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In Minneapolis, a call for Somali entrepreneurs, and ‘sharks’

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Entrepreneur Shahed Amanullah couldn’t help but see slivers of his younger self in the Somali-American youth he’d met over the years at Minneapolis mosques. They were passionate, innovative and wanted to go far in life.

“I’ve seen that. I’ve heard their stories,” said Amanullah, co-founder of the business startup firm Affinis Labs in northern Virginia. “I’ve heard their pleas to just have a chance to prove themselves.”

So he and his colleague got an idea: They’d invite Somali-American entrepreneurs to pitch their business ventures to investors. The contestants would have the chance to cut deals, as well as tap into the vast networks and expertise of the investors.

The result is a one-day startup competition coming to Minneapolis on Sept. 21. Five finalists will vie for a minimum prize of $25,000 in seed money.

On Twitter, it’s been dubbed the Somali version of “Shark Tank.”

But unlike the popular TV show, this contest, part of an initiative called Minbar Somali, is bound by a mandate to do good. The startups must support economic growth in Somalia. (Minbar refers to the raised pulpit in a mosque where the imam stands to deliver sermons; it offers a step up.)

To be eligible, the companies do not need to be located inside the East African country. A startup based in the United States could develop a new technology, such as improvements in refrigeration or clean energy, that could be applied to the economic development of Somalia. The deadline for submissions is Friday.

Amanullah founded Affinis Labs along with Quintan Wiktorowicz, a counterterrorism expert and former White House adviser to President Barack Obama.

They’ve launched startup competitions in places like Tunisia, Uganda and Kenya. But this is the first startup event they’ve planned in the United States, and Wiktorowicz hopes it will harness the ingenuity of the Somali diaspora.

So far, the feedback has been overwhelming, Wiktorowicz said.

“The interest level is probably higher than any other competition that we have ever run across the world,” he said. “We’re getting inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of emails and Facebook messages from the Somali community.”

Entrepreneurship is often viewed as an elite pursuit, he said. People jumping in tend to be upper-middle-class or wealthy and educated with key connections.

The contest is a way to hook up Somali-American entrepreneurs who may not have those advantages with the tools they need to thrive, Wiktorowicz said.

The event sponsors, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the money-transfer service Dahabshiil, are putting up the initial $25,000 prize. But if the sharks like a given pitch, they might put more money on the table.

Wiktorowicz and Amanullah have visited Minneapolis’ Somali community several times through their work with the federal government. Amanullah served as senior advisor for technology at the U.S. State Department.

Decades ago, Amanullah created a number of startups in Silicon Valley. He developed the world’s largest halal restaurant guide Zabihah as well as the online magazine Altmuslim.

Now Amanullah is well into the next phase of his career — helping other startups flourish.

He says it’s a critical time to lend his support to Muslim American communities.

Reports of bias incidents targeting Muslims spiked this year following President Trump’s attempts to ban refugees and travelers from several Muslim countries, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

By showcasing the hustle of Muslim entrepreneurs, Amanullah said he can push back against a common narrative that associates the community with terrorism, he said.

“We want to highlight this group of people to the world as a group of people to be admired for their passion, ingenuity and innovation, and not as a group of people be feared because one or two of them do something stupid,” he said. “The narrative around Somali youth particularly in Minneapolis has been a travesty to the reality that I and Quintan know about the Somali young people that we’ve met.”

The Somali community’s entrepreneurial spirit is evident across the Twin Cities, in storefronts, ethnic malls and beyond. A study by Concordia University in St. Paul estimates there are up to 3,200 African immigrant businesses in Minnesota.

Abdirahman Issa Kahin, owner of the Afro Deli restaurants, is among the most visible Somali-American business leaders. Long lines out the door of his downtown St. Paul location prove he’s fulfilled his vision of getting spice-averse Minnesotans hooked on sambusa, a fried stuffed dumpling.

Kahin tried out for the real “Shark Tank” a couple of years ago, in his quest to make Afro Deli a national brand. He didn’t make the cut. But now he’s signed on to participate in the Minbar Somali pitch event — as a shark.

Kahin said the reason was simple.

“I’m successful here,” he said. “I’m here in the States. I got help from my city, from my government. And it’s about time for me to give back to the community, and help Somalia and East Africa to be sustainable, to create jobs.”

As a shark, Kahin said he’s also eager to invest in a new business that might diversify his holdings and make him more money. He expects even bigger successes from the next crop of entrepreneurs in his community, including recent graduates from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

“We want to give that chance to young Somali Minnesotans,” he said. “They are second-generation, and they understand business better than we do.”

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Africa

DP World says Djibouti incident could hurt Africa investment

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DUBAI (Reuters) – Port operator DP World said on Thursday that Djibouti’s decision to seize control of a terminal project could hurt African efforts to attract investment.

The Dubai state-owned port operator is facing twin political challenges in Africa.

Djibouti abruptly ended its contract to run the Doraleh Container Terminal last month and Somalia’s parliament voted this week to ban the company.

DP World has called the Djibouti move illegal and said it had begun proceedings before the London Court of International Arbitration, which last year cleared the company of all charges of misconduct over the concession.

“Africa needs infrastructure investments and if countries can change their law [to take assets then this] is going to basically make it more difficult to attract investment,” Chairman Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem told a news conference in Dubai.
DP World reported 14.9 percent rise in 2017 profit to $1.18 billion profit and said that it would invest $1.4 billion across its global portfolio including in Berbera in Somaliland. [L8N1QX0F2]

It is developing a port in Berbera in partnership with the governments of Somaliland and Ethiopia. It is also developing a greenfield free trade zone in the breakaway region.

Bin Sulayem said he was not concerned by the vote in Somalia’s parliament to ban DP World from the country, which the parliament said nullified their Somaliland contract.

It is unclear how Somalia’s federal government could enforce the ban given Somaliland’s semi-autonomous status.

Europe, the Middle East and Africa accounted for about 42 percent of the cargo DP World handled in 2017.

Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; editing by Jason Neely

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INTERVIEW: Somalia gears towards improving its monetary policies

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CGTN — Somalia’s central government imposed a five percent sales tax this month as part of efforts to win billions of dollars in international debt relief. This was followed by protests in Mogadishu’s main market by traders opposed to the tax. CGTN’s Abdulaziz Billow sat down with the country’s minister of finance who shed more light on the country’s monetary policies

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Somalia Tax Argument From Both Sides: Bakara Traders vs The Government

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Somalia’s busiest and largest open-air market in Mogadishu has been closed for the past two days.

Business owners in Bakara market are protesting over a five percent tax imposed by the government, in an effort to pay back some of its international debt.

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