Booming Sudanese Internet Markets Attract Digital Media Startups

By Ann Brown AFKI Original Published: April 28, 2017, 1:20 pm
Booming Sudanese internet marketsOmnia Shawkat, co-founder of Andariya. Photo provided by Andariya

Two young women are hoping to bring a little unity and conversation to the people of Sudan and South Sudan, two countries that have been embroiled in a decades-long civil war.

Their online magazine, Andariya, was established to fill the gap in independent digital cultural news from Sudan and South Sudan. It’s the type of media Shawkat and Amin Saad say they want to consume themselves.

Sudanese internet use is robust. Sudan ranked No. 41 out of 201 countries for internet penetration in a July 1, 2016 estimate. It had 10,886,813 internet users — a 26.4-percent penetration, according to Internet Live Stats. That’s more internet users than Belgium, Sweden, United Arab Emirates and Greece.

South Sudan ranked No. 103 out of 201 countries on the same list, with 2,179,963 internet users representing 17.1 percent of the South Sudan population as of July 2016.

Omnia Shawkat and Salma Amin Saad ventured into digital media with Andariya in February 2015. It’s available in English and Arabic, and its goal is to target youth and provide a platform of technology, edutainment, and contemporary and gender issues.

Shawkat, 29, was born in Sudan but lived in the U.A.E., Qatar, Libya and Egypt, as well as the Netherlands and U.S. She studied biology in Egypt and environment and resource management in the Netherlands. Before starting Andariya, she worked on sustainability and development at the U.N., then later at a French research institute and a U.S.-based non-profit.

“My (foray) into Andariya was purely based on interests and faith that this is needed and this is the right time for it,” Shawkat said.

 

Salma Amin Saad, co-founder of Andariya. Photo provided by Andariya

Co-founder Amin Saad, 27, lived in the Arab Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and U.A.E. She studied in Qatar before finishing her undergraduate degree at the American University of Sharjah, where she majored in marketing. After graduation, she got hired at Al Jazeera Media Network’s marketing department, where she is still working.

“My work at Al Jazeera has been a great asset to Andariya. The exposure and lessons are very transferable and applicable to what Andariya does,” Saad said.

Shawkat and Saad told AFKIsider how that plan to reach the booming internet market in Sudan and South Sudan.

AFKInsider: What led to you launching Andariya?

Omnia Shawkat: Andariya was established to fill the gap in independent digital cultural news from Sudan and South Sudan and foster cultural relations between the two countries relying on the shared heritage. Through Andariya we set a vision to enrich Sudan and South Sudan’s authentic, relevant, and grassroots content on the digital sphere, to ultimately present an alternative narrative than the established ones and to present and reflect different perspectives.

AFKInsider: What were some startup challenges?

Salma Amin Saad: Building the community was our first challenge, because we were looking for people who shared our vision of representing contemporary Sudan and South Sudan, and who brought something meaningful and useful to the operational management of Andariya. We did not have investors or a large amount to start Andariya, but we were ready and wanted to launch as soon as we could. We decided to pool our own money and run a lean operation, minimizing overheads and focusing on investing in the content creation itself. A third challenge is developing a business model that ensures the startup sustainability while maintaining an independent editorial model which does not subject audiences or readers to advertisement on our platforms.  Finally, building our portfolio of content and community in South Sudan amid political and economic instability continues to be a bottleneck for expanding there as much as we have in Sudan.

AFKInsider: How did you overcome these challenges?

Salma Amin Saad: We continue to navigate the preliminary challenges since we are still in startup phase, even if a little more mature. We continue to build our community and are extremely humbled by the many talented individuals and groups who reach out to us to contribute, partner or become part of the team. When it comes to funds and creating a sustainable social enterprise model, we’ve managed to commercialize some of our knowledge and expertise to aid others navigating digital marketing environments in Sudan. Finally, we are exploring new ways to expand more into South Sudan, both with content and more organic methods.

AFKInsider: Do you have many competitors?

Omnia Shawkat: We don’t think of other cultural platforms as competitors because there are so many topics to be covered on both Sudan and South Sudan. The digital environment is not saturated with content in either Arabic or English until now. There are a few English and Arabic online magazines and platforms, but none have the same model as we do–English and Arabic for Sudan and South Sudan. So there is space for Andariya to be unique and contribute to the digital footprint of the Sudans, while others thrive and new entrants join the sector.

AFKInsider: What are the pluses of doing business in the Sudans?

Omnia Shawkat: The service market opportunities abound because of the more lenient regulations — lenient because they haven’t caught up to the trends taking shape now. We’re seeing more and more young people demonstrating the use of digital tools for business. Those employed informal industries and those who rejected the formal environment are creating their own startups to supplement or take better control of their income, grow their leadership and management skills and explore promising business interests.

Sudan and South Sudan are raw business environments. There are a lot of restrictions but opportunities are also plenty. For a long time, Sudan and South Sudan were isolated and withdrawn into civil conflict, leaving the two underdeveloped and behind on all major world trends. There is a huge opportunity to skip many fads that do not suit our culture and environments and embrace current trends that can reposition us into the regional and international scene. Good news is that the U.S economic sanctions might get lifted soon, this has the potential to open doors for many opportunities for businesses to grow and expand beyond Sudan.

AFKInsider: What are some of the challenges of doing business in the Sudans?

Omnia Shawkat: Economic instability is scary to most people who would and could invest in the Sudans. This creates a stifled atmosphere in most industries, where you almost feel how untapped the potential is. You find plenty of new market entrants in the shape of small enterprises (because of minimal risk issues), but large-scale enterprises in the most productive sectors are scarcely found as independent investments.

Moreover, (there) is a very exclusive circle of allegiance that gets the easiest routes in most sectors, which keeps many independent and non-aligned people out of the fast-track zone. Finally, the civil service sector is highly challenged. They can barely provide official permits (and) little in terms of sector guidelines or research.

AFKInsider: How did you two meet and why did you decide to go into business together?

Salma Amin Saad: We met on Twitter then we met in Sudan in person and began preparing for the business a few weeks later after a few Skype calls and emails. We found that we agree on so many things, especially the problem statement on which we founded Andariya. We had a solid grip on how we wanted to run Andariya and what we had in mind for its growth and development. We also complement each other in terms of business acumen and management experience, so it was only natural that we found the confidence to build a whole business together.

AFKInsider: How does Andariya make money?

Omnia Shawkat: Andariya is an independent platform and has been self-funded by its founders. As interest in social media content creation picked up in Sudan, Andariya began creating commercial projects for a host of cultural and corporate clients to sustain its creative productions and support the expansion of the platform and its content.

AFKInsider: What are your 2017 goals for Andariya?

Omnia Shawkat: We’re hoping to grow the community of contributors and followers further across both the Sudans and beyond. Our publishing model has evolved further to nurture diversification in our content as well as more organic offline partnerships to grow and expand the digital environment in Sudan for nonprofits, for-profits, and cultural establishments. We’re also planning on a fantastic platform enhancement after our latest website update.

AFKInsider: What are your long-term goals?

Salma Amin Saad: Andariya aspires to create a digital media model for post-conflict communities to build cultural ties to foster peaceful existence and collaboration across business, society, politics.

AFKInsider: Why do you enjoy publishing Andariya?

Omnia Shawkat: We place a lot of value on the importance of how we as Sudanese and South Sudanese see our countries and ourselves, as well as how others perceive us. Thus, we enjoy catering to the need for creative cultural content about and from the Sudans that reflects the contemporary realities through our own stories.

AFKInsider: What do you want readers to get from Andariya?

Omnia Shawkat: We want them to know that there is a very strong cultural current sweeping both countries, as a form of resistance, resilience, and rebellion. This cultural current wants its rightful place on the world cultural map and we strive to give it the space to shine through. This space hopes to educate, entertain, encourage collaborations and raise the spirits of everyone hoping something good is happening amidst the plethora of challenges outpouring from the Sudans.

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