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Meet Harbuk: Syria's First Online Shopping Platform Syrian entrepreneur Ahmed Nahas is the founder behind Harbuk, Syria's first online shopping platform that works by accepting cash on delivery, instead of online payment.

By Maysaa Ajjan

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Ahmed Nahas and Ali Helbawi, co-founders of Harbuk

With the visa bans and US sanctions on companies and individuals in Syria, online payment -or any kind of money transfer to and from Syria- is completely banned, with the possible exception of entities like Western Union.

One Syrian entrepreneur that is defiantly working on tackling this problem is Ahmed Nahas, founder of Harbuk, Syria's first online shopping platform that works by accepting cash on delivery, instead of online payment.

"We knew that online payment was a big "no' in Syria when we started, so we focused on cash payments instead," said the 31-year-old Nahas, a MBA graduate from the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Malaysia. "We also focused on educating both customers and merchandisers on the concept of online shopping, which, back in 2017, was very new in Syria."

Harbuk, which means "smart and cunning," is an e-commerce platform and mobile app that connects businesses and merchandisers with consumers, and it does that in two ways. The first is by direct selling, where Nahas and his co-founder Ali Helbawi buy hundreds of products from different companies and merchandisers, and then "upload" them monthly on the site for customers to see.

The second way is by allowing the companies and merchandisers to create an account on Harbuk and upload their own products, dealing directly with the customers themselves, thereby rendering Harbuk a middleman.

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"We have a total of 6000 items on the platform: 3500 uploaded by our team, and 2500 uploaded by a total of 14 companies and merchandisers," said Nahas. "We also receive 130 to 170 orders a month, depending on the season."

Getting these companies and merchandisers on board certainly was no easy feat, as they needed a lot of convincing and education to start trusting an online platform. In fact, some of them didn't know what a website was, let alone an e-commerce platform.

"Ali and I knew the minute we sat down to work on this platform (in late 2017) that it was not going to be easy, and that the growth of the platform was going to be extremely slow," said Nahas. "In fact, the movement was so slow the first couple of months that we would get one order every four to five days."

Nahas and his partner hired a team of three developers in December 2017 to build the platform, which took them four months to finish. Nahas now has a team of four employees who are in charge of marketing, social media and operations. They deliver to Damascus and its countryside, as well as to "isolated villages around Syria," like Al Huseiniye, Al Sheikh Bader, Meherdeh, and Al Kadmous.

In the beginning, none of the merchandisers Ahmed knew -and he knew plenty, having worked with his father, who was a merchandiser, for years- were willing to take the risk of uploading their products online. As a result, it was up to Ahmed and Ali to buy their own products, upload their pictures and descriptions (which was time-consuming), and wait for traction.

"We bought our first batch of 500 items as soon as we finished setting up the platform in April 2018," said Nahas. "It wasn't long before we bought our second batch. Meanwhile, we worked on educating both consumers and merchandisers about the online shopping experience. I would visit the offices of companies, and train the employees on how to use Harbuk, and upload their products. You have to understand that this is something they've never done before."

After a slow nine months of inactivity, Nahas and Helbawi's platform finally started to pick up. The duo was pleased to discover that they had a high customer retention rate, as well as a high conversion rate that exceeded 4%. As for the performance of the items listed, they were surprised to learn that cosmetic and makeup products performed best.

"We managed to get L'oreal as a brand and agency on our platform, and this was a very important step in proving the credibility of Harbuk," he said. "We now deal with 24 beauty brands, and our aim is to cover all brands in Syria, whether they are local or international."

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Nahas predicts that sales will quadruple by the end of 2019, and that Harbuk will have covered every single cosmetic company in Syria by then.

Nahas and Helbawi also partnered with social media influencers who would share educational videos with their audience. "Influencers were a very important factor in guiding people on how to shop online," Nahas said. "The process of creating an account, entering your data, and adding items to your cart- all of this was very important."

Despite having 560 active customers, Nahas believes he and Helbawi are still "very behind" in user acquisition, and they still have a long way to go. "I would estimate that not more than 0.5% of Syrian people know about Harbuk. We are still in the first step of the ladder," he said.

Related: Innovation For Impact: MENA Startups Are Taking On The Refugee Crisis

Maysaa Ajjan is an entrepreneurial writer who loves tech and inspirational stories. You can reach her via Twitter at @MaysaaAjjan.

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