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The Most Successful Start-Ups in the Middle East for 2019

By: Fatima Saleh

2019 was a great year for start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as it continued to see a rise in investments. In 2018, there were over 130 deals that raised around $475 million. In 2019, the top 10 deals itself surpassed this with more than $500 million raised.

UAE continues to be the most invested market in this region with 6 of the top 10 deals originating there and taking the top 3 places. 2019 also saw top investments from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan.

Let’s take a look at each of the top 10 funding deals in 2019.

1. Careem, UAE, $200 million

Founded in 2012, the Dubai-based ride-hailing company Careem has been on the list for three consecutive years.

In 2019, it raised $200 million as part of an ongoing series F round. Investors in this round include Saudi Arabia’s billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s Kingdom Holding, Al Tayyar Travel Group, STV, and Japanese ecommerce group Rakuten.

Careem’s valuation post this investment round is estimated to be over $2 billion, making it one of the most valued tech start0ups in the region.

With the new injected capital, Careem is looking to expand further and strengthen its position in the MENA region via mass transportation, delivery, and payments. Moving its efforts from purely ride-hailing, it now refers to itself as an internet platform for the greater Middle East.

Careem recently launched its bus service to diversify its business and give Uber strong competition.This year, Careem is on the lookout for new investors with the goal of expanding the current series round to $500 million.

2. Property Finder, UAE, $120 million

Founded in 2007, Property Finder is a UAE-based real estate classifieds website which has operations across eight MENA countries. It raised $120 million in 2019 and is valued at about $500 million. This latest round of funding was led by US growth equity firm General Atlantic (GA).

Property Finder’s latest round was 6 times the funding amount raised in the previous round.

Property Finder is the hottest real estate start-up in the Middle East. They claim to have a 65% market share in the region and with a profitable business for the past four years. Currently, the core market of Property Finder, Dubai, is experiencing a downturn in the housing market. However, it is seeing increasing growth prospects in markets such as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Iraq.

3. Emerging Markets Property Group (Bayut), UAE, $50 million

Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG) is the parent company of Bayut, a UAE-based real estate portal and one of the most well-funded tech start-ups in UAE.

Bayut of EMPG is one of the most well-funded tech start-ups in UAE. EMPG received $50 million in a Series D funding round in 2019 but there was no information disclosed regarding the investors. Bayut’s CEO, Hyder Ali Khan, claimed that half of this round’s investment will be used to acquire other smaller platforms in UAE.

The remaining portion of the investments will be used to solidify its presence in other markets such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco, Spain and Romania where EMPG operates a portfolio of various property rental websites.

In a new development this year, EMPG raised another $50 million early February 2020, taking its Series D total to $100 million (and closer to competitor Property Finder’s $120 round). The round was led by KCK group, a US based investment fund and multiple other investors. Has US-based GA’s investment in Property Finder instilled an optimism and interest in the property market of the Middle East? Sure, seems like it.

4. Boutiqaat, Kuwait, $45 million

Kuwait-based Boutiqaat is a beauty ecommerce start-up founded in 2015. It raised $45 million in 2018 from Boubyan Petrochemical Company, a Kuwaiti firm that has invested in various sectors such as healthcare, petrochemicals, manufacturing, and education. This was the largest ever amount raised by a Kuwaiti start-up. Post this round, Boutiqaat is valued between $250 million to $300 million.

Boutiqaat does a great job of mixing social and e-commerce which is what differentiates it from its competitors. The platform has various stores, each curated by social media influencers. This way, consumers can choose which products to buy depending on the recommendation by their favourite idols.

Momentum Works had pointed out that consumers in the Middle East are generally very passionate about social media, and influencer marketing strongly affects their purchase behavior. Statistics show that more than 70% of UAE customers refer to opinions of social media influencers before purchasing any product. This is what Boutiqaat uniquely uses to its advantage.

Their products are currently sold and delivered to various GCC countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. With the new capital they aim to expand to Asia, Europe, and the US. Since influencer e-commerce is a relatively easy model to replicate and depends on high localisation and cultural factors, Boutiqaat needs to move quick and smart to assert its presence outside this region.

5. Wadi, UAE and Saudi Arabia, $30 million

Wadi, once regarded by many as Souq’s biggest competitor in the e-commerce sector, had trouble raising investments early on. However, that changed when it shifted focus to a particular vertical i.e. grocery, raising $30 million in funding from traditional retail giant Majid Al Futtaim.

This investment deal makes Carrefour (Majid Al Futtaim is its regional franchisee) a strategic partner of Wadi. While Carrefour gets to diversify its business and expand customer reach, Wadi gets access to tens of thousands of products at a competitive price. This mix of synergies is a win-win for both.

In the past three years, Wadi has been deeply integrating into Saudi Arabia’s ecosystem. With a good execution team led by Rocket Internet, it has built a certain popularity and user base and even has its own logistics arm.

It is said that Wadi can process 10,000 orders a day at its peak. It’s just that as the competition between the bigger general marketplaces such as Souq and Noon heated up, Wadi was unable to keep up. So, it makes sense that after this round of investment, the company will focus on groceries.

6. Swvl, Egypt, $25-$30 million

Mass transport start-up Swvl was the biggest black horse in the Egyptian start-up scene.

Established recently in 2017, it has had a fast-paced investment run. It raised a seed round of $500K in 2017 led by Careem (one of Swvl’s founders was previously with Careem). In 2019 it raised $8 million in a Series A round in April quickly followed by a Series B round of $25 million to $30 million in November 2019. It was valued at close to $100 million post this round. New investors include Dubai-based BECO Capital, Africa-based investor DiGAME and global investor Silicon Badia among others.

Swvl may be a leading transport start-up in Egypt but it can’t get too comfortable since Uber and Careem too are expanding their services there. Which is why Swvl is looking to expand to other regions such as Southeast Asia with Manila as the starting point.

7. Unifonic, Saudi Arabia, $21 million

Founded in 2006, Unifonic is a B2B cloud communications platform that is often referred to as Twilio (listed on the NYSE) of emerging markets.

This is perhaps the largest series A round of funding in the history of Middle East start-ups. The leading investor was STV, a VC fund managed by the largest Saudi Telecom group, STC.

The funding round was an important indication that investors in this region are ready to put their money in B2B enterprises.

Unifonic currently has more than 100 employees across ten regions. It has more than 5,000 B2B customers, including giants in the Middle East and North Africa region, such as Souq, Aramex, Al Jazeera, Uber, HSBC, Carrefour, Centerpoint and more.

8. Mumzworld, UAE, $20 million