A start-up scene rises from the rubble of the war-stricken Iraqi city of Mosul

Five years after declaring the end of major military operations aimed at retaking the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State, young tech-savvy entrepreneurs are turning away from government jobs and plan to start their own company to revive their city.

Thousands of people were killed or displaced during ISIS’s three-year rule and subsequent war to liberate Mosul, as the city effectively turned to rubble during the grueling conflict.

Once the people of Mosul hit bottom, the only way forward was up. Entrepreneurial projects fueled by Iraq’s young population are now pushing the city towards a sustainable recovery – and bringing women’s prospects with them.

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

“After Daesh, Mosul started from zero,” Mr Sinan said. 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 team wearing safety gear, takes part in a mine clearance operation planted by Islamic State militants, in the old city of Mosul, Iraq, July 4, 2022. REUTERS/Khalid al – Mousily

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

As he runs his fledgling business from a laptop, other young Iraqis discuss projects and ideas over a cup of coffee or tea, with books and products made by local entrepreneurs neatly organized on wooden shelves in the coworking space.

Great innovation comes from problem solving, and one of the problems that Sinan and his peers face is transportation. Wasla, which offers a taxi reservation service mainly for university students, was developed in 2021.

Since its full liberation at the end of 2017, normality has gradually returned to Mosul, but the city’s young entrepreneurs still see room for improvement around them.

Become an adult under occupation

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

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

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

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

As schools closed, Mr. Sinan started working for his uncle’s internet service company. Earnings from this work became crucial as her father, an artist, was ordered to stop his “heretical” work by ISIS.

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

A new start for Mosul

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

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

After the release, Mr. Sinan made up for lost school years. He is currently studying business management at the University of Mosul.

While in college, he and two friends set up Wasla, offering modern cars with decent air conditioning and carefully selected drivers who are constantly trained and monitored as they move around the city.

A variety of passes are available, with prices between 25,000 and 80,000 Iraqi dinars ($17 to $55) per person for journeys 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 said The National. They are now expanding the platform into 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 provide, as well as the development of the economy,” he said.

“This city needs my help and that of others and I’m proud of it, I’m a part of it and I won’t leave it and I encourage others to do the same.”

Feeding entrepreneurs

More and more coworking spaces have sprung up in recent years in Iraq, where the World Bank has estimated the unemployment rate to be around 14.2% in 2021.

The country has one of the youngest populations in the world, with around 60% of its roughly 41 million people under the age of 25, the UN reported.

Decades of war, government mismanagement and failure to encourage private sector initiatives have caused many Iraqis to turn to the public sector as the only place to find stable employment with incentives and pensions.

But a series of austerity measures in recent years have made public jobs scarce, leading to a rise in entrepreneurship and innovation.

The first iteration of the Station was set up in Baghdad in 2018 as a non-governmental organization, providing coworking spaces and training programs.

It opened a branch in Mosul in September 2020 as part of the Yanhad – or “rise up” – project, funded by the European Union and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the aegis of La Station and the Agence Française international technical cooperation. French know-how.

The project offers promising entrepreneurs a three-month training program and space with internet, mentoring and other services for six months, free of charge.

“Although Mosul is a disaster-stricken city emerging from war, it has all the potential to thrive,” said Zainab Azzam, communications and public relations specialist for The Station. The National.

So far, The Station has helped create 96 start-ups in Mosul, in sectors including technology, transport, tourism, education and even cinema, Ms Azzam said. She added that the age of entrepreneurs is between 18 and 35, with women making up 48% of them.

“Now is the perfect time for everyone to start their own business as the environment in the city is still raw, uncompetitive and not internationally supported,” she said.

“The city needs everything and that there is a place for everyone and a great chance of success.

“That opportunity may not be available in five years.”

And it’s not just for adults.

Malak Al Refaee runs a start-up club providing training for kids interested in programming and technology.

“Ten years from now, [artificial intelligence] and data analytics will be among the hottest jobs, top 10 jobs, and we need the next generation to be ready for this technology,” Ms Al Refaee said.

Updated: July 06, 2022, 02:00

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