Bosnia-Herzegovina emerges as a new tech hotspot with high hopes that it can soon compete on a global scale
Sitting in a glass-walled conference room at a tech coworking space, the 26-year-old CEO of Habeetat scrolls through the startup’s mobile app on his Android. Semir Šakanović explains how the fledgling company’s “smart beehive” module can monitor the temperature, humidity and weight of honey in each frame of a beehive in real time – all from the comfort of an air-conditioned office on a 33°C (91°F) day.
Šakanović is a PhD candidate in information technology who joined Habeetat about a year and a half ago as the team’s hardware engineer. He hopes that the company’s forthcoming product, for which they plan to seek Kickstarter funding starting in December, will help stem the global decline of pollinators. But coming from the country with the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, according to the World Bank, Šakanović also has another motivation.
“We want to prove [to] our citizens, our community, our people that you can build something in Bosnia,” Šakanović said. “Because people here are mostly thinking, ‘There is no chance here to start anything. I need to go to another country – like Germany, like Slovenia, like Austria.’”
More than half of all Bosnians now live outside of the southeastern European country of 3.5 million, according to estimates published by its ministry of security earlier this year. And Šakanović is right that they’re leaving for European economic powerhouses or other Balkan countries, namely Germany, Austria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. The World Bank calculates Bosnia’s emigration rate at 44.5 percent – a figure slightly lower than the government estimate but one that still ranks the country as 16th highest globally, behind mostly small Caribbean countries, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and one regional neighbor: Montenegro.
With an average annual income of $4,709, and the economy skewed toward the public sector rather than the private, the dearth of economic opportunities and widespread diaspora communities established during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s fuel a continual exodus of Bosnians from the motherland. However, the IT sector is increasingly emerging as one of the leading counterweights to those forces.
Habeetat is one of about 20 tech companies based at HUB387, which was Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first information technology park and startup incubator when it was founded by serial entrepreneur and Bosnian-born Edin Saracevic in 2013. Saracevic now lives in Washington, D.C., but returns to Sarajevo often to oversee the hub that he believes can do today for Bosnia’s struggling economy what the congregation of craftsmen did in the fifteenth century – spur innovation and competition, and create jobs in the process.
“I usually say we have a Kujundziluk, which was the hub created 600 years ago during the Ottoman Empire,” Saracevic said. “It was a street where all the goldsmiths were doing business.”
Proving that the hub model works for IT and that the sector should be the focus of Bosnian economic development has been Saracevic’s biggest challenge over the past five years.
“It’s important to create this environment where the kids won’t flee the country for the Berlins, Londons and Silicon Valleys of the world,” he said. “If this segment of industry gets pushed front and center of the state agenda it can actually be the plug for Bosnia and Herzegovina in a modern era, and ultimately a springboard for a better future and a better life here.”
Investing in science and technology is one of the stated goals of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 2017-2019 Economic Reform Programme. That most recent reform agenda was adopted in January and is part of the country’s long-term accession process to the European Union. It specifically mentions increasing funding for high-tech startups, but Saracevic says the government isn’t following through on that promise, at least not yet. In reality, there’s no plan in place to ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina fully implements the much-needed socioeconomic reforms.
Regardless, Saracevic remains “irrationally optimistic,” confident that Bosnia and Herzegovina will emerge as a globally recognized destination for IT services and development within the next three to five years. HUB387, so named for the country’s international dialing code, is his answer to keeping the talents of young and educated Bosnians like Šakanović, of Habeetat, at home, and even allowing them to compete at the global scale.
HUB387 occupies three floors of one of Sarajevo’s few modern high-rises and the city’s second-tallest building, in the Hrasno neighborhood. The futuristic Bosmal City Center stands in stark contrast to the mix of Tito-era socialist apartment complexes and terracotta-roofed houses clinging to the surrounding hills, most of which bear bullet holes and mortar shell craters from the 1992-1996 siege of the city.
Some of the companies based at the hub include Aqua Digital, a digital marketing agency that represents international brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Porsche, and Authority Partners, a Microsoft Cloud Partner with a sister office in Irvine, California.
Šakanović wants Habeetat to follow in their footsteps.
“We will sell to the whole word,” Šakanović said of his startup’s smart beehive modules, which he believes are the first of their kind. Once placed within a traditional beehive, the Habeetat module measures temperature and humidity both inside and outside the hive. It can also weigh the honey in each individual frame of a hive, which Šakanović says will help beekeepers better monitor and harvest their yields.
The Habeetat team also plans to facilitate scientific research on declining populations of the world’s 20,000 wild bee species, which are particularly at risk in Europe and the U.S. due to a combination of habitat loss, disease, climate change and other factors.
“We don’t just want to sell the product and that’s it. We really want to help,” Šakanović said, explaining that he wants the data collected from an eventual global network of smart beehives to be used by scientists and researchers. “When we have enough data, let’s do something.”
Bees are the most numerous and important agents of pollination, the fertilization process that allows humans to enjoy coffee, chocolate, apples, potatoes, tequila and a full 75 percent of the world’s food crops. The global economic impact of pollinators is estimated between $235 and $577 billion, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
In the U.S., bees alone contribute an estimated $14.6 billion to the economy annually – about 11 percent of the country’s agricultural gross domestic product.
Šakanović hopes that Habeetat will position Bosnia at the forefront of a global environmental and economic crisis. In doing so, he hopes to inspire other Bosnians to start their own businesses or projects – despite little help from the government. His claim is backed up by Bosnia’s #174 ranking out of 190 countries for ease of starting a business in the World Bank’s 2017 Doing Business survey.
“If you ask me, ‘Is it hard?’ It’s more than hard,” he said. “If you ask me, ‘Is it impossible?’ No, it is possible.”
Cover photo: Semir Šakanović, the CEO of a Bosnian startup developing “smart beehives,” navigates the company’s mobile app at HUB387, an information technology park in Sarajevo. Photo credit: Kyle S. Mackie