Iraq’s startup stories commonly originate from Erbil and Baghdad. Lesser known are the startups operating in Najaf, just 100 miles south of Baghdad. Najaf is widely known as Iraq’s religious capital and the centre of Shia theology and knowledge. However, a startup scene is emerging despite the lack of funding and training for entrepreneurs in the city.
Startups in Najaf offer a range of goods and services from handmade jewelry to artistic swag. These entrepreneurs are showing us what Najaf youth are really made of; encouraging us to look beyond the city’s religious reputation.
Founded by an art student, Furqan launched Woodpecker to make an impact in his community. He creates beautifully handcrafted and intricate items from wood including jewellery, figurines, and keyrings.
Initially starting with simple items, Furqan has developed his skills to create complicated designs. He hopes to expand his inventory in the near future and is focusing on developing marketing plans for 2020.
With such a unique offering, one of the key struggles faced is sourcing materials and the necessary machinery to create a higher volume of items. These machines are currently unavailable in Iraq. “Our other priority is trying to deliver our items outside of Iraq and we’re trying to find reliable companies that can do that for us” highlights Furqan.
Inception Art is a startup that creates artistic and pop culture designs on clothing and stationery. Launched just 18 months ago, the founder Mohammed Raed Karim is a fourth year law student. Each design is envisioned by Mohammed who then asks painters to make his designs come to life.
Mohammed is looking to create his own brand in Iraq and eventually expand to the Middle East. His dream is to further expand into Europe.
“We felt like the market needed gifts and products with themes that include movies, tv shows, music, and art”.
This gifts and accessories business was founded by three friends Moneem, Reem, and Hussein. “Our vision is to make our startup more than just an online store. We’d love to create a workshop where we can create our own unique designs and build collections for customers.”
One of the most notable struggles for Iraqi startups are payment options. As a cash economy with limited access to e-payments, businesses can suffer if customers put in orders but then decide not to pay. “Most of our customers are from Baghdad and other cities.” Aliens have avoided this by ensuring customers pay in advance after the order is placed.
Two of the friends also launched Sidekick, which creates custom-made shoe and sock designs.
Sandqcha is a printing startup that merges Iraqi heritage and Arabic street designs by printing on t-shirts, mugs, and accessories.
The team of five is headed by Husam Aldeen. The idea of the project came out of the team’s interest in modern graphic design.
“We saw that our heritage was disappearing and there wasn’t a culture of wearing Arabic t-shirts. Coupled with the fact that there are also no jobs for graduates, we decided to launch our own business. We have customers all over Iraq” says Husam Aldeen.
Have you ever wondered what a sculpture of your face and body would look like? Well, no need to wonder anymore. Scalptoon will create your miniature model with their artistic use of thermal clay.
Started by Kazem Zarb, a team of eight work tirelessly to create detailed figures for their customers. “The aim of Scalptoon is to carve our own place in the sculpture world and provide items for people who love this type of art. Many people love sculpted items but they are very expensive to buy because of the type of materials used and the designs available. So the idea of Scalptoon came in response to the desire of people who love it and want to share it in their personal events.”
“Seeing a mini character that resembles you inspires happiness”Kazem Zarb, founder of scalptoon.
Things were not so simple in the early days. “At the beginning, we failed with our experiments which meant loss of material and time. But by following YouTube tutorials, we improved our skills.”
Some of the struggles that Scalptoon faces relates to the sourcing of raw materials outside of Iraq and the high delivery costs. Regardless, the startup is doing well and receives orders from within and outside of Iraq.
“I got bored of working in a repetitive job and daily routines. So I put that energy into launching my own business” says Founder, Aseel.
This women-led startup works with the daughters of local craftsmen to create handmade items and sell them online. Soon, the items will be sold in their own physical store in Najaf which is coming soon.
Two talented sisters started Call It Art, an online store for all types of artistic designs on canvas, crockery, gifts, and more. “We didn’t like working for people. By having our own business, we are able to make money by doing what we love.”
Al Hillo Real Estates is an online platform for buying and selling property. The founder is Haidar Al Hillo, a communications engineering student with negotiation and sales experience in cars and real estate. Throughout his career, he felt that real estate in Iraq was not growing despite recent technological advances. With a team of three, he launched Al Hillo Real Estates to stimulate the sector’s development.
Instead of wasting time at a real estate office, users can go on the website and see pictures and details of properties they are interested in. Users can also add their own property for sale.
Currently, Al-Hillo’s office is only announcing properties within the province of Najaf. However, anyone outside the province can buy available properties.
“Making someone’s gift is indulging their happiness and joy, and participating in their special day with them. This is our motivation!”dina and osama, founders of cadeau
Founded by two dental students, Dina and Osama, Cadeau specialises in handmade, personalised gifts. “We ask questions about the person such as their interests and budget. Then decide what to do. We use everything that comes to hand and create.”
“We started it as a hobby, but our friends and family encouraged us to pursue a business. They were fans of our art for so long. Art is an important part of both of our lives and this project allows us to live our dream.”
“One challenge we face is finding suitable raw materials to work with and marketing our startup. Also, being dental students takes a lot of effort and time so it can sometimes be challenging to study and work but we have been successful so far. We hope to continue Cadeau after we graduate”.
Since the Iraq protests, various social media trends have emerged. A recent campaign is emphasising the importance of supporting local products instead of relying on imported goods.
This campaign is part of the reform that accompanies the country’s demonstrations. Protesters see the importance of activating the role of the private sector, while stressing the need for legislation and strategic plans for it to be successful.
Social media sites are being used to launch a community-wide campaign to support local businesses. The goal is to promote industrial and agricultural products, encourage citizens to purchase these products, and educate the public on the importance of their role in supporting the national economy. The Station recently organised a two day event to support the cause.
In the spirit of this campaign, the startups mentioned above are local businesses. Many of which sell handmade items and use locally available materials to create beautiful items. To support businesses, browse our articles to learn more about your local startups.
Comment below with your thoughts on startups in Najaf and the #madeiniraq movement!