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Iran’s tech sector blooms under shield of sanctions

“There are two sides to the coin. When you are under sanctions, you have an opportunity to do many things yourself,” said the fair’s organiser, Naserali Saadat.

“But generally, it’s not a good thing… you can’t live like an island in this world.”

That view is echoed by German-Iranian Ramtin Monazahian, who came from Berlin in 2014 to found e-commerce site Bamilo and taxi-hailing app Snapp.

He may not have to worry about Amazon and Uber muscling him out of the way, but nor can he hope they will buy him up for billions as happens elsewhere.

Moreover, he needs a thriving retail sector to underpin his services, and sanctions “hit the consumer area pretty hard. Purchasing power is suffering… that’s hurting all businesses,” he said.

Still, he sees huge potential in a country of 80 million people with a large, consumerist middle-class.

“It’s probably the last big country with no major competition,” he said.

– Bigger picture –

Foreign investors have taken notice. Iran’s tech scene has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from firms such as South Africa’s MTN, Germany’s Rocket and Swedish company Pomegranate.

The real breakthrough is not necessarily the tech itself, said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of the Europe-Iran Forum, but the forging of these foreign partnerships.

“This is not just about digital innovation and young people thinking entrepreneurially — which is somewhat new in Iran — but also how venture capital can influence the bigger picture of investing,” he said.

He predicts these partnerships will now be replicated in more traditional sectors like retail.

“Tech was a smart place to start — small initial amounts of capital and you’re dealing with young entrepreneurs rather than entrenched family owners,” said Batmanghelidj.

“Of course, many challenges remain, but they were made by people and can be solved by people.”

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