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Qafila aims to become the Careem of UAE's freight forwarding industry

(Image credit: Future)

Dubai-based tech startup - Qafila - is slowly taking on the elephants in the UAE freight forwarding industry and eventually become the Careem of moving freight.

Careem is a tech company that moves people and in the business of simplifying people’s mobility but Qafila is a tech company that move goods and in the business of simplifying mobility of freight, Atif Rafiq, CEO and Co-founder of Qafila, told TechRadar Middle East.

“To search something on the internet, we say Google it and in the same way, we want to be synonymous as Google or Careem and people should say ‘let us Qafila’ to move freight,” he said.

Qafila is an Arabic word and it means a caravan to move goods.

Rafiq said the idea came up in 2015 along with his other co-founder and college mate Jitin Manoharan.

Both Rafiq and Manoharan studied at the University of Wollongong Dubai.

“We started the business in 2018 and were incubated at in5.  We were validated and selected by a panel of judges. The idea is to move freight and make it as simple as in three clicks – book, ship and track – in a bid to simplify logistics and not only create an operational efficiency to a shipper but also save time and cost in man-hours through a very transparent process,” Rafiq said.

There are about 7,000 freight forwarding companies in the UAE.

Bringing transparency in supply chain

“We made all intangible things tangible. We bring trust and reliability from day one. We have a tangible thing – the platform – and built all our faith in that platform. Customers can see the transparency in the supply chain from the home screen and no one in the UAE industry is offering this kind of transparency right now,” he said.

Moreover, he said that the supply chain has three elements – movement of physical goods, movement of information and movement of finances.

Fintech is tackling the movement of finances and “we are tackling the movement of goods and the movement of information,” he said.

Qafila, which offers only sea digitisation services from the UAE, has four regular clients who ship to around 11 countries but has plans to expand into the land and air cargo movements.

“We bundle the services and charge a flat fee to a customer but take only a 10-15% fee in each transaction. We have already hit AED 200,000 revenue mark. Our goal is to be in Pan Gulf countries,” Manoharan said.

Other big firms have built assets in a traditional way and are now rolling out the technology but “we are a digital-first company, first into technology and then building the assets. So, we can scale up faster and for others to move, it takes time. They are like an elephant in a room.”

Furthermore, he said that there are multiple touchpoints for a single box of goods.

The channel partners such as trucking companies, customs brokers and freight forwarder operate in silos both in the UAE and on the other side where it is shipped to but with a different set of partners.

Manoharan said that a freight forwarder has to touch all these points into one single package and give it to a customer.

Not eyeing validation game

“When you hail a cab back in the old days, a customer asks how much is the fare from point A to B but now, after the arrival of Careem, it has become more transparent and people are more comfortable in making a booking. This is what is happening to all our industries,” Manoharan said.

Rafiq said the overall freight forwarding industry is worth $19tr globally and it is worth about $60b in the Middle East.

The start-up does not want to be in the valuation game and has no intention to sell it after a couple of years.

“There is lot more space to grow as the industry is growing but we would like to have strategic partners from the industry to help us grow,” Manoharan said.

Rafiq doesn’t want Qafila to be a unicorn but as a zebra startup.

“Unicorns grow faster and drop-down faster as we have seen it in in the IPO offerings of Uber and WeWork. Zebra is a concept to be lean in the start, set realistic goals and be sustainable. We cannot burn someone’s money.  Even after 15 years down the line, we want to be Qafila,” he said.