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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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VIDEO: Inside Somali Fishing

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Fishing is a vibrant sector along the Somali Coast. With continued support through investment and improved management, the Somali fishing sector has the potential to boost the Somali economy, ensuring long-term growth and stability in the region.

Learn more at oneearthfuture.org

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A lifeline for millions in Somalia, money remittance industry seeks more support

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LONDON — Every month, Fatma Ahmed sends $200 of the earnings she makes in London to her family in Somalia.

“It’s for daily life. For rent, for buying grocery things, to live over there. Because actually in Somalia, that much we do not have,” she said.

Remittances from overseas diaspora constitute a vital part of the economy of many developing nations, none more so than Somalia, where the inflows add up to more than foreign aid and investment combined. However, analysts warn that the industry is poorly understood by regulators and banks, putting the welfare of millions of people at risk.

The two million Somalis living overseas send an estimated $1.3 billion back home every year. With no formal banking system in Somalia, most of the diaspora use remittance services.

Technology makes that possible, says Abdirashid Duale, CEO of Dahabshiil, one of Africa’s biggest remittance services.

“Now, it is so instant, where we have the latest technology, with the internet, secure channels that we can use to send money back home,” Duale said. “Or we use mobiles … smartphones, technology where it will help us to deliver money quickly, but less costly. Technology is supporting us also with the compliance issue.”

Remittance companies rely on global banks to route the money, and those banks must comply with regulations on money laundering and the financing of crime and terrorism.

Citing those concerns, many banks have chosen to withdraw from the market. Such a move is unnecessary, says remittance industry expert Laura Hammond of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“Very often, it is not based on any kind of empirical evidence that shows that money is going into the wrong hands,” Hammond said. “The fear is just there is a conflict in Somalia, there’s the al-Shabab movement. And so there is a problem in a sense, a real precarious nature of the Somali remittance industry.”

The industry received a high-profile boost last month as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated $1 million using the remittance firm Dahabshiil, along with mobile phone companies Somtel and eDahab, with the money transferred “live” to 1,000 families suffering the drought in Somalia.

The technology is moving fast. However, the cooperation of the global banking system remains key, and the remittance industry wants regulators to do more to support this lifeline.

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Ethiopia devalues currency by 15 percent to boost exports

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ADDIS ABABA, Oct 10 (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s central bank devalued the Ethiopian birr by 15 percent on Tuesday, its first such move in seven years to boost lagging exports.

The birr was quoted by the National Bank of Ethiopia at a weighted average of 23.4177 against the dollar on Monday, compared to what will be 26.9215.

“The devaluation was made to prop up exports, which have stagnated the last five years owing to the birr’s strong value against major currencies,” Yohannes Ayalew, the bank’s vice governor, told a news conference in the capital Addis Ababa.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, have both repeatedly urged Ethiopia to consider devaluing its currency to boost exports as they are mostly unprocessed products and need to stay competitive on price.

Ethiopia has operated a managed floating exchange rate regime since 1992.

The Horn of Africa country is the continent’s biggest coffee exporter but its total export revenue has been falling short of targets for the last few years owing to weaker commodity prices.

Addis Ababa earned $2.9 billion in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, versus a target of $4 billion.

On Tuesday, the central bank also announced that it has raised the main interest rate to 7 percent from 5 percent to stimulate savings as well as to counter inflation.

“The rate was pushed to mitigate the inflationary pressure that could arise from the devaluation,” Yohannes said.

Ethiopia’s inflation rose slightly to 10.8 percent year-on-year in September from 10.4 percent a month earlier, according to figures released by the statistics office on Friday.

Ethiopia’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Africa, with the IMF expecting a growth rate of 9 percent for the 2016/17 fiscal year.

The expansion, however, has mainly been fuelled by huge public expenditure. The government has invested heavily in dams for hydroelectric power, new highways and an electrified railway linking the landlocked nation to a port in neighbouring Djibouti.

The IMF has said Ethiopia needs to attract more private sector investment to maintain growth. But Addis Ababa has in the past tended to brush off such advice and said it would keep charge of key sectors. (Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Heavens)

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