Incubating the future of business in Iraq
Displaced entrepreneurs rebuild their lives thanks to tailored access opportunities
Since 2011, more than 5.6 million people have fled Syria, arriving in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Many Syrian refugees are highly skilled, highly educated, and technologically savvy. In fact, a UN survey conducted in 2015 in Greece showed that 86% of Syrian refugees had secondary or university degrees. Despite these skills, countries across the Middle East have either denied refugees the right to work or curtailed it by only allowing them employment in certain labour-intensive sectors. However, Iraq, unlike many of its neighbours, has allowed Syrian refugees freedom of movement and the right to work since the onset of the conflict.
Iraq’s more favourable policy towards refugees comes in spite of its complex humanitarian situation. Over the past several years, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has struggled to cope with an influx of nearly 250,000 Syrian refugees and over 1.8 million internally displaced persons. However, Syrian refugees are welcome to hold jobs and start businesses.
In Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, research shows that the main group of unemployed refugees are those with university or technical degrees. A lower percentage of highly skilled refugees in high-skilled jobs, compared to host community members with the same educational level, highlights the employment access issues that well-educated refugees face.
Entrepreneurship as a path towards rebuilding
Although this highly skilled community has a great deal to contribute, connecting them to job opportunities is a challenge. By setting up their own businesses, refugees can create jobs for themselves and the local community. Succeeding as an entrepreneur can be difficult and many start-ups consider incubators critical to their future success. An incubator takes the resourcefulness and creativity of the refugee population and supplements it with the business, leadership and human-centered design skills needed to take an idea and turn it into a scalable business. Mentorship and access to a community in a co-working space means that entrepreneurs can be encouraged by like-minded entrepreneurial individuals. Seed funding in the form of grants provides the initial financial boost needed to launch businesses.
Through a variety of programmes in Arabic, English, and Kurdish, Five One Labs reaches a wide range of entrepreneurs with scalable businesses. In Autumn 2019, the project worked specifically with a cohort of founders launching tech start-ups, ranging from digital marketplaces to pharmaceutical product delivery companies.
Programmes of Five One Labs target entrepreneurs from across Iraq and Syria, with the goal of including 50% host community and 50% displaced entrepreneurs in each cohort. Another key priority is working with women entrepreneurs, who often face additional challenges, such as the inability to do face-to-face marketing or take meetings with men because of cultural barriers. Through the Female Founders Fellowship, Five One Labs has provided training, mentorship, support groups, marketing funding and business interns to help women-led businesses scale-up.
Succeeding as entrepreneurs
Problem-solving is at the root of entrepreneurship, and through the past five incubator cohorts in Erbil and Sulaimani, the programme has seen entrepreneurs from across Iraq and Syria address wide range of challenges in their local communities. The success of Five One Labs’ incubator model can be seen through the stories of its entrepreneurs.
Znara was an art professor at the University of Damascus before violence forced her and her family to flee to Iraq. Although she lost most of her belongings and savings, she did not lose her passion for art and culture. She joined the Five One Labs’ Entrepreneur Academy evening course to learn how to take her artistic talent and turn it into a business – her goal is to open one of Erbil’s first art galleries, coupled with a studio where she can teach art classes to kids and adults.
After winning the final pitch competition of Five One Labs’ Entrepreneur Academy, Znara hosted her first art exhibit in Erbil, where she displayed her paintings celebrating her hometown of Afrin. She also received a small business grant from Five One Labs thanks to the ‘Entrepreneurship for All’ programme sponsored by the International Organization for Migration and funded by the US Bureau of Populations, Refugees and Migration. She will use the money to launch her studio and art classes.
Wassim is a Syrian entrepreneur with a master’s degree in economics and nearly two decades of finance and accounting experience. Wassim, who like Znara now lives in Erbil, noticed a gap between labour market needs and existing trainings. He wanted to fill that gap by providing practical and interactive training online, so he joined the Five One Labs Arabic incubator programme and launched the Bedayat platform, a website and mobile app offering more than 30 types of courses in three languages (Arabic, English and Kurdish).
During the coronavirus lockdown, Wassim ran four very successful online courses on topics such as IELTS, accounting, Excel, and more. Based on their success to date, Wassim plans to expand into consulting services and a broader array of courses.
These stories not only highlight the resilience of displaced entrepreneurs, but also show that tailored support provides access to economic opportunities, contributes to economic growth and enables these skilled young people to rebuild their lives with dignity.