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Tripoli entrepreneurs fight marginalization, request more support.

Summary: Dubbed the "bride of the revolution" after the city's firm commitment to Lebanon's two-month-long uprising, Tripoli has become a city whose residents are used to breaking stereotypes.

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Dubbed the "bride of the revolution" after the city's firm commitment to Lebanon's two-month-long uprising, Tripoli has become a city whose residents are used to breaking stereotypes. Rave-like protest scenes have undercut simplistic depictions of Tripoli as a center of social and religious conservatism. But a budding entrepreneurial community has also been defying the marginalization of Lebanon's second largest city.

"There's too much wasted talent," said Najwa Sahmarani, a director of the Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club. "Our aim is to make Tripoli a hub of innovation and counter the city's socio-economic marginalization."

Founded in 2013 to bring seasoned and young entrepreneurs from Tripoli and the north together, TEC has grown from a volunteer-driven initiative to one that attracts significant local and international funding.

The organization's participation in the "Nawat" program, funded by the NGO Care International and the German Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry (BMZ), is one example of how Sahmarani and her colleagues are building the local economy from the grassroots up.

Since 2017 they have been preparing startups for early stage investment through this program. This involves coaching and mentoring young entrepreneurs on refining their initial ideas, developing a business model, testing that model and eventually pitching to investors at TEC's annual Tripoli Startup Forum.

Four iterations of this program have produced 12 winning entrepreneurs, who have each received an investment of between $5,000 and $10,000 to build their companies. According to Sahmarani, two of the three winners from last year's Startup Forum eventually went on to secure additional funding of around $100,000 each.

Despite the support entrepreneurs receive through the Nawat program, which also offers vocational and life-skills training, and grants of up to $2,000 to small -and medium-sized enterprises - the startup environment in Lebanon is often hard to navigate.

"There are a lot of regulations that get in the way, and the state doesn't do enough to facilitate the work of startups," Sahmarani said.

"No one dares to formally register a company because it's terribly hard to close one. And when you're a startup you know there's at least a 50 percent chance that you're not going to continue with it.

"So it doesn't make sense to formalize your work until you have full investment and support, but then it's challenging to operate and start selling when you are not registered," she explained.

As someone receiving support through TEC and Nawat, Salima Elayi has to make business decisions according to these challenges.

The founder of Visionarty, a platform that connects visual and performing artists with work opportunities, Elayi told The Daily Star that she will operate in Lebanon but register her business in Dubai. "There's more support for entrepreneurship there."

The need for continued support was a theme also mentioned by participants on the "Afdal" program - an agricultural livelihoods initiative funded by BMZ, the World Food Program and Care International. According to Dalia Traboulsi, the Afdal project manager, 1,200 people have been trained through the program, and 200 of them have received employment opportunities, such as apprenticeships.

Sahar B., who learned how to produce honey and honey-derived products through Afdal, said she and her peers had benefited greatly from the project - even setting up a cooperative to sell their goods. However, she said that further help was needed.

"We have land and we need to invest in it," she told The Daily Star. "We've opened a big door, and I hope the products become well known, but we have no strategy for marketing. The project was the first step, but we need follow up."

The entrepreneurial spirit is also strong for Aisha Dannawi, who received vocational training at a restaurant in Tripoli through the Afdal program.

"I started making food in Ramadan at a kiosk, and people were asking where they could find me after Ramadan," she said. "The program allowed me to find a new role for myself in society, rather than sitting at home, talking too much."

For Dannawi, opening a restaurant is a way out of poverty in a city where 75 percent of households earn less than $500 a month, and 57 percent of families are deprived, according to a previous U.N. study.

Residents of Tripoli are also disproportionately undercovered by welfare and social security provisions. The same study found that only 27 percent of families in Tripoli have health insurance, compared to 52 percent in the rest of the country.

"My husband works in Beirut five days a week and earns $300 a month. The rent here is $220," Dannawi told The Daily Star. "I need to make my way now [and build my business], but I need further help."

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Author:Nick Newsom
Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Dec 19, 2019
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