emergence
of flexible co-working spaces across MENA and initiatives to help reduce the cost of setting up and moving, the barriers to entry are
reducing, making the MENA region more accessible than ever.

Bassel Idriss, founder of Generics, shared his 5 learning lessons from the failure of his startup with MAGNiTT. As the ecosystem
matures, it is statistically inevitable that a higher number of startups will fail. This is not a bad thing, as long as we collectively learn
from these experiences and encourage founders to become serial entrepreneurs.

The success story of Careem and the increased media attention for venture-backed companies is a positive. Consequently, many will
start looking to scale out of the region for continued growth – international startups and investors alike will look for opportunities as
they become more familiar with the MENA landscape and as they seek arbitrage opportunities. Look out for more Asian venture capital
and corporate investors with experience in South-East Asia and China to start developing an interest in the region.

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Scooter Startup Unicorn Goes Bust, what about MENA markets?




When scooter startup Bird acquired scooter startup Scoot back in June, we got the first hints of consolidation within the two-wheeled mobility industry. The deal closed for roughly $25 million, and reminded all of us that it’s expensive to have a scooter startup. And logistics aren’t a (cough) legal walk in the park, either.Two bits of recent news show that the consolidation has continued, but not exactly in terms as ideal as a scoop or buy.

First up, months after the aforementioned acquisition, Bird has laid off less than two dozen ex-Scoot employees, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. This is Bird’s second wave of layoffs this year. The layoffs impacted salaried, technical workers, according to TechCrunch.

Berlin’s Circ first to get e-scooter licence in Abu Dhabi

Berlin-based Circ is the first regulator-approved to deploy e-scooters in the UAE and broader Middle East as Abu Dhabi seeks to diversify transport options in the city.

Abu Dhabi’s Integrated Transport Centre (ITC), which last month said it was piloting e-scooter rentals for use on pedestrian and cycle paths in a bid to reduce traffic, revealed that Circ has now been licensed.

Abdullah Alaryani, director of Traffic Studies Department at the Integrated Transport Centre, said: “This service… enables members of the community to reach their final destination in a fast and economical way as e-scooters are an effective, easy and environmentally friendly means of transport for short daily work and entertainment commutes. It also links easily to public transport busses and commercial centres, as well as residential and recreational areas.”

Leading European micro-mobility startup CIRC opens Gulf HQ, first approved e-scooter in the region

Just months after Dubai’s transport authority (RTA) banned electric scooters from the emirate in order to investigate their use, the first international micro-mobility company officially launched in the Gulf region in partnership with local regulators and private developers. In March 2019, the RTA announced that it was “currently considering the technical and legislative requirements to allow the operation of electric scooters in addition to the conditions and commitment of scooter drivers.”

Circ, Europe’s micro-mobility champion, also announced that it has established a regional HQ in the UAE, with a multi-million-dollar investment that is the company’s first foray beyond Europe. People are now able to use e-scooters in designated areas of Abu Dhabi on Circ’s certified, purpose-built e-scooters.

The Berlin-based start-up is Europe’s largest and fastest growing micro-mobility company, exceeding three million rides already this year. Circ’s service is now available in 39 cities in 12 countries and is enjoyed by hundreds of people every minute.

Circ was co-founded by Lukasz Gadowski who previously created Delivery Hero, which owns and operates regional food delivery brands Talabat, Carriage, Zomato UAE and HungerStation. Lukasz is also an investor and board member of Volocopter, the flying taxi service being piloted in Dubai.

Lukasz Gadowski, Co-Founder of Circ​,​ ​said:“We are building a European champion with global ambitions. We stand for responsible micro-mobility, working with city authorities, local communities and other road users to transform urban transportation wherever we are welcome. The vibrant ecosystem of innovation and eagerness to try new concepts in the UAE makes it a perfect place for Circ.”

Circ’s vehicles are purpose-built for continuous shared use. They put safety first, are sturdier, and are designed to last longer. They have larger wheels, better suspension, longer battery life, the industry’s best braking system, and many other standout features. Every Circ ride is insured, with personal accident, third-party liability and product-liability insurance in the UAE. Circ provides clear in-app safety instructions and local guidelines on how to use the vehicles legally and responsibly.

In addition to launching in Abu Dhabi, further expansion elsewhere in the Gulf region is also in development, led by Circ MENA co-founders, Jaideep Dhanoa and Bader Al Kalooti.

Next up is Unicorn, a scooter startup co-founded by a co-creator of the popular tracking system Tile. The company has shut down operations, according to The Verge. This is leaving the roughly 350 orders of Unicorn scooters unfulfilled. Customers will be scooter-less, and refundless.

The startup pointed to overspending on advertising and marketing as the reason for its demise. In an email obtained by The Verge, Unicorn’s CEO Nick Evans pointed to the price tag of Facebook ads as the home for a “large portion of revenue.”

Evans also cited cold weather and a struggle for customer acquisition.

“Unfortunately, the cost of the ads were just too expensive to build a sustainable business. And as the weather continued to get colder throughout the US and more scooters from other companies came on to the market, it became harder and harder to sell Unicorns, leading to a higher cost for ads and fewer customers,” he wrote, according to The Verge.

Back in October, our former EIC Alex Wilhelm wrote that while the scooter boom has proven popular with consumers and investors alike, most scooter companies are “far from having a sustainable business model.” Besides these layoffs, we’ve reported on the staggering amount of losses reported by the likes of Lime and Bird. What does this tell us? That popularity doesn’t always equal profitability, or even viability.

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ekar Launches in Saudi Arabia Following $17.5M Series B Round




Press Release

ekar, the Middle East’s first and largest carshare operator, will now launch operations in Riyadh following the company’s successful Series B totaling USD$17.5 million in June of this year. Dubai-based venture capital firm Polymath Ventures led the round which includes Al Yemni Group and Audacia Capital.

“We are excited to announce the launch of ekar Riyadh and are eager to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Saudi residents and tourists alike with ekar’s seamless carshare service,” says Vilhelm Hedberg, CEO ekar Middle East. “Today, ekar UAE services 50,000 bookings per month, a number which we expect to quadruple over the next twelve months as we launch services across cities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. We have 1,000 ekars in our fleet and over 75,000 members and envision surpassing 10,000 ekars and over a million members by 2021.”

Commenting on the successful Series B raise, Hedberg notes: “We are delighted to have a select group of strategic investors who are aligned with ekar’s passion to provide cost-effective mobility across emerging markets. ekar’s in-house tech team now has the fuel to scale ekar across MENAT.”

ekar is entering an inflection point as it arrives Saudi Arabia, where a young and tech-savvy population of 20 million smartphone users are by-passing traditional car ownership in favor for alternative mobility solutions. ekar is a natural extension of the transportation vertical in KSA and is perfectly suited to address a growing demand for cost-effective transportation on the back of ekar’s four years of experience building a world-class carsharing business. In addition, more than 70,000 women in the Kingdom have been issued driving licenses, and ekar is well-positioned to be the ‘first-car solution’ for these drivers. ekar is launching in Riyadh with 600 ekars and will launch in other cities throughout Saudi including Dammam, Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, and KAEC.

“We believe smart systems and shared transport platforms like ekar are the future for sustainable mobility especially in cities with densely populated environments such as Riyadh. We invest with conviction where teams are driving innovation to solve tomorrow’s problems today, and we look forward to helping ekar succeed,” says Ali Hashemi, Managing Director of Polymath Ventures.

Emad Mansour, CEO of Audacia Capital, sees strong alignment with the broader vision in The Kingdom. “Saudi Vision 2030 puts great emphasis on development of infrastructure, especially in urban areas, and we are fortunate that the Kingdom’s goal aligns with ekar’s values.”

New members in Saudi Arabia can enjoy two hours of free drive time upon registering via the ekar App. ekar is directly integrated with Elm’s Products such as Yakeen and Tamm so these members will be instantly approved after entering a valid email address, mobile number, National/Iqama ID number, and driving license expiry date. Credit and debit cards including MADA are accepted forms of payment in addition to Apple Pay.

ekar’s pricing model is simple from 40 Halalas to 75 Halalas per minute depending on car models, which range from economy to business class vehicles. The average ekar ride is 60 minutes that can cost as little as 24 Riyals, a price which includes fuel and insurance and no monthly membership fees and is a fraction of the cost of ride-hailing services, traditional car rentals or taxis. What’s more, with ekars spread across hotspot areas in Riyadh, including the airport, ekar allows for the benefits of self-drive without the associated high costs of car ownership.

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Nine Business Sectors That Entrepreneurs Can Capitalise On In KSA



Nine sectors of opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs and startups in Saudi Arabia to consider (and what investors are looking for).

The math is a no brainer, tech investor Abdullah Altamami explains. A GDP of US$782 billion in 2018, and a population surpassing 34 million- of which 60% are below 35 years of age. Add to that, the fact that Saudis are extremely digital with smartphone penetration at 96%, and online penetration at 89%– well above the 57% world average. All of these are factors that simply don’t exist elsewhere.

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Saudi Arabia: Supercharging Startup Opportunities



As the Kingdom amps up its business-friendly credentials and welcomes a new wave of entrepreneurs, Kais Al Essa, Founding Partner and CEO of venture capital firm Vision Ventures, talks opportunity and accessibility

Supercharging opportunities for foreign startups is a high-profile focus for Saudi Arabia. While our nearest neighbours have historically been the go-to hubs, in future a much higher percentage of entrepreneurs are expected to venture into the Kingdom.

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Achieving Women Forum Slated For October 21, 2019 In Dubai



Former Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard, athlete and adventurer Erik Weihenmayer (the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest), and FTI Group Managing Director Roula Jouny are among the personalities scheduled to speak at the RiiSE Conference: Achieving Women Forum, which is happening on Monday, October 21, 2019 from 8am to 1pm at Sofitel The Palm Dubai.

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Ecosystem of the MENA

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