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This Entrepreneur Wants to Build a Kurdish Alternative to Google

Egerin is a Kurdish search engine that aims to bring Kurds online and preserve their languages.

Many of us take Google's search engine for granted. Enter any word or phrase in one of its 103 languages, and we're sure to close in on whatever information we're looking for.

But when there's no search option available in your native language, how much does that limit your access to information as you surf the web?

Kawa Onatli, a Sweden-based Kurdish entrepreneur came up against this hurdle when he founded Kurdish-language search engine Egerin (e-searching) back in 2014.

"I founded Egerin because I wanted to benefit the 40 million Kurds around the world. We are a nation without a country, and at the time it wasn't possible for Kurds to use the internet in their own language," Onatli told me over the phone. "There is a lot of Kurdish content online, but it was difficult for people to find it because when you wrote a Kurdish search term into Google, the content couldn't always be found."

Onatli funnelled funds from his own consultancy business to build the platform, and currently runs it with four team members. The site was growing and counted investors from the Iraqi Kurdistan and SE Turkey, until growing political tensions and conflict in these regions led to funds falling through as investors refocused their resources into fighting ISIS and coping with the refugee crisis in Syria.

Undeterred, Onatli is set on adding new features to Egerin, and is aiming to pitch his startup idea to UK investors in June.

Users can tune into Kurdish television stations. Image: Egerin

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the Middle East, split currently between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Onatli aimed for Egerin to function like a Google for the Kurdish community, and the site offers people interested in finding Kurdish content online the options of searching in the Kurdish dialects of Kurmanji and Sorani (which Google has yet to add). As well as being a search engine, it has a dictionary, acts as a Kurdish news aggregator, and allows people to watch some Kurdish TV channels live.

Its main aim, said Onatli, is to promote Kurdish culture and help preserve Kurdish dialects.

Yet the project isn't without its challenges.

"Kurds wanted to use Egerin to search for other things in different languages, but indexing the whole web is hard; you need a lot of investment and a huge team," said Onatli.

According to Onatli, there are currently around 1,000 to 1,500 users coming to Egerin each day, with the figures climbing gradually each month. While the startup is trying to raise awareness of its Kurdish-language search engine by placing advertising on Facebook and through Kurdish TV spots, he said that he didn't have enough resources left for an actual marketing campaign after he had dealt with the logistics of maintaining a budding search engine.

"We want to create and give quality services that can be compared to Google, but we are still tweaking the indexes," he said, noting that the more people used Egerin, the more data they would have to refine their search results.

"We want to bring Kurdish programmers and developers together and give them hope that they can do good stuff in their own languages too"

In the future, Onatli wants to add more languages such as English and French so that Egerin can act as a "window onto Kurdish culture" for non-Kurdish and Kurdish speakers alike. He also wants Egerin to act as a platform that offers commercial and educational opportunities for his people.

"There are a lot of socio-economic problems in Kurdish regions in the world and many people are unemployed," said Ontali, who had to leave southeast Turkey for Sweden in the mid-80s when Kurdish was banned. "We want to bring Kurdish programmers and developers together and give them hope that they can do good stuff in their own languages too."

Onatli also hopes to bring more Kurdish businesses online. One example he gave was building a Kurdish book search engine that would provide Kurdish diaspora communities a portal from which they could purchase books in their own mother tongue.

"There are a lot of Kurdish publishers printing books every year, but they might not have a website or be good at marketing," said Onatli. "If we have a Kurdish book search engine, people can search for new releases and buy them from Egerin."

Ultimately, he hopes that his search engine will act as both a portal into Kurdish culture and vector through which the Kurdish language can be both promoted and preserved.

"My concern is that the Kurdish language will die out more and more," said Onatli. "Egerin is kind of a way to save the Kurdish language and to develop it."

Bootstrapped is a column exploring how people facing socio-economic and political challenges are leveraging technology to launch projects aimed at tackling social issues.