17 years after the end of war, Kosovo is still on the rebuilding the country. On the other hand, the Kosovo is full of opportunities for entrepreneurs. While Gjirafa leads the way, pioneers are making bets on this brand new land.
“In 2012, I was living the American dream”, says Mergim Cahani. “But then I left everything, I sold my car, I quit my job and my apartment. Then I came back to Kosovo to create Gjirafa.” Five years later, the Kosovo born entrepreneur is about to officialize the most important fundraising of Balkans. Several million euros : the second round of the company, after 2.5 million euros raised last year.
Mergim Cahani is a main figure in Kosovo. At thirty-years-old, he is living a success story never seen in the young country (independent since 2008). “When I was 12, I sold cigarettes on the street”. The entrepreneur is now the CEO of the “Albanian Google”, a search engine that offers services in albanian language as a marketplace, a phone book or a street view.
Today, Girafa is used every day by many Kosovars and Albanians. “The growth of the company is unbelievable”, says Cedric Maloux, director of the Czech incubator Startup Yard. Gjirafa was one of its from 2014 to 2016. “Last year, the Girafa’s revenues had increased by 1000 %. In the first quarter of 2017, it has gained as much as in the whole year 2016, and in april as much as in the first quarter of 2017.”
“Everything is possible here”
The startup launched in 2013 employs 80 people now. Almost a miracle for Kosovo where 35 % of the population is unemployed. The average wage doesn’t exceed 350 euros, and the whole country’s budget is “similar to the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur”, according to the French ambassador Didier Chabert.
17 years after the end of the conflict, Kosovo’s economy is not very productive. Maybe a good opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs. Especially in the sector of new technologies. The competitive and connected young generation is seduced. “Our market is narrow and landlocked, but we have our youth and our brains”, says Mergim Cahani.
“Everything is possible here”, says Jetmir Halimi. “At first, I wanted to do my idea in Switzerland but the market in Kosovo is far more easy. You need less money to get started” This Swiss-Kosovar entrepreneur is the very first to integrate the incubator launched last year by Mergim Cahani, the Gjirafa Lab.
In the brand new Girafa Lab’s office, Jetmir Halimi and his partner are just at the beginning of their adventure. The start-up is early-stage, but Jetmir already intends to disrupt the banking sector. “I want to break the rules”, he says. “By referencing every banking products and by selecting the five best solutions to the customer, we introduce competition in the bank sector.” After years of monopoly position, bank’s codes could be redefined by this innovation.
“From now, our best success stories comes from abroad”
Success in Kosovo doesn’t seems to be accessible for everyone. To be competent in entrepreneurship, Mergim Cahani and Jetmir Halimi spent many time in Switzerland and USA. “From now, our best success stories comes from abroad. People made their studies abroad and came back to launch their startup in Kosovo”, explains Uranik Begu, the director of Innovation Center for Kosovo (the main incubator in the country).
“We didn’t managed yet to build a competitive educational system. Education is clearly not a political priority”, says Dite Gashi, founder and CEO of Decissio. He made its studies in Chicago, and then came back in Kosovo to launch his company based on artificial intelligence to optimize investors’ decisions.
By leaving their countries, these entrepreneurs also discovered a missing culture in Kosovo. For example, Jetmir Halimi says : “one month after I started to work on my project, people asked me how much I was earning. They are expecting short- term results, but they don’t realize all the work. A lot of them think they will launch a famous product and sell it all around the world, but when it’s difficult, they just give up.”
Visas and money : the main difficulties for Kosovars entrepreneurs
To be an entrepreneur in Kosovo there is a lot of difficulties to get through. Visas are the worst : Kosovar people can only go to six nations (Albania, Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Maldive Islands) with their ID. To go to other countries, they have to ask for a visa, and it’s hard to get one. “It necessarily impacts the business”, recognizes Dite Gashi. “I lost three days every time I have to get a visa, whereas it is important to go fast when you are an entrepreneur”, says Mergim Cahani.
Still, they have to go abroad to find the money : there is a very few investors in Kosovo and crowdfunding doesn’t exist. Mergim Cahani and Dite Gashi both have received 30 000 euros by participating to Startup Yard. Gjirafa’s serie A comes from Rockway Capital, an investment fund based in San Francisco and Prague. Mergim Cahani also has got money from international programs such as USAID.
Those obstacles do not discourage ambitions of the pioneers. With Gjirafa’ second fundraising, Mergim Cahani expects to employ 400 or 500 people by 2018. Now he wants Gjirafa’s activities to expand to Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro. A big step for the very first man who believed in Kosovo’s potential.