This Iraqi Founder Is Solving Your Visa Problems

Skyscanner for flights, AirBnB for accommodation, and TripAdvisor for places to eat, but where do you go to get your visa arranged? How do you avoid spending a fortune on navigating clunky governmental websites, only to then receive rejections?

This week’s guest on the Tajarib podcast is Mustafa Alwan, founder of Kawenter, a travel startup whose app helps simplify the visa and travel process for people in the SWANA region.

“It all came from a passion to use programming to solve real problems,” says Mustafa. With over 1 in 3 international travelers requiring an e-Visa, the app provides a helping hand for time-restrained visa applicants from the minute they decide to travel. 

Mustafa Alwan Iraqi Founder
Mustafa Alwan – Founder of Kawenter

Most visa application pages are painful to use with confusing, endless lists of requirements and demands for documents that never seem to be the right ones for the application. Our app translates this difficult language found on government travel websites and agencies to a user-friendly and straightforward series of steps that are most likely to determine success with your visa application.

Mustafa Alwan

With assistance for travel to over 180 countries, Kawenter lists the visa requirements for the country you want to visit in a language you understand and then helps you organise your documents for the application.

“A simple example is the Schengen visa. It would probably take you two to three weeks if you applied yourself through their website. With in-house experts and the use of technology, Kawenter can help you get the same visa in an average of three days without the heart-wrenching process of spending hours just trying to decode what you need to submit.” The app is an integrative platform that offers visa applications, embassy information, tools to book initial flights, hotels, and travel insurance.

Will Visa Rejection Stories Ever be Eliminated from the List of Top Ten Conversation Topics?

kawenter travel app iraq
Kawenter is an app that covers all your travel needs

Many people come back from a holiday only to spend more time answering questions from friends about the visa process than talking about the actual trip. “When I began traveling, I realised that I wanted to give people something from my experience, but Instagram stories didn’t seem enough”, says Mustafa. “Since then, I’ve written blogs on traveling and visa applications to 190 countries as an Iraqi and started Kawenter to free people from the complexities of visa procedures so that they can focus on enjoying the trip rather than the paperwork”. 

An example of this is having to show a booked flight in order to secure a visa, when you may not necessarily know your date of your trip. Through the Kawenter app, Mustafa addresses all the knitty-gritty details that frustrate travellers such as providing an initial booking that can be shown without actually paying or committing to the flight booking.

Mustafa admits that sometimes the team knows that visa applications in some countries will be rejected for no particular reason for citizens of a particular country. “We’re honest with customers with passports of countries that may not be accepted. We simply tell them that during this period, you’re unlikely to be granted a visa, probably due to a political situation that will resolve in due course”.

With visa applications being his bread and butter, Mustafa gives customers some insight on when visas are more likely to be granted such as trying to get a first visa through attending a conference or trying to travel to as many countries as possible before applying for a Schengen visa. “Putting income in a bank account is particularly important for travel. Showing that there is a consistent income and cash flow is usually key to securing a visa in many countries”. In his own experiences, Mustafa says that for some countries where he has received visa rejections, he simply persisted until it was accepted.

Will She Get Into Medicine? Mustafa Addresses another one of the Top Ten Conversation Topics in Iraq

Mustafa’s passion for developing products that solve problems started when he was in school. He set up a website page on for students to see their school results, appearing above the Ministry of Iraq’s education page in Google search results. The website saw seven million visits and later changed its name to Najeh and used a bot that provided students with predicted college acceptances (based on the previous year’s acceptance results) when they entered their grades.

His projects attracted the attention of ZainCash and Mustafa was hired as a consultant when he was still a student, moving on later to other jobs in companies like Switch and Enjaz. He then quickly realised that founding a micro startup which brought a consistent income was the way forward for him. With his interest in travel and passion for programming, Mustafa combined his personal experiences with the integration of paid APIs to feed data to visa websites and build Kawenter. Additionally, Mustafa still pursues Najeh, where he works with a team of three people on a new B2B model where teachers can sell courses.

Building a Resilient Startup: How Kawenter has been Dodging Iraq’s Turbulences  

In founding Kawenter, Mustafa made two decisions that may sound unusual to most in Iraq. “My startup is registered in the USA and the payment system of Kawenter uses Stripe”. He explains that this ensures that his startup is independent of Iraq’s political circumstances and/or internet outages. “E-payment systems in Iraq were a real struggle. Most payment systems asked for high fees, had little flexibility, and would only give me my money at the end of the month”. 

He also has not focused on Iraq as his target market segment. “I figured that most Iraqis were focused on migration rather than tourist travel and with the low trust in technology and online payments, it would be much slower for a startup with an app to truly succeed here”. 

Most of Kawenter’s users today are based in the Gulf and many may ask why that is the case when Mustafa has a greater understanding of the Iraqi market. “This wasn’t necessarily intentional. I’ve hardly spent on marketing or advertising. Most of my customers have come organically”. Building strong content that works well with the Google searches that potential customers make is what has attracted his customers. With the app’s use of Arabic and an interest in travel, Google searches have mainly come from travelers in the Gulf.     

The Challenge of Social Awkwardness for Iraqi Programmers

fikra space iraq

Mustafa has worked with others on organising and running hackathons where he’s found talented Iraqi programmers. At the same time, he’s realised the challenge with finding good programmers in Iraq. “I was really socially awkward myself. I’d literally answer hellos with thanks”. Many programmers have really good technical skills but lack the social skills to promote their work. “One of the ways I overcame this is through engaging with communities like Fikra Space, Startup Weekend and other startup spaces”.

Mustafa also believes that doing as many projects as possible can help programmers with promoting their work.  After a relative passed away, Mustafa realised the complex process of burials in Najaf. He quickly tried to develop an app called Maqbarti that attached barcodes to graves and helped people navigate the Wadi Al Salam cemetery. The app got him a television interview, newspaper coverage, and freelancing projects. Mustafa argues that rather than focusing on gaining certifications, start as many projects as possible to apply skills – grave-related or not. This includes experimenting with ideas, engaging in hackathons and communities, or even searching for remote working opportunities. 

What’s next for Kawenter? Mustafa believes that his startup can expand to more services such as providing translation for Iraqis applying for visas that require a translated identity document. Through use of passport barcodes and technology to quickly scan the document on one’s phone, future users could receive a translated identity document in less than an hour that is signed by a translator. The startup aims to sort out as many visa requirements as possible so that the visa application process takes less time. Mustafa also looks to spend more time on projects in the education sector given its huge market in Iraq. 

This article is brought to you in partnership with Tajarib, giving you a written overview of the podcast’s latest episode every week for those of you who prefer reading over listening. Tajarib is supported by iQ, Iraq’s leading fiber-optic network.

Khamael Al Safi

Khamael is passionate about understanding the work of startups and the stories of entrepreneurs, particularly those in Iraq. She is also passionate about helping young people build employability skills for the job market and has taught subjects in entrepreneurship, organisational behaviour and psychology to undergrad and postgrad students in London and Dubai. Having worked in consulting for both the private and public sector in the Middle East, she has been involved in training and advisory on corporate governance and accountability, as well as building open, trustworthy data ecosystems.

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