Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

Generation start-up: Rizek looks to bring open market services to the UAE and Jordan

The start-up secured $1.5m in funding and is looking to unlock the potential for gig economy in the region

Rizek founder Abdallah Abu Sheikh says the firm's freelancers or 'heroes' are vetted by ratings, which also allow them to rate customers. Victor Besa / The National
Rizek founder Abdallah Abu Sheikh says the firm's freelancers or 'heroes' are vetted by ratings, which also allow them to rate customers. Victor Besa / The National

Abdallah Abu Sheikh is riding on a big ambition to transform the way regional economies function and has secured $1.5 million to make it work.

The Jordanian entrepreneur, who founded Rizek, an Arabic word that stands for blessing is championing the gig economy in the UAE, and Jordan, where he looks to help workers better optimise and leverage their skills. Just ahead of its launch, the company managed to secure a substantial sum from a group of regional investors, in a market where start-ups typically manage to raise $20,000 to $30,000 in their initial rounds.

Taking forward an idea from his 15-year old brother Hassan, Mr Abu Sheikh, 23, kicked off a service that puts the serviceman or woman at the centre of the business.

"In the beginning his [Hassan's] idea was to start an Uber for services," says Mr Abu Sheikh.

"Our biggest problem is that the person who [performs] the service doesn't benefit from it, almost at all, because he probably works for a company which will take 95 per cent or 99 per cent of the money and the guy who sets up your AC for 2 to 3 hours won't get compensated for it. That was the conception or main idea behind Rizek," he says.

Mr Abu Sheikh's idea comes amid a step-change in the UAE's economy, which is looking at empowering workers tied down to sponsors and enabling them to become mobile. An amendment to the UAE's labour law in 2010 allows workers in the country to work for two employers at the same time. A further amendment to the law in February of this year allows part-time work of up to 20 hours per week, provided the employee has a non-objection letter from their employer.

"From the legal point of view it is pretty clear and in Dubai there is a big move towards the gig economy and big move towards limiting unemployment especially [among] locals," says Mr Abu Sheikh.

Rizek, which operates on five vertical platforms - maintenance, education, healthcare, beauty and professional services - is especially developing the latter to help Emiratis, particularly women to access the gig economy.

"[Some are] really skilled but live in some of the remote emirates and can't have direct access to places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi and they can actually work from home and find freelance jobs through Rizek," says Mr Abu Sheikh.

Rizek itself has been a beneficiary of the economic changes sweeping the UAE, which is building an ecosystem that incubates and helps develop startups. Mr Abu Sheikh's firm is part of Hub71, an accelerator in the Abu Dhabi Global Market, in which the emirate's government has pledged Dh535m of investment. The hub itself is part of the Dh50 billion Ghadan 21 economic stimulus and investment programme rolled out last year.

"We're working with the government through regulation lab to help them amend the law and work on a better gig economy," says Mr Abu Sheikh.

To effect change, Rizek is building a team of "heroes" a moniker similar to Careem's "Captains" who are skilled freelancers commanding rates commensurate with their experience and excellence.

In the beginning, Rizek will oversee some sort of a profit-sharing model between the heroes and the freelancer's first employer, with the intent eventually to allow for the full independence of the skilled freelancer.

The temporary compromise is to help companies with huge labour find opportunities for their static workforce, rather than look at options of either sending them home or retaining them at an expense.

"We'd love for all our heroes to be full freelancers at some point, this is why we're working with the government hand in hand to ensure the people are monitored, vetted and everything is professional," says Mr Abu Sheikh.

The heroes are assessed and retained on the basis of ratings. The system also allows freelancers to rate the customer. This way the company ensures workers are not exploited or subject to abuse.

Rizek will launch a test phase in Jordan and the UAE this month. He expects to have around 600 heroes in each country working through it. Mr Abu Sheikh hastens to add that he does not wish to be limited by numbers.

"Careem thought they would have 300 drivers in the first year, they ended up with 30,000," he explains.

Mr Abu Sheikh observes that part of his challenge would be to provide a choice for discerning customers in a market used to cut-throat competitive pricing for services.

"In an open market system like the one we're trying to create, if someobody is rated 5 stars and does 1000 jobs successfully then and demands a higher price, you give the consumer who is looking for a more expensive service, the choice to choose and to know that this person is really good," he says.

In five years, he plans for Rizek to be present across the Middle East, covering the Levant and GCC and to be a champion for open market services regionally.

"Giving people the chance to capitalise on their skills and and doing what they love is the only way forward to promote the financial well-being of the economy of this region," he says.

Updated: October 5, 2019 12:16 PM

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