Gulf is known for being home to millions of expats who in many of these countries cannot own a property and even if they could, it wouldn’t have been possible for the majority to afford one. We don’t really have the statistics to confirm the number expats who are living in rental accommodations around the region but it’s obvious that it’s very big, given most of them with families have to rent an accommodation unless they’re provided with one by the employer.
It’s not only expats but a very big number of nationals in all the countries of Gulf still cannot afford to buy a home so they rent it. It means that millions of people in the region are renting homes. Anyone who has lived in a Gulf country knows that the normal way to rent an apartment is through the real-estate agents who in some cases are also responsible for collecting the rent afterwards, and some of the tenants never even get to see their actual landlord.
Inspite of millions renting homes, the process of rental payments is completely broken all around the region, regardless of the fact whether property is being managed by landlord himself or the real-estate agents. In some cases, the real-estate agents or employees working for the landlord will visit every property to collect rent, and in some, tenants are asked to visit their offices to pay it. The receipts are and records are all manual and many of the small real-estate agents and landlords don’t even have the resources to support debit/credit card payments.
A Kuwait-based startup has been trying to fix all of that. Founded in 2015 by Shaheen Alkhudhari, Talal Alyaseen and Ali Taqi, Ajar Online is a cloud-based service that streamlines the rent payment and collection process via SMS and email. Landlords and real-estate agents can collect their rent on-time electronically and instantly and tenants have the comfort of paying their rent anytime, anywhere, within 60 seconds using different payment methods including debit/credit cards, KNET or Sadad. All they need is their mobile phone or a computer with access to internet. All transactions are automated, legally approved and archived. The receipts are sent out to tenants as soon as the transaction is processed.
For landlords and property managers, Ajar Online has become much more than a tool for collecting payments as the platform offers them to manage and update their properties and tenants, send out utility bills to tenants, automated rent notifications, a message center, and different reporting tools.
Shaheen Alkhudhari, who is Co-Founder & CEO of the startup came-up with the idea because of his own troubles with paying rent as a tenant.
“As a tenant, it was a real hassle and hectic process to pay my rent. Every time it was due, it was like a nightmare, I had to pay cash or cheque, chasing my landlord to collect my rent, or had to stand in a long queue at the bank, all this, just to settle a simple rent.” he told us.
He felt the need to solve the issue so he started asking his friends if they faced the same. All of them validated the problems associated with rental payments in the country. To extend his research, he interviewed tenants and real-estate entities, all of whom confirmed the hassle of paying or collecting rent. After the market research, Shaheen who comes with over 9 years of experience in diversified fields including logistics, real-estate, investments, and information technology needed the right technical resources to pursue his idea. He connected with his co-founder Ali Taqi through references and the duo started working on what they called Ajar Online.
In April 2015, they launched the first beta and within four months of that, their final version was live. In October 2015, they signed a partnership agreement with Warba Bank to empower their solution. In January 2016, they formally established the company and since then they haven’t looked back.
“In the MENA region, real-estate listing services are popular, but when it comes to tackling the rent and collection pains of landlords and online property management, it is a niche market, where our solution has covered the 360 degrees to make landlords lives easier. Not only that, tenants have the ability to pay their rent, anytime and anywhere, which significantly simplifies the rent collection for property managers and landlords.” said Shaheen.
With three offices in Kuwait, UAE & Saudi, the services offered by Ajar Online are available in Kuwait & UAE. For Saudi, they’ve been under pilot stage and expect to launch all their services by the end of this year. As of now, the startup has more than 70 landlords and real estate companies in Kuwait alone, using their services, to collect rent and manage different properties. They have been witnessing a positive growth month over month, which at times, exceeds the forecast, the CEO told us.
Speaking of challenges, Shaheen said that “changing the market’s mindset from the centuries-old traditional method of paying rent manually; via cash or cheques, to convert to an automated method” is never easy. He also thinks that the banks and government regulations in the region limit the innovation in the FinTech industry and sometimes they have to be less innovative only for the sake of complying with regulations.
Inspite of all these challenges, Ajar Online has been able to grow itself as a serious and perhaps only contender in real estate rental payments space of the region. Only a year ago, they had 3 employees and now their team has grown to 16, working from offices in Kuwait, UAE & Saudi.
The startup charges landlords and property managers with 1 Kuwaiti Dinar ($ 3.32) for every rental transaction which is far less than the 2 to 8 percent of transaction amount that the conventional rent collection companies charge for every transaction. The banks that provide portable payment devices using which landlords can collect payments manually from debit/credit cards charge a transaction fee, setup fee and subscription fee.
Having bootstrapped the startup for more than a year, Ajar Online’s founding team raised their seed investment last year from a Dubai-based VC. The startup is now expected to announce the news of another round that they’ve closed recently. With the latest investment, they hope to become the leader in online real-estate services for the whole region of MENA by penetrating individual markets.