Forbes Middle East
This year marks the 10th anniversary of financial comparison website Souqalmal.com, a UAE-headquartered financial comparison website that has become a homegrown success story in the region’s technology space.
But founder and CEO Ambareen Musa has more cause for celebration against the backdrop of a significant milestone for her company—getting acquired. On March 21, 2022, asset manager SHUAA Capital announced the majority acquisition of Souqalmal, in a deal that had been in the making for over six months.
“The funniest moment during the exit process came from my kids. Their reaction was such an innocent one! They were worried that they would take all my awards and change the name on the accolades,” laughs Musa. In reality, she feels more empowered with the sale and SHUAA’s vote of confidence in her decision-making. “SHUAA approached us with a vision to digitize personal financial services in the UAE, and our alignment in strategy instantly clicked.”
The deal’s value remains confidential, but since it was established in 2012, Souqalmal has secured over $15.2 million in funding from investors, including Riyad Capital and UK comparison website GoCompare, who will remain shareholders in the Fintech company. Envisioned as a highly transparent marketplace, Souqalmal—or “money market” in Arabic—allows users to compare over 3,200 personal finance products such as credit cards, loans, bank accounts, and insurance offered by providers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The company’s sales hit $7 million in the 2018 financial year and $14 million in 2019, and the platform recorded about 600,000 subscribers as of 2021.
“In the last few years, SHUAA has been actively looking for added-value investments in the technology space as part of our long-term strategy to increase our digital offerings,” explains Fawad Tariq Khan, Managing Director and Head of Investment Banking at SHUAA Capital. “We recognized that Souqalmal is ready to move into the next phase of its growth, and that’s where we come to play, providing them with access to new pools of capital, products, and, most importantly, knowledge, especially at a time when the company is looking to become an interactive finance management platform.”
With the funds and infrastructure backing by SHUAA, Souqalmal will now prioritize accelerating its financial education arm, MoneyDoctor, into a financial education platform with tools to help with one’s personal finance management. The next step on Musa’s agenda is getting her house in order and building up. “For the next 12 months, I’m focusing my efforts on product build,” the Mauritanian reveals. “At which point, we will launch our first version of the platform in the U.A.E.”
In May 2021, the company launched the Middle East’s first corporate financial education program for employees through its MoneyDoctor online program. Designed to alleviate financial stress and increase productivity, the course consists of 10 self-paced modules that can be accessed per the learner’s needs. The program is a mix of short videos, tools, and presentations covering budgeting and saving to managing payments. Businesses pay an annual license fee depending on the number of users, which allows all employees to access the platform free for a year. Companies including Majid Al Futtaim, Careem, and Emirates Catering offer the MoneyDoctor program to their staff, ensuring that financial health is central to their employee wellness. Meanwhile, individuals are charged around $55 for a yearly subscription.
There’s certainly a gap in the regional market for Musa’s innovation-driven solution. “Financial literacy is generally very low around the globe,” says Andrea Hasler, Deputy Academic Director and Assistant Research Professor at the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Centre at George Washington University in the US. “Looking at some of the countries in the Middle East, I find that on average, only one in three adults are financially literate, which is consistent with the global findings.” Research from the 2014 S&P Global FinLit Survey defined being financially literate as correctly answering at least three out of four questions covering fundamental financial concepts on numeracy, compound interest, inflation, and risk diversification.
According to Dirk Vater, EMEA Head of Financial Services at Bain & Company, in the Middle East, most countries have already embarked on financial education programs. Still, he says, significant efforts are required to foster financial wellness with better management of day-to-day finances, debts, and credits while building sound individual investments and savings plans. In the U.A.E., the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development has identified financial literacy as a key social priority through its 2019 Quality of Life survey. As a result, in 2021, the Authority of Social Contribution—Ma’an— rolled out its third cohort of the Ghaya financial literacy program, aimed to empower Emiratis with smart money skills. And in 2019, the Central Bank of the U.A.E. signed an agreement with the Emirates Foundation to develop a financial literacy program for youth.
Efforts in this space from the private nonbanking sector are far and few in between and primarily for the youth. The U.A.E.-based startup Edfundo launched a learning lab in February 2022 to support children in their financial education journey. Targeting young people and teenagers, Dubai-based financial literacy mobile app Verity closed an $800,000 pre-seed sound in November 2021. Similarly, global payments company Visa runs educational workshops on practical money skills as well as online games such as Financial Football and Cash Puzzler aimed at strengthening students’ financial literacy.
Helping individuals with investing and growing their personal wealth is another part of the problem. “From the supply side, multiple players offer investments and savings products, but the access, the convenience, and the clarity of the proposed solutions remain very difficult and limited to a subset of the market,” adds Vater. “From the demand side, the awareness about available products and providers remains restricted to a small portion of the personal banking segments.”