Fuelled by a supportive ecosystem and a tech-savvy population, the fintech industry in the Middle East has been growing rapidly in the last few years, disrupting the financial landscape and attracting billions in investment globally.
In the future, it’s believed that the whole world will move to the digital space in terms of finance, and the idea of physical money will disappear completely. The catalyst of such a development will be the various fintech companies and start-ups that are starting to pop up all over the world.
Taking part in this monumental shift is the founder of Rumman, Shurouq Qawariq, together with her friends Nabil Parkar and Juan Manuel Balcazar, who met in Indiana whilst completing their undergraduate degrees.
Founded in 2018, Rumman is one of the first fintech companies in the region to offer personalised, digital wealth management and automatic ways and methods to save money effortlessly.
Shurouq said: “We hope to facilitate saving and investment for those who are having trouble saving and planning for their future, and increase financial literacy and inclusion in the region to go beyond owning a bank account.”
The system is simple – every transaction made is rounded up to the nearest dollar and the change is invested in a portfolio curated to the user’s own risk profile.
“After fiddling around with ideas for our start-up, me and my team liked the idea of creating a finance savings app that allows users to invest in a different range of financial products, and be available on the mobile,” explained Shurouq.
Rumman means pomegranate in Arabic inspired by the idea of it being made up from a lot of small precious seeds that are protected by a hard shell.
Fintech remains the most active industry by number of deals according to MAGNiTT, a MENA start-up data platform. The number of investments in MENA-based start-ups rose up 31 per cent from 2018, showing a continued appetite in regional start-ups, after 2019 saw 564 investments in its start-ups.
The Middle East’s start-up boom is not just the result of smart, tech-savvy young entrepreneurs convincing their families and friends to fund them. Part of what distinguishes this start-up scene is people’s ability to create “workarounds” to the region’s many institutional, political, and economic problems – pragmatic approaches that also resonate with other parts of the world.
However, amid this burgeoning growth and despite the stats looking great on the surface, there remains plenty of challenges as quite a lot of strife and economic uncertainty is hiding under it, according to Shurouq.
As an anthropologist and financial analyst, Shurouq observed the very low financial literacy rates in the region and the prevalence of the “underbanked” population who rely heavily on cash, which she states, isn’t sustainable in the long-term. Therefore, solving an actual need was the first point of the process.
She also noted how the occupation prohibits natural development as well as imposes restrictions on the technology infrastructure that start-ups can import, export and utilise.
She said: “I don’t think we really have a technology landscape here in the Middle East, but there is buzz around tech-based start-ups which are basically just software and some interest in hardware technology but I don’t this buzz really reflects creation at this point, despite a lot of talent coming out of universities.”
Shurouq acknowledges how a lot of people are excited and trying to make the difference but it’s an area that needs intensive governmental and academic institutions and private companies to develop, and also focus on how to produce technology rather than just import it in order to have representation of an entrepreneurship scene.
She explained that most of the talent gets either outsourced or ends up being abroad in the West mostly, where there are more technology-based jobs.
There’s definitely a rise in software production in the region, and maybe because it’s become more borderless, and this region has extremely heavy, rigid borders in terms of movement, and even knowledge-sharing among universities
She explained that with Rumman’s digital financial services platform, customers without prior investment experience can easily save and invest small amounts of money into a professionally managed portfolio of index funds to achieve their short-term and long-term financial goals, be it saving for a wedding, a house or retirement.
It also aims to remove the knowledge barriers facing the majority of the population in the Arab world, by creating easy to understand content.
Having received an MBA and a Master’s in financial economics from Queen Mary University of London, Shurouq was already heavily involved in the tech start-ups sphere prior to Rumman. Therefore, the thought of launching a fintech app for those who are having trouble saving and planning for their future didn’t overwhelm her too much.
She began her career in the United Nations until she decided to move to the entrepreneurial sector. “What attracts me most about start-ups,” she says, “is the process of creation, and believing in an imaginative future where ideas can transform into full on multinational operational entities.”
She added: “Creation is what excites me most, and I think that’s why I became an entrepreneur, although I am not in love with that definition. I’d rather be called a businesswoman. My first start-up was Indiepush which began in 2014 and ended in 2017, a music distribution platform for independent artists in MENA. I also worked in PinchPoint, Palestine’s first (now closed) gaming start-up.”
“I also just really like numbers in general so I like finance and the financial industry. I have a lot of reservations about the way it operates but I like to be immersed in numbers that then translates to value or real-life behaviour.”
However, she addressed the many challenges in being a Palestinian female entrepreneur based in Ramallah.
Shurouq believes her identity as a female entrepreneur consists of the same obstacles as being a female in any industry. She says while there has been a marked change in the number of women working in the fintech industry over the past decade, more needs to be done to ensure they are given the opportunity to rise through the ranks, lead teams, develop companies and industry policy as well as invest in the companies and the people that they believe in, especially start-ups.
Start-up culture requires a lot of trust in the investment, she said.
“Numerous studies are on the subject of lack of investment in female owned companies. There is not enough representation of females in the ecosystem, especially in fintech, and there may be biases from investors and users about trusting female CEOs.”
Founded in Lebanon, Rumman currently operates outside of Ramallah and has a prototype that they will be testing this year with users in Jordan, in collaboration with a partner bank, a Levantine company across the border to launch the pilot app.
Such cross-border acquisitions are generally rare in the Middle East’s nascent start-up ecosystem.
“Eventually, we would love to be a digital bank that allows users to invest in the stock market as well as in socially conscious projects and more fun products, like, a pomegranate farm, that would be fun in the beginning.”
“It’s been such an unsettling, as well as an exciting experience so far, full of new things to learn everyday with new conversations. It’s also an exciting time to try to offer the Middle East tools that might disrupt the way we do finance, saving and investment included, and be part of the disruption that the finance sector will see in the next few years.”