Sudan’s tech ecosystem is caught in a crossfire between militants. But operators are daring to hope.
The streets of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, now feel like a graveyard. Made quieter by the thousands of people escaping its latest war, which broke out on April 15, Sudan’s commercial centre is no more the hotbed for innovation, technology, and a forceful tech ecosystem. Today, Khartoum is an arena for shellings that have forced several tech operators out of their offices. Tech operators are fleeing to other regions and neighbouring countries while holding out hope for the country’s future. Even banks have joined startups in their flight, leaving thousands of individuals and businesses stranded.
“We abandoned everything in Khartoum, all of our inventory, everything,” said Awab Habiballa, CEO of Tolivery, a fleet management SaaS startup that operates in the war-torn capital city. Habiballa spoke to me from Dubai, where he now lives with his family. He recounts that Tolivery’s business operations came to a standstill as the war escalated. “It was especially bad for us because a lot of our products are hardware components, and we had to abandon them.” As part of its services, Tolivery provides telematic devices for startups and enterprises to track and manage their mobility operations. The startup will now operate from Port Sudan, a tranquil city in the eastern part of the country.
Tolivery’s business troubles are compounded by the failing connectivity infrastructure in Sudan. Telecom operators struggle with electricity and maintenance while fintechs that process payments for internet-dependent services are unreliable.
“We completely shut down in the first month,” said Ahmed Elmurtada, managing partner at 249Startups, Sudan’s leading accelerator for idea to early-stage companies. “The goal at that point was to be alive and safe. So the majority of our team found ways to leave Khartoum and Sudan. Now, we are distributed across neighbouring countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, and UAE,” he said. Elmurtada, whose accelerator has incubated more than 150 startups in Sudan, expressed painfully how many of these startups have lost almost all they’ve struggled to build within the past few years. “Inventory gone, offices deserted, digital infrastructure down, and bank accounts inoperative. That’s the story of Sudan’s tech ecosystem.”
A familiar quip in the tech world is: “Software will eat up the world.” Sudan’s story proves that war is the more ravenous carnivore.
Troubled, but not destroyed
Sudan is the third largest country in Africa by land size with a population of over 45 million people—68% of which are under the age of 30. Judging from this only, one might conclude Sudan is a prosperous pro-technology market—which, of course, it should have been, if not for the consistent civil wars and militant uprisings that have bedevilled the country since its independence in 1956.
Since independence from Britain, Sudan has witnessed two civil wars and over 15 military coups, including the 1989 coup that ushered in Omar al-Bashir, an extremist that ruled the country for 30 years, before he was forced to resign in 2019. After this, the move to transition to civilian rule was busted by another coup by the Sudanese Armed Forces
Al-Bashir’s time as prime minister attracted punitive measures from the US. The Bill Clinton-led administration unleashed sanctions that prohibited US investments in Sudan. And the UN security council followed suit. These sanctions would later starve the tech ecosystem of capital and blacklist Sudanese entrepreneurs from global investment opportunities. In 2020, the sanctions were lifted, marking what seemed to be a rebirth for the Sudanese business ecosystem. Funds began to flow in, with alsoug’s $5 million and Bloom’s $6.5 million among the notable ones. Accelerators like 249Startups and Impact Hub were also actively churning out cohorts. Business in Sudan was beginning to look attractive to investors—until the current war erupted in April. As at the end of May, the war has killed about 1,800 civilians and injured over 5,000 others.
“We’re sort of used to the ups and downs of the Sudanese market,” Habiballa explained. “Before the war, we had to deal with a government that showed almost zero support for our businesses. Building in such an environment makes you tough. That’s why founders in the region somehow manage to push things forward. And this war will not be an exception.”
Building from the diaspora
Founders who have fled Sudan may have lost their startups, but not the spirit that forged those businesses. For many of them, the countries they are fleeing to will provide not only safety but also market opportunities for their ideas. Elmurtada told TechCabal that 249 Startups have continued to connect its portfolio companies to tech networks in countries like the UAE and Egypt, where many founders have now moved to.
“In our five years of operating in Sudan, we built connections with tech ecosystems across these countries, including accelerators like Flat6labs and Plug and Play. Now, we’re pushing for support for Sudanese entrepreneurs. I believe that Sudanese entrepreneurs will flourish in these new markets if given the opportunity. They have made things work in one of the toughest economies globally. Think of what could happen in a more stable market,” he said. For Elmurtada, the sentiment is that these founders will build stable businesses in these countries that could eventually expand into Sudan.
Having a stable Sudan-in-diaspora tech community does a lot of good for the country. It opens accessibility to funding for these entrepreneurs, creating a pathway for funding to Sudan as the diaspora ecosystem matures. For context, the African diaspora contributes over $95 billion yearly to the African economy.
Awab Habiballa, whose startup has struggled to raise institutional funding, told TechCabal that raising money for Sudanese startups mostly involved registering the business in other countries to reassure investors. “It will naturally be hard for anyone [investors] to step foot in Sudan,” he said.
Sudan is geographically situated in a strategic position that connects it to the East African market through Ethiopia, the North African market through Egypt, and the Arab World through Saudi Arabia. Ideally, this advantage should create opportunities for market expansion and funding inflow, but Sudan’s crisis-laden nature continues to eclipse this possibility.
Ironically, however, the war is now catalysing the expansion plans of some startups still operating in the country. Habiballa shared that while expansion had always been on his team’s mind, the current situation has made it clear that a sharp move to neighbouring markets was necessary.
Khartoum may still carry the aura of a graveyard, but if there’s something local innovators can bet on, it’s that tech innovation in Sudan will outlive the war. “We are always going to make things work [for Sudan],” Habiballa said.