When Mohamed Abdilahi Dahir finished his high school education at 17, he left his home in Somaliland to learn English in Malaysia, before studying medicine in China. But nearly three years into his medical degree, his father died, and Dahir could no longer afford to study.
He spent the next three years working in various Asian countries – doing odd jobs such as Chinese translation for overseas Somali business people. He decided to return home in 2013 when, he says, he no longer had any idea of what he wanted to do with his life. In the beginning he felt that he was a failure, and barely left the house to avoid questions from neighbours about why he wasn’t a doctor.
However, Dahir (now 26) has no regrets. His return to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, helped him to see the many entrepreneurial opportunities that existed there.
He started reading about start-ups online, before enrolling in a business administration programme at a local university. And towards the end of 2015 Dahir founded Better Business Solutions, a consultancy that helps entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground. His company has since partnered with other organisations, including Spark, a Dutch NGO that develops entrepreneurs.
“The main idea is to help other entrepreneurs through consultation, training, business planning, access to finance, technical support – and help them incubate their business ideas,” he told How we made it in Africa.
And it wasn’t long before Dahir had his own idea.
Solving payment challenges
Somaliland is a self-declared state of four-million people on the horn of Africa. But because it is not internationally recognised as an independent state, its currency – the Somaliland shilling – currently has no official exchange rate.
This makes buying anything online, where most goods are priced in foreign currencies, almost impossible.
“In other countries, like in developed countries or in Asia, when I go online and see things that I like, I can buy them online. But here [in Hargeisa], every day I see things that I want online and I have the money to buy it, but I cannot pay because there is no international bank and no MasterCard or Visa.”
The challenge became particularly frustrating when trying to advertise his start-ups on platforms such as Facebook.
“To market on Facebook, to reach maybe 3,000 people you just have to have US$3. And every entrepreneur here has $3 but they cannot use it to pay.”
Part of the problem is Somaliland’s low banking penetration. Mobile money, however, is widely used and relies on US dollars. So Dahir has come up with a solution, called ePocket, that connects mobile money to an international digital card and other online mobile payment systems that can be used to make purchases online.
Dahir’s business partner is a software engineer, and while ePocket is still in the product development phase (and is not yet a proven solution) the idea was selected to participate in the 2016 Innovate Accelerator programme and competition.
The competition is organised by Somali tech accelerator Innovate Ventures and the pan-African start-up funding platform VC4Africa. ePocket was one of 12 ideas selected to participate in the programme, and while it did not win, Dahir is in talks with potential investors about funding the project.
Opportunity amidst challenges
“In Somaliland there are a lot of untapped areas and unfulfilled needs, and you can easily have a million ideas to start a business today.”
For this reason, Dahir says it is not uncommon to come across an entrepreneur in the city who has multiple business cards for each of his different businesses.
However, access to capital and information around starting a business are some of the challenges start-ups face, and Dahir’s next hope is to set up an angel investment network to help entrepreneurs get the seed capital they need to turn their business ideas into a reality.
His advice to other entrepreneurs in Somaliland is not to let the many challenges they face deter them from getting started with their businesses.
“Just start… You will face a lot of setbacks and rejections, but if you are passionate enough then just start, and everything will come together.”