The member of the Islamic Development Bank Group ICD awarded its Global Finnovation Award 2020 to the five leading innovative companies of the world, and fintech Alif from Tajikistan became one of the winners. Recently the global market value of Alif reached $100 million, which prompted our discussion about finance, employees and the unique system of options with the CEO of Alif, Abdullo Kurbanov.

— How did you manage to bring Alif’s value to $100 million on the global market? Please, tell us about the negotiation process.

— Since March last year, we have been negotiating with the investors. The first investor who approached us was a famous investment organization headquartered in Russia. We were negotiating for a long and at that time a new American investor reached us and made another offer. Thus, we continued negotiations with both sides.

There was another Swiss investor who also made an even better offer. But we could not accept the offer because at that time we already had an exclusivity period with the Russian and American investors.

At the beginning of 2021, we signed a Term Sheet, and investors started a complete analysis of Alif, which ended in May. As a result, we discussed the investors’ proposal with our other shareholders. One of them — a British investment company Jefferson Capital Holdings Limited, the founder of which is originally from Tajikistan, Mr. Khofiz Shakhidi said: "I trust Alif because I've been working with the company for several years. I am ready to invest in Alif at an even higher valuation.

Finally, in July we decided it is better to accept the offer from our current shareholder JCHL. Mr. Shakhidi has supported us through challenging times a lot.

The real owners of Alif

— Once you have mentioned that Alif offers $25 million as options. I'd like to know more about this.

— Let’s start with this question: Mr. Orzu, who do you think is Alif's owner?

— I know you have been working at this market for 7 years, and Alif’s founders are three young people: Abdullo, Zuhursho and Firdavs.

Two of the three founder sof Alif - Abdullo Kurbanov and Shursho RahmatulloevAlif

— In fact, we hear a wide range of rumors. For example, "Alif belongs to the Arabs" or "Alif belongs to a rich man from the tops". But Alif belongs to its employees.

Today, we have over 800 Alifians. Everything Alif represents, from services to wall color, from technology to company’s identity and more — all of this is determined by them. Alifians are the real owners of Alif. Because they care about the company almost around the clock. That's why we give shares and options to them.

We are not the only one in the world who has the unique option program but I think ours is one of the best in the world.

What is an option? In short, an option is an opportunity to purchase shares. The option has an expiration period after which its holder can convert it into a share and become the company's shareholder.

Recently, I read in the news about a famous Russian bank Tinkoff. They announced that they would give about 4% of the company's shares to 300 employees — about 2% of all Tinkoff’s staff. In February this year, they announced that they had developed a different system for colleagues, analogues of which in Russia can be counted on the fingers.

At Alif, we decided to give our colleagues 25% of the company’s shares in the form of options.

At Alif almost all employees have the opportunity to have options. Under our current program, options begin to accrue automatically after the employee reaches a certain salary level. The level is below the average salary.

At the same time, the average salary at Alif is about 5000 somoni (approx. $450). Moreover, salaries are not replaced by options, they are given additionally. 

And the important part is that our colleagues do not have to pay for the conversion of options into shares. In other words, employees receive shares as gifts.

25% of Alif, as of today (September 2021), is equal to $25 million. The company's value grows approximately 2-3 times a year (at the end of October Alif’s shares increased in price in the secondary market, and now 25% of the company costs approximately $36 million).

"There is no such analogue of the option program in the region"

— Abdullo, isn't it unprofitable for the company?

— No, it is one of the fundamental principles of our work.

We give the best of what we have to our colleagues. We consider not only good working conditions, moral values, respect, and care, but above all else, we put the heart and future of Alif to the hands of our colleagues. They manage it. They set its speed and identity.

If you think for the long term, we are all less prone to material rewards. This is more important than anything else because being able to еаse lives for others is much more valuable.

When  Alifians feel this care, trust and ownership of the company, they do everything possible for our clients, write the best code, make the best promotional materials, provide the best service.

— So, you value your clients and they value you in return?

— Exactly. It's a circle. Our colleagues and clients deserve the best care. When we care about Alifians in the best way, they will care about our clients in the same way. Maybe because of this, we build sincere relations with our clients and become more loyal to each other.

— Abdullo, I would like to know if there was any analogue in other countries or have you developed this program yourself?

— In CIS region, we haven't seen anything like this. There is no such thing in Tajikistan at all, as far as I know. It is being practiced in Kazakhstan, probably. In the West, this is practiced more often but as I have already said, generally, options are only given to the top managers.

Initially, we wanted everyone to have options which are rare, considering my little experience. Since options are rarely issued in our region and the majority of people are not familiar with them, we set a time limit of one year for their conversion into shares at our first program (we have several). The vesting period is usually longer — from 3 to 5 years. We decided to set a short deadline for Alifians so that they could become shareholders as soon as possible. Since February this year, we’ve included more than 100 employees to Alif's shareholders' list. Today we have over 130 shareholders and about 110 are Alif's employees.

— As you said, more than a hundred people already own shares. Can a citizen of a foreign country also buy shares?

— Yes, it is possible. In the secondary market, there are already people who buy and sell Alif’s shares. It is important to know that we are talking about the shares of our holding company — Alif Capital Holdings Ltd. It is registered in the UK. The holding owns not only Alif Bank which is based in Tajikistan but also Alif Molia and Alif Tech, based in Uzbekistan.

However, many people want to buy shares and very few are ready to sell. We may soon make a specific website for this but now those who are interested can contact us at [email protected]

Successes and failures of Alif

— Speaking of foreign citizens, I would like to ask how you are expanding internationally, for example, in the Uzbekistan market?

— Good question. About three years ago we started visiting a neighboring country that has a very similar culture and traditions to us. I think one of the best recent events was the opening of roads and flights between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. We could travel more often and saw that there are many opportunities in the neighboring country. The population and the economy are several times larger than ours, and in many ways we are similar.

After months of analysis, we wondered: How can we do this? Who is going there? Zuhursho said, "Friends, I will go." That was courageous of him because in Tajikistan the systems were working, but he had to start from scratch and take the risk of failure. Zuhursho accepted this heavy burden.

In May 2019, he went to Uzbekistan and gradually set up a team. Initially, six people worked very hard in a small office for several months. We wrote software for Uzbekistan because our model is a little different from the one we have in Tajikistan. We have invested about $50 000 in Uzbekistan.

Months of hard work have passed but the system wasn't ready yet. Finally, by September 2019, we managed to offer our services to the first client in Uzbekistan. From that day on, we started to grow rapidly. Now we have more than 200 000 clients and work in all 14 regions of the country. We collaborate with more than 300 entrepreneurs and have more than 100 Alifians in Uzbekistan. We are very proud of this.

— Many people in Tajikistan think that Alif is a bank, but Alif is a fintech ecosystem. And could you clarify what other markets are you interested in?

— We want to operate in countries where we can serve people through our technology services. Nowadays, the countries we are interested in are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others.

— Why these countries?

— These are countries with Islamic culture that are close to us. In these regions, with a population of over 100 million people, the financial sector is at an early stage of development. There is an opportunity to offer people something else that will make their lives easier and more comfortable.

We were very interested in Afghanistan, too. Of course, it has a much smaller population but it is our close neighbor. We even wanted to buy tickets in June for a trip there but eventually, we had to postpone the plans.

— Tell us about the failed projects. What projects have you failed and why?

— Many projects have been unsuccessful. One of them was — a project we wanted to launch before It should have been a website like where we would connect buyers and sellers, but unfortunately, it failed. Later I met Dilovar Amonov and Jahongir Zabirov, with whom we created Today, thank God, it is successful.

Another example was the Metropol newspaper. We did not publish even a single copy of it. We worked for two weeks and closed it. At that time we wanted to be journalists. In short, we had many failures.

About 1000 people apply for a job at Alif every month

— I was looking for information about the ecosystem of your services. Can you tell us about it?

 In fact, the concept of an ecosystem is a series of projects that integrate and make each other stronger. The ecosystem offers clients a seamless, user-friendly experience. The close cooperation between Alif and is an example of an ecosystem where people, who go to the website and want to buy a car, can also leave an application for a loan at Alif. This is beneficial both for clients, and Alif.

— What is the secret of Alif's success?

— Interesting question. I think it's too early for us to talk about success. We still have a lot of things to do. But what we have achieved is thanks to people who work with us in Alif. One famous writer says, "When starting something, don't think where your bus will take you. First, fill it with the best people, and then decide together where to go.” Alif is the same. First of all, it is important to gather the best people. I am grateful that we have such people beside us who work tirelessly, shoulder to shoulder every day. Everyone who wants to work at Alif goes through several exams, interviews and tests. Every month about 1000 people apply to work with us. We choose about 5-10 out of them, who become a part of Alif and strive to make it better.

These people are the main reason we have been working for seven years, thank God. And again, while choosing people, it is important to consider not only their intellect but also their intentions: to work not only for yourself but for the sake of the idea — "how can I make other people's lives better?", "how to make people smile?". It is about a good mind-heart connection.