By Antoine Maalouf - Senior Communication Officer
UNDP and China - Paving the digital road to sustainable economic recovery in Lebanon
October 19, 2022
Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city is considered the country’s second capital. Located 80 km North of Beirut, it is well known for its unique traditional markets and affordable prices.
Who would have thought that driving towards the famous Tripoli historical and old souks for shopping would become an expensive trip that only few people can afford in crisis-ridden Lebanon?
We set out to visit Hassan Tabbal in Tripoli, founder of a Business Development Services (BDS) company called NavyBits. Naturally, heavy traffic is always expected on the city streets, but it was not the case this time, even during peak hours, as people are prioritising other expenses over exorbitant transportation costs.
This time around, the familiar scene of street vendors and shop owners sitting in front of their stores was somehow different and lacked the vibrant sounds of the bustling markets, usually packed with shoppers and tourists, and loud car horns of cab drivers cutting through traffic to pick up yet another passenger.
Yes, this time, everything seemed different…
A City Misunderstood
Founded in 700 BC, the historical city of Tripoli was once a regional booming hub for trade and commercial activities, authentic products, and quality services affordable and reachable for all economic and social classes. Several landmarks still stand today, as testimonies to the golden era of the city, including the Tripoli Citadel, Rachid Karami International Fair, Al Tal Square, and the old souks that are considered among the oldest Mamluk souks in the Middle East, including Khan Al Khayyateen and Souk Al Attarin to name a few.
Since the onset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Tripoli has been suffering from political instability, civil strife, and chronic marginalization that has weakened its position as the centre for economic activity in the North of Lebanon. Despite the abundance and diversity of its resources, following the most recent compounding socio-economic crises, vulnerability and unemployment prevail with over 58% of the local population living under the poverty line in 2022.
Security incidents coupled with overall instability have led to a general misconception about the true nature of Tripoli and its potential. Luckily, there are still some skilled and innovative individuals working hard to achieve success within a challenging environment to eventually break the negative stereotype around their hometown.
Talent Brewing Beneath the Surface
Upon reaching the NavyBits offices, we were uncertain whether to take the elevator or not - a common issue in Lebanon due to the reoccurring power outages. Hassan reassured us that he had a reliable source of uninterrupted electricity during working hours. “An ICT company cannot function without electricity, so we invested in a reliable source of power,” he explained with a welcoming smile as he ushered us inside.
Contrary to what we had witnessed on the relatively empty roads of the city, the company was full of life with around 20 young women and men working at full power.
Like most business owners in the country, Hassan has found alternative ways to work around the limitations of the crisis and establish a well-equipped environment at the office to ensure business continuity and sustainability despite the structural challenges in the country as a whole and in Tripoli in particular.
“Most of the team members were working remotely during the COVID-19 lockdowns and later with the increase in the cost of fuel and transportation,” Hassan explained. “However, the lack of reliable electricity and internet connections forced us all to report back to the office where the services are stable and reliable.”
Based in Tripoli, NavyBits was one of 10 Business Development Services (BDS) institutes selected from across Lebanon to benefit from training sessions on e-commerce and digital marketing training of trainers (ToT) as part of UNDP’s initiative to support the economic recovery of businesses post-COVID19, funded by the Government of China and implemented in partnership with BIAT. The initiative primarily targets women and youth who are among the vulnerable groups most affected by the crises in Lebanon.
“The digital marketing ToT was really an eye-opener for us,” Hassan exclaimed, “and we are now looking at marketing and e-commerce from a different perspective. Immediately after the training, we applied what we had learned internally, at first, and then we integrated the new approach to the programs we offer through our consultancy services.”
In addition to the BDS institutes, 10 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) also received training sessions and will be provided with in-kind support to help their sustainability and growth. The initiative also targets 350 women and youth in the four regions of Lebanon with E-Commerce and Marketing Training. As a whole, this national intervention was designed to take place in several regions across the country, facilitating the access of beneficiaries to attend trainings in-person.
“Conducting the training sessions in Tripoli was an added value for us to be able to attend physically and benefit fully,” Hassan reiterated. “Before the sessions, I would have proposed an online training, but after this experience, if you were to tell me the sessions will take place in Beirut, I would go without hesitation. They were so useful.”
A Digital Road to Recovery
After COVID-19 and with the spike in fuel prices, online shopping has become a priority for businesses operating in Lebanon to reach both internal and external markets. Given that NavyBits specializes in digital solutions and services, including web development, their expertise was in high demand.
“Everyone in Lebanon started turning to e-commerce, online services, and digitalization of businesses. The number of people reaching out to us for support on this transformation increased significantly,” Hassan said.
Yet, he also explained that his clients were very eager to see a return on their investment as soon as possible. “‘Now what?’ they would often say after establishing their online presence; how can we increase our sales and revenue?”
“We have been supporting businesses technically for the past 8 years,” he goes on to say, “but after the training, we started giving them much needed hope, and reassuring them that success is possible.”
“Through our new approach, we began advising our clients to focus on their image, and together with them, we began working on 360-marketing campaigns to help them stand out. It was no longer just about having a website and being online.”
While some businesses were tightening their belts following the multifaceted crisis post-COVID-19 in Lebanon, others were seeking to expand their markets through e-commerce. Today, the digital road ahead remains wide open with support from UNDP and in partnership with the world’s leading nation in e-commerce, China.
Hassan was well positioned within NavyBits to foresee the demand and grab the opportunity amid the various crises. All he needed was a push in the right direction to optimize his services. “During the sessions, the trainer gave us a powerful reminder that there are people out there who want to buy our products, and it’s our duty to reach them,” Hassan recalled, “and we are making sure to pass on this simple message of hope to our clients.”
50/50 as it Should Be
Other than the overall energy and professionalism witnessed at NavyBits, it was refreshing to see the high number of women working in what have been regarded as “non-traditional roles” - out of the 20 staff members we met, 10 were girls from the region. “We do not discriminate while recruiting” Hassan exclaimed. “Keep in mind this industry was built by women!”
Equality and equal opportunity were found within one of the most underrated and misunderstood cities of Lebanon.
“Throughout my journey at NavyBits, I’ve seen projects handled technically by women at all levels,” stated Alaa Kabbara, the company’s customer success manager, “from interns to senior staff, equity was an attitude that guided the growth of the company with remarkable success stories.
‘I believe that you are capable of doing everything’ is the sentence I always hear from Mr. Hassan.
Yes, we are granted the opportunity to lead!” she concluded.
A Promising Future
UNDP had been supporting livelihoods and basic services delivery for the most vulnerable communities in Tripoli since 2008. Through various national interventions, UNDP seeks to empower women, youth, and SMEs who constitute the backbone of the Lebanese economy and help them find opportunity in crises within the vast field of digital innovation towards economic recovery and financial prosperity across the country.
As we headed back to Beirut, our encounter with Hassan and his dynamic team remained with us as a reminder that Tripoli is never that far away, and that the future of the multifaceted city is promising with the persistence and remarkable potential of its people.
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