Syrian refugees co-found Shiffer, a platform designed to help fellow Syrians

Azhar and Zahi Al Madani were born and raised in Hama, Syria. Azhar left Syria after graduating from Civil Engineering at Damascus University and has lived in Erbil, Kurdistan since 2013. Zahi took a different approach, studying Banking and Finance from Al-Bath University with an MBA from Cyprus International University and now resides in Istanbul. The two brothers, alongside their co-founders Rasheed and Bilal, began Shiffer, a peer-to-peer online logistics platform for express shipping by making a connection between a reliable passenger and the sender. Azhar, Zahi, Rasheed, and Bilal are all Syrian refugees who now reside in either Iraq or Turkey.

Azhar was inspired to create Shiffer due to struggles he personally faced. After the birth of his daughter in 2016, Azhar faced several financial and logistical issues when trying to register and obtain his daughter’s birth certificate from Syria. He was concerned that his daughter would be stateless as there was no Syrian Embassy within Kurdistan. The process cost himself, and his family, hundreds of dollars that equated to more than half of the wages of an income in Syria. Azhar soon realised he was not alone in this experience, and that other Syrians living abroad faced the same obstacles. Thus, Shiffer began.

With minimal experience in entrepreneurship, Shiffer’s first couple years consisted of Azhar learning more about building and launching a business. From 2017 until 2018, Azhar participated in several entrepreneurship bootcamps and trainings. In early 2018, Shiffer had a team that created a minimum viable product, and by October that year, had delivered their first 50 successful deliveries.

Azhar representing Shiffer at the Startup Roadshow

Azhar representing Shiffer at the Startup Roadshow

Azhar took part in Re:Coded and UKMENAHUB’s Tech Entrepreneurship Academy. During the 4-week training, Shiffer further developed their customer experience and began to launch their iOS platform. In November 2018, Shiffer went on to win first place at the Startup Roadshow. The competition, hosted and organised by Jusoor and Spark, is for Syrian startups where participants are trained in entrepreneurship and the finalists pitch at the Ignite Conference.

“On 28th of November, we attended the Spark Ignite Conference. It was the biggest stage I’ve ever pitched on, with more than 500 people and tons of lights. Before I started to feel scared, I felt powerful and that I have to work to win it. It was one of the most happiest moments in my life especially as it was my first time outside of MENA.” Azhar said of his experience of the Roadshow.

After success at the Roadshow, Shiffer was chosen as a finalist for the MIT Enterprise Forum Innovate for Refugees competition. The competition took place in late January, and Zahi went to represent the Shiffer team. As part of the competition, Shiffer took part in a 3-day bootcamp conducted by MIT. The bootcamp focused on launching new business ventures, customer mapping, developing business models, and pitch practicing. On the final day of the competition, Shiffer was announced as the winner for the Startup Track.

“After Maya Rahl (the Managing Director of MIT Pan Arab) said Shiffer was the winner of the startup track, I became so confused and surprised. It was a dream come true, and I just remembered feeling very nervous as it was my first-time presenting Shiffer.” Zahi said of the moment he found out about winning.

Zahi representing Shiffer at the MIT Innovate for Refugees competition

Zahi representing Shiffer at the MIT Innovate for Refugees competition

After their successes, the Shiffer team is now focused on growing their business. From winning the Innovate for Refugees competition, they received a cash prize of $20,000USD to help grow their business as well as training, mentorship and networking opportunities. Shiffer now has more than 500 users, with 70% of them being senders and the others being passengers. In the next six months, they’ll be launching updated iOS and Android platforms as well as focusing on customer relations. Their hope in the next 5 years is for Shiffer to accept other types of shipments in addition to documents.

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