Navigating MENA Markets with CAReem! #YallaCareem

When your competitor outspends you, your business model must be creative at the local level. ~ Abdulla Elyas, Co-Founder of Careem


When Saudi Arabia first announced that Saudi women could start driving in 2018, we initially thought: awesome for Saudi women; not so great for the ride-sharing industry within Saudi Arabia.   Specifically, Careem is the ride-sharing business model that beat Uber to the Middle East & North Africa location and filled a gap of public transportation and accurate delivery while generating thousands of jobs.  Instead, this was the response by one of Careem’s co-founders:

Now we can train and employ women drivers in Saudi Arabia.~Abdulla Elyas, Co-founder of Careem

Careem’s response imagined a long-term future that goes beyond the bottom line.   Elyas and his partners were on to something: 8 out of 10 Saudi women want to drive, according to Newsweek.  10 days after King Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud’s announcement, Saudi women filled up a Careem training class.

Maybe that’s why Careem attracted another round of funding from a Chinese based investor, Didi: Careem does not shy away from competition.  For being creative in a competitive industry, and operating in a dynamic region, The University of Chicago’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation invited Careem Co-Founder, Abdullah Elyas, to discuss his technology background’s influence on ride-sharing industry– and wider entrepreneurship ecosystem– that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan.  Recently, Careem became the first ride-sharing/courier service in Palestine–Ramallah, specifically, which will hire locally in an area that faces at least 20 percent unemployment.

Careem successfully competed at different stages of funding to obtain Mideast investments–intra-regional capital injection signals confidence in local markets– from Wamda Capital, Arzan Venture Capital (Kuwait-based), Lumia Capital, El Sewedy Investments, as well as foreign firms, like Daimler and the technology focused investment group, Coatue.

Technology Side

“Make a left after the monument, then a little to the right…then…oops we’re lost and the house number does not follow a sequence,” sums up a variety of personal driving adventures in the MENA region.  We cannot count the number of times we have driven through Beirut, Jordan, Dubai and in Pakistan where our handheld map, or mispronounced landmark, could not get us directly to our destinations.  Sometimes it took a miracle to arrive at a new location when the term “address” did not register on a map.

In the 21st century, miracle may translate as a “timely app” that makes sense of the urban “non planning” in many of these countries.  In 2014, Elyas developed a cloud-based application, Enwani, which transformed Careem’s business venture into an precision-oriented ride-sharing experience.  Elywas also transformed from tech guy, to Chief People Officer, as he joins Mudassir Sheikha, Chief Executive Officer, and Magnus Olsen as Chief “Xperience” Officer to focus on the customer driven experience.  Now, Careem is the fastest growing technology company in the MENA region with projected 30% monthly growth.

Branding Careem

Another way of looking at this expanding $1.2 Billion enterprise is the branding aspect born out of Careem’s core values.  As Elyas said, you find the word “car” in Careem–and in Arabic, Kareem means “generosity”.  The co-founder explained that the pricing model offers a fair price to the rider and generous wage to the Careem driver, or ‘captain’, and an opportunity to donate to local causes, like the Refugee crisis.

On the Corporate Social Responsibility side of Careem, they recognize that their environment includes an influx of refugees in many of the countries Careem operates in daily.  Therefore, they partnered with the United National Refugee Agency to include a ‘Donate’ option via the Careem application while booking a rideshare.  Yalla, there you have it: Careem.   Or as one of their viral marketing campaigns says #BeCareem!

Speaking of branding, check out how Careem literally LAUNCHED their logo and concept into the MENA market beyond their Dubai rooftop:

Careem’s creative campaign in several emerging markets earned them over 5 million views and turned the voyeur into customer in over 80 cities, including Istanbul at the beginning of this year.

With Careem’s success, Elyas generously shared some tips for rising entrepreneurs:

  • Recognize that your business centers around a people culture, so don’t be shy in assigning a high level management position that focuses on people.  For example, he serves as Chief People Officer
  • Work with investors that share your business model’s values.
  • Disrupt the industry, NOT the regulator!

Stray Observation: Careem has already installed child/baby car seats for safety sake.  This observation and the last tip brings us to our question: Does Careem feel bold enough to disrupt the driving culture a little more by pressuring the regulator to enforce safer driving conditions?  😉

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