The hassles of day-to-day life in Beirut, Lebanon, where tech entrepreneurship is growing, have led to some innovative apps.
Daily electricity cuts are standard in the capital. Some families have backup generators. Moustafa Baalbaki’s does not. That led him to his breakthrough local app, Beirut Electricity, which tracks the rolling three-hour outages and predicts when the power will be on days, weeks, months, or even years in advance.
“My dad used to have a manual [power-outage tracker] on the refrigerator made from paper. I thought, ‘I can do better. I am a software engineer,’” says Baalbaki, who works for KnowledgeView, a UK cross-platform publishing company.
He spent three days developing the fairly simple app and uploaded it to iTunes, presuming it was just for friends and family. Within a day Beirut Electricity had had been downloaded 10,000 times.
Mohammad Taha, founder and CEO of LaRouche Soft, found a 21st century solution to another common Beirut inconvenience: traffic jams caused by road closures, protests, security incidents, and daily commute congestion.
Taha recalls that his wife and two-year-old were in Beirut when suddenly gunshots started blasting, and people started burning tires and blocking a road. His wife called him, distraught. He says he thought, “There should be a tool to warn people about such happenings, because they happen randomly and you can’t estimate when they will occur.”
After spending a week developing his app ma2too3a (translation: cut or blocked road) he launched it on iTunes. The crowdsourcing app relies on input from users. To start, Taha and his team included news from major networks, but he says now people add events on their own. One even used the app to propose marriage to another user.
Taha says he thinks the “pure Lebanese” aspect of ma2too3a has contributed to its popularity. “The concept of roads blocked by tires is something that is very famous in Lebanon. The app represents something hip. People from Lebanon are writing a useful application that caters to something that happens in Lebanon,” says Taha.
Few iOS courses are offered in Lebanon, so Baalbaki, who wrote the electricity app, taught himself iOS programming though Stanford on iTunes University iTunes University. A self-proclaimed Apple fanatic, he boasts, “The course is taught by an Apple engineer who wrote iOS in the first place.”
The 26-year-old calls such free courses game-changers for programmers. “It is amazing how much you can learn for free. This course changed my life,” he says.
Taha is also self-taught. He worked for a local ISP before founding LaRoche Soft and learned iOS programming to try to develop an app to analyze telecommunications data for advertisers. That idea didn’t pan out, but Taha sees app development as a gold mine for the region. “We have good universities that produce people with good technical experience. In software, regardless of what is happening with political turmoil, you can still develop,” he says. Plus, says Taha, Lebanese people’s typical proficiency in French and English gives them an edge in the global market.
Citing the worldwide success of panoramic picture app Dermandar and pet simulation app Pou, Taha says global apps have the best chance of success. Arabic language apps like Anghami, which mimics the English-language music app Spotify, have potential, Taha says. But it’s hard to generate much revenue in the Middle East market. “People are not yet used to paying for this sort of content in the region.”
Despite these challenges, Baalbaki is pleased with the revenue he gets from Beirut Electricity. With 10,000 active users, the app not only earns $200-$300 a month from Google banner ads, but also won Baalbaki a job as an iOS developer. A few days after publishing his app, he got the call to come in and take KnowledgeView’s iOS developer exam.
Now that he has a job, Baalbaki wouldn’t mind if demand for his app, which he always hoped would be temporary, disappeared. “I don’t care about the app, I just want the electricity fixed,” he says.