To fight off unemployment, Iraqi youth plant start-up seeds

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Stuck between an endless waitlist for a government job and a frail private sector, Iraqi entrepreneurs are taking on staggering unemployment by establishing their own start-ups.

The first murmurs of this creative spirit were felt in 2013, but the Islamic State (IS) group’s sweep across a third of the country the following year put many projects on hold.

Now, with IS defeated, co-working spaces and incubators are flourishing in a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 10 per cent but whose public sector is too bloated to hire.

Many self-starters begin their journey at an aptly named glass building in central Baghdad: The Station.

There, they sip on coffee, peruse floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for ideas and grab a seat at clusters of desks where other stylish Iraqis click away at their laptops.

Iraqis attend a meeting at ‘The Station’, Baghdad’s incubator for would-be entrepreneurs, in the Iraqi capital
An Iraqi youth works at the ‘Mosul Space’, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul
Co-working spaces and incubators are flourishing in a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 10 per cent but whose public sector is too bloated to hire. – PHOTOS: AFP

“We’re trying to create a new generation with a different state of mind,” said Executive Director Haidar Hamzoz.

“We want to tell youth that they can start their own project, achieve their dreams and not just be happy in a government job they didn’t even want,” he told AFP.

Youth make up around 60 per cent of Iraq’s nearly 40 million people.

After graduating from university, many spend years waiting to be appointed to a job in the government, Iraq’s biggest employer.

Four out of five jobs created in Iraq in recent years are in the public sector, according to the World Bank.

And in its 2019 budget, the government proposed USD52 billion in salaries, pensions, and social security for its workers – a 15 per cent jump from 2018 and more than half the total budget.

But with graduates entering the workforce faster than jobs are created, many still wait indefinitely for work.

Among youth, 17 per cent of men and a whopping 27 per cent of women are unemployed, the World Bank said.

When IS declared Mosul its seat of power in Iraq back in 2014, resident Saleh Mahmud was forced to shutter the city’s incubator for would-be entrepreneurs.

With Mosul now cautiously rebuilding after the extremists were ousted in 2017, Mahmud is back in business.

“Around 600-700 youth have already passed by Mosul Space to attend a seminar or seek out resources as they start their own ventures,” said the 23-year-old.

He was inspired after watching fellow Mosul University graduates hopelessly “try to hunt down a connection to get a job in the public sphere”.

“A university education isn’t something that gets you a fulfilling job,” he said.