Despite Lebanon’s economic and political challenges, the country’s people are resilient. They continue to make developments to improve their economy even with adversity, so with that in mind, what is Lebanon’s fintech landscape looking like today?
As highlighted in The Fintech Times’ Fintech: Middle East and Africa 2021 Report, Lebanon’s economy has seen better days. Even before the coronavirus pandemic and the Beirut explosion, Lebanon’s economy hit a few economic and political bumps. Nevertheless, the Lebanese were and are a very resilient people – having gone through various cycles of downturns in their economy such, as the Lebanese Civil War from 1975-1990. Lebanon’s recovery has been gradual but there is hope yet, as Beirut (the capital and largest city of Lebanon) is still a major financial hub in the Middle East and was nicknamed as the “Paris of the Middle East” prior to the war.
Before cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Manama in Bahrain, Beirut was considered to be the main financial hub of the Middle East. It had its own home-grown banks which included Bank Audi, BLOM Bank, Fransabank, Societe Generale de Banque au Liban (SGBL), Byblos Bank, and Bank of Beirut. Founded in 1973, the Union of Arab Banks, an organisation aiming to foster cooperation between Arab banks, set up its headquarters in Beirut.
Despite the current challenges, the ecosystem has a relatively sizeable number of catalysts to support the wider entrepreneurial community. For instance, there is Berytech, an ecosystem for entrepreneurs, providing a dynamic environment for the creation and development of startups and SMEs, fostering innovation, technology and entrepreneurship in Lebanon. There is also StartechEUS, a next-generation fintech studio that builds technology-enabled companies empowering the financial services industry. Other various accelerators and incubators in the country include speed@BDD, Smart-ESA and the UK Lebanon Tech Hub. And there is Beirut Digital District – a cluster of innovation designed for the digital and creative community.
Historically, Lebanon was one of the top three countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to receive the most startup VC funding. At one point it was the fourth most served market by fintechs in MENA.
Due to the need from past challenges, the Lebanese have also been open-minded about adopting new technologies. For example, as a result of the destruction from the Civil War, Lebanon was the first country in the 1990s in the region to have a mobile network.
So can new technologies in fintech also bring value to the daily lives of Lebanese?
Wider digital and fintech ecosystem
In 2017, 54 per cent of people with a bank account had adopted digital banking in Lebanon. In addition, in 2016, Lebanon ranked second in the region for the percentage of people who exclusively used mobile banking. The country as a whole offers opportunities not just in fintech, but in its sub-sectors too such as insurtech, e-payment and paytech.
Due to the capital controls on accounts, coupled with the weak Lebanese Lira, remittances have become vital in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) (it is worth over 20 per cent of the country’s total GDP), especially as many Lebanese have/or want to immigrate; fintech has opportunities to further penetrate in that space.
For instance, there has been a rise in the popularity of digital wallets, as a result of the country now permitting them. An example is Global Digital Money, that allows people to hold digital currencies not only in a digital wallet but also in a regular card. It gives the user the ability to make all payments using those cards at Point of Sales (POS) or ATMs.
Also, due to the Lebanese trying to protect their assets and savings from a weak Lira, many are turning to digital currencies and specifically cryptocurrencies. Vast parts of the population are investing in the likes of Bitcoin but also in stablecoins like Tether (USDT) to mitigate risks. In fact, many shops in the country are increasingly accepting payments in USDT.
In terms of the regulation that encompasses fintech, according to Mondaq, “The fintech space is not subject to specific fintech legislative and regulatory provisions in Lebanon. However, fintech companies may be subject to specific laws and regulations that apply to banks, financial institutions and insurance companies if they carry out such regulated activities, in addition to the e-commerce regulations that apply to online contracting and marketing in Lebanon and other laws of general application.”
In other words, not much appears to have changed in today’s terms. The government will need to build an infrastructure that entrepreneurs and those in fintech can feel confident in from a regulatory point of view. Therefore the likes of a regulatory sandbox and other initiatives could help the economy recover.
Saying that, organically, companies are having success in Lebanon and helping to build the future of fintech there. For example, Codebase Technologies, a Dubai-headquartered technology solutions company, after joining the Visa Fintech Partner Connect programme, this year announced a partnership with Credit Libanais to launch Lebanon’s first digital onboarding offering and eKYC for prepaid cards. Through this project Credit Libanais, Codebase Technologies, and Visa aims to drive financial inclusion in Lebanon through product and service innovation for over six million Lebanese.
To note, like its neighbour Jordan, Lebanon is home to a large population of refugees (1.5 million). Fintech could also present potential opportunities that could help many of them as most are financially excluded and lack legal status.
Enterpreneurial – influence spread across MEA
The Fintech Times’ report highlighted the entrepreneurial spirit of the Lebanese people. In 2018, out of a survey of nine countries in the region (UAE, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), Lebanon had the highest levels of both total early-stage entrepreneurial activity and established business ownership, where nearly one in four adults in Lebanon were starting or running a new business.
Due to various reasons, many Lebanese have to immigrate as mentioned earlier. In fact, there are more natives outside of Lebanon than in Lebanon itself – with Brazil alone having an estimated seven million Lebanese. Many move across the Middle East and Africa (MEA), especially with tech with the UAE in particular and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries being popular choices.
If one looks at the wider MEA landscape, some of the fintechs in the region were either born in Lebanon and/or had Lebanese founders who lived overseas. This includes the likes of NymCard, a cloud-based card issuing and processing firm founded in Beirut back in 2018 relocating its headquartered to Abu Dhabi, as well as the founder and CEO of Fintech Galaxy Mirna Sleiman, which is also based in the UAE. Unless of the economy rebounds quickly, this ongoing braindrain will unfortunately take away some of the country’s best and brightest, some of which could have the latest innovation in fintech.
Despite the challenges of Lebanon, both pre-pandemic and ‘post’, hopefully the future can see a turnaround, as fintech looks to play a stronger part in the ecosystem.