Qatar, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is fast consolidating its position as a strong financial technology hub. And while big businesses are an integral part of this growth story, startups are making a mark in the sector.
From digital wallets to insurtech, a stream of tech entrepreneurs are taking the plunge because of a mix of factors, from favorable regulation and government support to a largely untapped market waiting for innovation to handle their money better.
RISING FINTECH STARTUPS
“Qatar is the ‘blue ocean’ for fintech. It is not as saturated as the neighboring GCC countries. It’s the best launch pad before businesses can penetrate the MENA market. To this date, there are only nine licensed PSPs (payment service providers); of these, I think, at least three-four are fintech startups,” says Michael Javier, CEO and Founder of CWallet.
Starting in 2019 with digital wallets and prepaid cards for transactions within Qatar, CWallet has been gaining ground among the two million strong migrant worker population in the country, helping them send money home with their app.
In March, the central bank launched the Qatar Fintech Strategy 2023 to become a leader in the financial services sector and, among other goals, at least triple the number of licensed fintech companies in the country in the next five years.
“Launching the fintech strategy and issuing licenses to several startups was the start of a new way forward. Qatar has witnessed a surge in digital payment adoption, presenting opportunities for fintech startups to develop innovative payment solutions. This includes mobile wallets, peer-to-peer payment apps, contactless payment technologies, and other digital payment platforms that cater to the growing demand for convenient and secure financial transactions,” says Indica Amarasinghe, Chapter Director for Startup Grind Doha, adding that areas such as insurtech and cross-border payments and remittances are growing opportunities.
These opportunities are prompting more startups to test the fintech waters. But as they prepare for the next phase of scaling, how are the old and new players navigating these new policy guidelines while ensuring growth and exposure for their ventures?
“Since the policy was announced, the ecosystem has become more organized and focused on collaboration rather than competition. This shift enables introducing the latest technologies to the market and fosters the expansion of the digital footprint in the country,” says Mohammed Al Delaimi, founder and managing director of SkipCash, a mobile wallet for shoppers.
Al Delaimi points out that while the new guidelines have imposed “a substantial amount of commitments,” they have helped “build our capabilities to be compliant for other GCC markets.”
“We received assistance from various partners who shared their knowledge and provided consultation, enabling us to make the necessary changes to our system architecture, governance, and policies,” he says.
Javier also acknowledges the need to “follow and comply” with the new guidelines “to keep the regulators happy and confident about CWallet.” In the past few months, his company has increased its compliance team.
“Being compliant builds more trust from various stakeholders, which allows us to build our reputation.”
As these new fintech businesses expand within and beyond Qatar, the country’s government has also been aiding their efforts through incubators, accelerators, and funding opportunities, which has benefitted many startups, including SkipCash and CWallet.
“Over the past five-10 years, the startup space in Qatar has undergone a remarkable transformation. Previously, when startups were still in their infancy in Qatar, entrepreneurs had to learn through trial and error. However, today, the startup ecosystem has evolved significantly. Accelerator programs and incubators have emerged nationwide, supporting startups in various industries such as fintech and sports tech.
Notable organizations such as Qatar Business Incubation Center have dedicated themselves to assisting young startups in establishing solid business foundations,” says Steve Mackie, partner at Soutien Group and co-founder of Business Startup Qatar.
Mackie also underlines that despite its smaller population, “Qatar is an ideal ecosystem for startups to thrive. The government supports entrepreneurial dreams, and the private sector engages with startups. Any industry can be pursued as long as entrepreneurs conduct thorough market research and identify a ‘problem’ that demands a solution.”
As they develop growth strategies, fintech startups, particularly those operating in the online payment sector, are currently experiencing fierce competition from global players like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Google Pay. These multinational giants are actively vying to be part of Qatar’s burgeoning fintech landscape and capitalize on its success.
Ahmed Isse, Co-Founder of Dibsy, a fintech startup helping businesses in Qatar accept online payments from customers around the world, admits to the pressure but believes a few things set homegrown startups apart.
“The integration and onboarding have been a long and hard journey for us. Earlier, online payment was considered bad practice. It took us time to assure people and educate them about its benefits. We went to merchants and helped them integrate it into their systems. If you look at things from that perspective, while we may be similar to international fintech startups, we are not just a copycat. We bring in localization, and that is where we will win,” says Isse.
Apart from compliance and integration, keeping track of technological advancements and focusing on expansion — both in their target markets and GCC––have been at the top of the agenda for many startups.
“We have assembled a competent team that keeps us abreast of the latest technological developments. Initially, we were focused on SMEs, but now expanding to government and larger organizations, which requires different tactics and planning,” says Skip Cash’s Al Delaimi.
To grow its GCC footprint, his company is also reaching out to various venture capitalists (VCs) for support.
The challenges are numerous, says CWallet’s Javier, but “Risk & Fraud, both internally and externally,” is a major concern.
“To mitigate this, we need to put strong and compliant policies and procedures in place along with internal and external audit systems. And this requires a lot of resources and time. That’s why startups are constantly raising funds to manage compliance while growing the business,” he says.
Isse also points out the need for “more investment” in the sector to stay updated with technology and, more importantly, “to attract technical resources and retain them.”
The new fintech strategy has primed the sector for new players with fresh ideas, and tech experts are confident this will also usher in new investment.
“We expect many players to come in, both Qataris and non-Qataris. Perhaps some new angel investors will join the community, and there will be an establishment of local VCs and dynamic collaborations between banks and fintech startups to produce innovative and regulated business models with regard to alternative finance, open banking, credit, and Buy Now Pay Later,” says Javier.
The market adoption of fintech solutions is on the rise, says Al Delaimi, and counts Buy Now Pay Later services and finance management solutions as potential areas for growth.
“Smart payments at government entities, cashless schools, open banking, and Buy Now Pay Later services implemented in sectors beyond retail are some of the other developments we will see very soon in Qatar’s fintech industry,” he says.
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