COVID-19 has taught the world many things, one of which has much to do with how "dirty" money actually is. The rare few also know that PoS transactions, meaning debit/credit cards that are used in physical stores, also carry all different kinds of germs as they are handled by several individuals during the swiping process and sit on tabletops for quite some time.
The novel coronavirus outbreak has forced people to do things a bit differently. Working from home, ordering groceries online, and streaming films/series from the comfort of our homes are among the few things that have gained popularity during this challenging period. In a nutshell, contactless interactions and payments are the new way to do things. But what about those who have rent to pay? What options do they have on the table?
Ajar, which is the Arabic word for rent, is a PropTech startup (real estate technology) founded in 2016 that has been playing the contactless field long before COVID-19. The platform provides seamless property management and online rent payments to landlords and tenants in the UAE and Kuwait.
Founded by Shaheen Al Khudhari, the startup began operations in Kuwait before expanding to the UAE. We spoke to Al Khudhari to better understand the platform, his journey over the years, how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things for the startup, and any future plans the startup may have in store.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take some time to get to know Al Khudhari, the brains behind the winning platform. Born and raised in Kuwait, Al Khudhari's journey in both academics and profession did not take place far away from home.
He pursued a degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) from Kuwait University and later earned an MBA from the American University of the Middle East, both of which are situated in Kuwait. But that doesn't mean that his journey was predictable.
"For as long as I can remember, I was always looking for the next thing to do. I worked for 10 years in a variety of fields including logistics, real estate, finance, and IT," the Ajar founder told StepFeed.
"Outside of work, I dabbled in everything from importing and selling snack bars, to opening an online travel agency. Some of these experiments failed, some succeeded, and others I fell out of - but every experience has been valuable in Ajar's journey to date," he added.
And then the light bulb went off in 2016, the year Ajar came to life.
"I started Ajar in 2016 shortly after moving into my apartment in Kuwait. I hated cash, and every month I would have to withdraw a huge sum of cash and wait for my landlord to come around to pay my rent," Al Khudhari said.
Does the above scenario ring a bell to any of you rentees? Maybe some of you, like myself, have to commute to your landlord's bank, take a number, and waste half of your day just to settle your rental payment. No matter how you pay your rent, it's almost always a hassle to reckon with. (Unless it's online, right?)
As for Al Khudhari, this so-called hassle eventually turned into a business plan ... with his landlord becoming Ajar's first client.
"I travel a lot, so most of the time I had to either pay my rent in advance or ask my landlord if he was okay with me making the payment once I was back. I wondered why I couldn't just pay my rent online," he told StepFeed.
"I knew from my work in logistics at the time, that rent collection and property management weren't anymore efficient from the landlord's perspective. So I quit my job and founded Ajar to create a simpler solution for paying rent and managing properties online."
Since then, Ajar has grown to facilitate rent payments to over 10 percent of Kuwait's rental market and is fast-growing in the UAE.
Al Khudhari did explain that they are keeping a close eye on Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with plans to enter those two markets in the near future.
Why the UAE and Kuwait?
The UAE is by far one of the most advanced and vested countries in the field of technology, e-commerce, and online payments in general. Digital penetration in the UAE is incredibly high, facilitating the decision for many startup founders who are seeking a digital-savvy audience. Kuwait does not lag far behind the UAE, as internet penetration stands at 99 percent in the country.
It seems Al Khudhari knew all of that when launching Ajar.
"Both Kuwait and the UAE have a growing population of young, tech-savvy renters and a large real estate market that suffers from outdated practices and poor infrastructure," the founder explained before proceeding to talk about how people in both those Gulf nations are doing everything online.
"Locals in both countries are used to doing everything online - from ordering food to ordering a cab or cleaning service, so why not take their rent payments and home management online, too?" Al Khudhari said.
"The UAE market is especially exciting for us, given the changing laws and the country's appetite for innovation. Cheques no longer hold the value and security they once did, and everyone from property owners and managers, to banks and ministries, are eager to go digital."
How does Ajar work?
Ajar is a seamless rent payment solution that is changing the course of real estate handling in the digital era. It offers both landlords and tenants solutions that will facilitate their day-to-day tasks and calculations.
"Our SaaS gives landlords the ability to automate their collection, monitor their ROI, gain insights about their properties, and take action based on data," Al Khudhari said.
But the platform is also very advantageous for tenants as payments are completed at their own leisure. And the best part? Bidding farewell to all the paper receipts and boxes of paper transactions you've struggled to keep in good condition over the years.
"On the flipside, Ajar gives tenants the freedom to pay rent their way, enjoy discounts and rewards, and connect with their landlords using our dashboard."
In a nutshell, both landlords and tenants using the platform will "save money, time, and effort."
Ajar Amid COVID-19: How has the novel coronavirus changed things for the platform?
Many online platforms in the Arab region have witnessed a spike during the novel coronavirus, a pandemic that has really altered the way people go about everyday tasks. As for Ajar, the platform has witnessed a 115-percent increase in the number of new units added in March alone, the founder explained.
"At the beginning, we saw a surge in signups from tenants who were demanding a safe, contactless payment alternative to cash, POS, and cheques," Al Khudhari said. He added that warnings from governments against the use of physical forms of payments "increased the pressure for landlords to provide an online alternative."
The lockdown continued far longer than what people had initially expected, which pushed landlords to recognize the real-life effects of the pandemic. Many of them eventually realized that "the only way to continue to collect rent was to do so online."
"For the first time, it was clear to everyone that no business could continue without taking its operations online - and Ajar was perfectly positioned to allow the real estate sector to take that step," Al Khudhari explained, adding that many of their clients offered their tenants discounts during this period. Others postponed payments and some even waived payments in their entirety.
"In Kuwait, our credit card payment option was a lifeline for tenants who still had to pay their full rent but were struggling financially. With banks announcing the postponement of all credit card installments for a minimum of 6 months, tenants who suffered cash shortages from lay-offs could at least continue to pay rent for their homes," he added.
The future of payments
According to Al Khudhari, all industries are heading in the "cashless" direction, explaining that the COVID-19 crisis has played the role of an enzyme in the process.
"The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated this shift from a consumer level, revealing a previously overlooked downside of cash: hygiene. I believe we'll see digital micropayments become common, as payment processing becomes more seamless and transaction fees fall to a bare minimum," he said.
The founder also believes that "every company will become a FinTech company."
"As basic financial services become more freely accessible via open-source protocols, we'll see payments integrated into all types of applications. At Ajar, we have already merged the fields of FinTech and PropTech, and we can't wait to find more ways to add liquidity and efficiency to transactions in the real estate industry," he concluded.