DUBAI: After struggling to obtain paperwork to get his daughter’s birth legally registered, a Syrian refugee has created a peer-to-peer mobile app that enables people in the Middle East to send letters and documents faster and cheaper than by conventional courier or post.Although initially targeting fellow members of the Syrian diaspora in nearby countries such as Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Shiffer is gaining more widespread traction, with 1,000 customers already using the service and the company’s app available on both Android and iOS.“Say you’re going from Beirut to Baghdad, you register on our app as a ‘messenger’ and post that you’re traveling next month and can carry up to two kilograms,” says Shiffer co-founder Azhar Almadani, 30. “At the same time, there could be a customer who wants to send documents along the same route — they will search the app for a messenger and will be able to find the appropriate one.”Shiffer is currently operating as a non-profit entity, with messengers and customers agreeing on a price and arranging payment between themselves. Once the new iteration of the app is complete in October 2019, it will have payment capabilities, a confirmation system, user profiles and peer-to-peer reviews. It will process all transactions and be available in multiple languages. So far, 350 couriers and 650 document senders have used the app. Syria’s civil war forced Almadani to flee his home city of Hama in 2012, eventually settling in Irbil, where he co-founded Shiffer after his daughter Julia was born in the Iraqi city in 2016. With no Syrian consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan, he had to send various documents to Baghdad, Damascus and Hama to legally register her birth, a process that took several weeks and which cost about $220, about one-third of Almadani’s monthly salary as a project engineer.“I asked myself why I couldn’t find someone who was going to Baghdad anyway, for example, to take the documents on my behalf for a small fee,” Almadani said.“We started a WhatsApp group among other refugees and immigrants from Hama who were living in Irbil to help arrange these kinds of deliveries to and from Iraq and Syria. Someone (would post): ‘My cousin is traveling to Hama next week, if you want to send something, I’ll put you in contact’.”That led him to write a business plan for what would become Shiffer, joining a start-up boot camp in Beirut and winning an $8,000 prize from Amsterdam’s SPARK Ignite conference in November 2018, and the $20,000 MIT Enterprise Forum Innovate for Refugees Prize in Amman in January.“Refugees have no alternative than being entrepreneurial to survive. In fact, survival and fighting is one of the key components that you need to be an entrepreneur. So if you’ve learned that in the process of being a refugee, you have that stamina and energy,” Yannick Du Pont, founder and director of SPARK, said at the time.Having launched operations in Irbil, Shiffer relocated its headquarters to Istanbul due to the high cost of registering a business in Iraq as well as myriad bureaucratic difficulties such as opening a bank account as a Syrian refugee.“There were so many obstacles to starting a company, while until now there also isn’t really a payment gateway in Iraq that we could use. So the best choice was to move to Turkey,” said Almadani, who along with co-founder Rasheed Almuslimany has been working on Shiffer full-time for more than one year. “Turkey was the best choice for us to scale up our business.”Once payment is introduced, prices will be set by Shiffer according to various variables including speed of delivery, complexity in delivering the package to the end user and distance traveled.Couriers are responsible for delivering the documents to the end user in person. After the delivery is complete, both parties click the “complete” button on the app, triggering payment to the messenger. Come October, Shiffer will be taking a 15-20 percent commission.Sending documents via Shiffer costs less than half the price of a conventional courier service, which in the long run will no doubt make traditional courier companies rethinking their models in the Middle East. However, Almadani’s focus is to make birth registrations easier for those “forgotten.” In Turkey alone, it is estimated that at least 311,000 babies of Syrian origin have been born stateless (according to figures from the Turkish Parliament’s Refugee Subcommittee). It is startups such as Shiffer that will contribute to eradicating this issue.
This report is the first of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.