Nearly 25 years ago in 1993, the United States labeled the Sudanese government, then run by self-appointed president Omar al-Bashir, a state sponsor of terror. At the time Sudan was one of three countries that shared this identification. The other two countries (Iran and Syria) remain on the list today.
The sanctions, which were lifted last month, established a comprehensive trade embargo, a freeze on government assets, and severe financial restrictions when dealing or trading with Sudan. Due to constraints that prevented Sudanese banks from making international transfers, American businesses were also unable to take hold in the North African nation.
In addition to the sanctions, power shortages, inflation and loss of oil revenue were behind many of Sudan's emerging economic issues. However, there was light in the darkness.
The lack of access to international companies, especially American companies, encouraged the growth of startups to fill the void in industries like transit, medical technology and even agriculture. One of these startups is Sudan's version of the popular global transportation company, Uber. It's called Mishwar (meaning “journey” in Arabic).
Mishwar, a taxi service app, was established in May 2015 and so far has over 8,000 users and 150 drivers. Tarig Saif, a co-founder of the company, says the idea came to him when he and wife were waiting for a taxi during their honeymoon. Instead of waiting in the queue, it was suggested that they use the popular car service app, GrabCar. Saif later got together with some business partners who were engineers, and came up with the idea for Mishwar.
They began by identifying parts of the country that are typically congested with cabs, offering drivers a place with Mishwar. Though their beginning was small, they were able to make sizable headway by participating in a TV entrepreneurship competition called Mashrouy. Like Sudan's other well-known startups, they've also managed to compete in several Innovation and Entrepreneurship Community (IEC) events. This notoriety has allowed them to raise funds for further business development and gain exposure as well. In their first month of business alone, Mishwar was able to complete 150 jobs and almost a year after they were founded, in April 2016, they completed 2,400 jobs.
So far, their largest demographic are Sudanese people from 20-35 years of age, mostly students and young professionals. Interestingly, most of their clients are women. When they looked into it, Mishwar found that women appreciate the ability to request a cab and enter the taxi immediately as it reduces the amount of time they spend in inclement weather, as well as time on the street, where they're likely to face street harassment. Since the taxi drivers are all tracked and the fare is pre-calculated, there is no need to bargain on a price, visitors know what to expect, and there is an added element of safety.
Mishwar's drivers, who are now mostly professional drivers, are selected on the basis of the quality of their vehicle and familiarity with smart phones. They are interviewed and if hired, undergo training to use Mishwar's taxi app and customer service training as well. Clients can submit feedback on drivers, the app and possible improvements on their Facebook and Twitter pages. Their feedback, which is overwhelmingly positive, goes towards future improvements.
Mishwar's future plans are to expand further across Sudan, hopefully more into the nation's capital city, Khartoum, where they are also based. They also want to expand into the 6 most heavily populated states in Sudan, which will require larger engagement numbers and more recognition by public media and potential sponsors. The improving tech market in Sudan, in part fueled by Sudanese startups which formed in response to heavy sanctions, means that traditional companies are now being forced to share their market with emerging entrepreneurial ventures.
Mishwar's ability to identify current market trends and capitalize on opportunities to bridge the gap in the lives of potential consumers has allowed for it to expand thus so far. With sanctions being lifted on Sudan, there's a potential for the market to be open to strong competitors, a reality the company must be open to facing. Their next actions will determine whether the sky's their limit, or whether they go up in smoke.