Dutch media research report: behind the scenes of Digikala’s shareholding structure
Entry of foreign capital into Iran’s startup ecosystem
According to this report, Saeed Rahmani Khazari is one of the most influential people in foreign investment in Iran. Rahmani is an Iranian entrepreneur with British citizenship who immigrated to the West years ago and is the founder of several startups. He came to Iran in 2011, when Iran’s nuclear negotiations with foreign powers were going on. In those years, Rahmani was one of the senior managers of Naspers and returned to his hometown with the mission of investigating the possibility of investing in Iranian startups by this company.
Nespress is also introduced in this report: “Nespress is a large South African investment company that has invested in technology companies around the world. At that time, due to the conditions of embargo and increasing political tensions between Iran and the West, this company did not find the courage to invest in Iran. Rahmani personally established the bold investment company “Sarava” with the help of Iranian investors to invest in technology-oriented startups of the country; Because he knew the importance of attracting foreign capital and knowledge with the aim of investing in Iranian startups.”
Saeed Rahmani personally tries to invite experienced European investors to invest in Iranian startups. One of these investors is the Verlinvest fund belonging to the rich Belgian Spoelberch family. In 2016, these investors see the Iranian market as a unique, large and emerging opportunity with a population of about 90 million people and an 80% penetration rate of Internet access, which had just blossomed. Investors from Belgium invested alongside Swedish mutual fund Pomegranate and Dutch entrepreneur Arjan Bakker, founder of Poland’s largest platform Marketpolis. A group of investors based in London also participated in this investment.
Pressure rises from all sides
In the continuation of this report, it is mentioned that Digikala is caught in a propaganda war. This newspaper wrote that Digikala “opponents of Iran’s government accuse Digikala of cooperating with IRGC in suppressing and arresting protesters by disclosing their private data; While there is no evidence to prove this.”
This report has defined another group that is critical of Digikala as follows: “On the other hand, extremists inside Iran call Digikala a tool for Western interference and espionage in the country. The group says the online store deliberately sells goods that promote Western culture and values. One of the shareholders of IIIC told this newspaper that it doesn’t matter how you respond to these accusations, the space has become so polarized that you will be attacked from both sides.
Of course, this report also mentions the issue of disclosure of user information: “According to one of the investors, Digikala is under pressure from some security institutions to disclose the information of its users, but it has not done such an action so far.” This newspaper also claims that “the army does not have any financial control or influence in Digikala, but it is trying to acquire it by intimidating and separating this company from its foreign investors.”
The issue of offering Digikala shares in the stock market is another issue that has been discussed in this research report. “Serava’s efforts to IPO Digikala and other portfolio companies in the stock market have been thwarted by some Iranian institutions. On April 24, 2018 (May 4, 2018), they even attacked the Sarawa office and seized the company’s servers and documents; The cause of this attack is still in the aura of uncertainty.”
In addition, the withdrawal of the newly elected US President Donald Trump from the nuclear agreement with Iran was also mentioned, which led to the imposition of new sanctions against Iran. This newspaper considered this incident to be another fatal blow for Digikala and finally wrote: “The combination of these events is the reason for changing the shareholding structure of Digikala’s investors. Iranian shareholders exchange their shares with IIIC investors in Sarawak. With this action, the Europeans will directly become shareholders in DigiCala through IIIC. With the restructuring completed in 2019, they hoped to protect their investments from a possible tightening of European sanctions.
Of course, according to the findings of this report, this issue was not the end of the company’s troubles: “The pressure of the institutions on the Sarawa company will increase with the arrest of the foreign affairs manager of this company, Emad Sharqi, in January 2021 on charges of espionage and gathering military information.” Also, in this report, some sources say that at the same time, Saeed Rahmani has returned from Tehran to London and does not have the courage to return to his country. Saeed Rahmani told this newspaper that he was accused of spying for Western governments. Of course, Rahmani denies this accusation.
It is becoming more difficult to invest in Iran
In the continuation of this report, the subject of foreign investments is explained in more detail: “Considering that the investment by Europeans in Iran is a sensitive issue and under the microscope, one of the IIIC investors named Verlinvest (Belgium) previously He has not disclosed his investment in this country. “Verlinost, which announces its investments on its website, has not disclosed the investment in Digikala.”
Of course, research by FD newspaper shows that Verlinost’s annual reports only state its participation in IIIC through Cofintra in 2020, but there is no further explanation or reference to Iran in the report.
Other findings obtained in the investigations of this report are the internal financial transactions of this company and IIIC payments. Cofintra has invested in IIIC on behalf of the investment fund Verlinost, owned by Belgium’s richest Spoelberg family, which is a major shareholder of AB InBev.
According to this newspaper, two sanctions experts, who examined and scrutinized the financial structure of IIIC to write this research report, believe that the structure used in IIIC is in accordance with European sanctions laws and is allowed. One of these experts has explained that “in recent years, Western investors have avoided investing in Iran due to the fear of American sanctions.”
Also, this expert said, “Banks may be cautious and stop their services to customers who have dealings with Iran.” In addition, FD claims that sources have told this newspaper that large trusts also no longer work with Iranian clients or structures. IIIC has been managed since 2016 through a trust office, PraxisIFM from Amsterdam. However, it is pointed out in this report that the trust did not respond to FD’s questions.
There is no news of the buyer
One of the issues related to investing in Digikala is that it is not clear how the investments of Europeans in this collection are going to be protected in the future. “Several sources say that in 2023 there will be no purchases for these shares due to Iran’s political conditions.”
This newspaper further explained that “the possibility of opening political relations between Iran and the West, after the escalation of tensions in recent months and considering the possibility of European action against the IRGC, seems unlikely for now.” One of the initial participants of this investment says: “Yet you still hope that one day the doors of Iran will open again.” According to him, Digikala was a beacon in the world of Iranian technology; A lantern that can be lit again.