By Madeleine Moreau for Global Risk Insights
These days, news from the Middle East tends to revolve around violence, war and low oil prices. In the midst of the challenges these forces pose for the region, young Arab entrepreneurs are seeking creative ways to tackle existing civil society problems.
From Morocco to Jordan smart, talented thinkers are creating an impressive start-up culture in the region. As a result, financial institutions and non-government organizations have begun setting up numerous seed investment initiatives to support this rise in cultural innovation.
Overcoming education and funding challenges
There are many civil society issues that plague the Middle East. Among these include the need to diversify energy sectors, improve access to fresh water, education, women’s rights, transportation, and healthcare systems.
Young entrepreneurs from across the region are seizing upon the opportunity to improve civil society by developing start-ups addressing these issues. This boom in creative innovation has led to the wide proliferation of private institutions and NGOs that target the needs of young businesses.
Specifically, they offer greater access to capital and business development training, two challenges young start-ups often face in competing in new markets.
Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt lead the seed investment culture for start-ups. While the UAE hosts important start-up events throughout the year, young entrepreneurs have found it harder to test out a new idea in the lucrative UAE market.
There are numerous start-up incubators in the region. Below are some of the most notable:
Oasis500: Oasis500 based in Amman, Jordan offers training, mentorship guidance, business incubation and additional follow-up investment and funding to help entrepreneurs grow their companies. It hopes to achieve the goal of seeing 500 start-up companies in MENA in five years, focusing primarily on the Information Technology (IT) and Digital Media sector in Jordan.
Dakwak: Dakwak is a unique translation and localization platform based in Jordan that allows small businesses to translate their websites into over 60 different languages, thereby encouraging internet visibility for consumers.
Wamda: Wamda offers similar entrepreneur training for start-ups in Jordan, Lebanon and Dubai. It places an emphasis on community development, media, research, and advisory services, all key aspects to growing a network before entering a new market.
Bader: Bader in Lebanon hosts numerous events annually to encourage competition and bring new ideas to the forefront. The StartUp Cup sponsored by Bank Audi offers 100,000,000 Lebanese Pounds (LBP) to winners of the event.
Berytech: Berytech seeks to promote economic growth within Lebanon, targeting talented recent college graduates as a way to generate wealth and job creation. It holds regular start-up weekends, local and international exhibitions and workshops, as well as mentoring services for Lebanese entrepreneurs.
AltCity: AltCity supports high-impact entrepreneurship in Lebanon by offering startups crash courses in investment strategies to push new companies into the market faster. Its Ultralight Hackathon Yerevan event offers eight hours of intense hackathons, followed by idea sessions and public pitching/judging sessions.
Cairo Angels: Cairo Angels is a forum for investors to find high potential start-ups. It consists of a small group of investors who invest in early stage companies using a high-risk, high-return matrix. They offer the necessary funding and networking for start-ups to launch their businesses while providing potentially high returns on investment.
Shekra: Shekra, drawn from the Arabic phrase “sherik fekra” meaning “share an idea,” in Egypt uses crowd-funding to support entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other crowd-sourcing platforms, it relies on a closed network of investors so as to ensure trust in investment opportunities.
Flat6Labs: Flat6Labs operates out of Cairo, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi and serves as a regional startup accelerator program, offering a competitive mentorship program to educate entrepreneurs about the market they are trying to tap into. It also provides funding and networking opportunities for Arab youths.
Bright future for startups
The proliferation of seed investment firms across the region demonstrates the enthusiasm and talent the Middle East startup culture has to offer. Though youth unemployment remains high in the region, these creative incubators offer an opportunity for creative thinkers to build a business and tackle civil society problems left void by governments.
Wael Fakharany, Google’s agency lead for the Middle East and North Africa emphasizes the importance of this trend for the region: “Today, a young entrepreneur can develop cloud and mobile-based applications that can change the world and influence hundreds of millions of people.”
While news of ISIL advances and low oil prices are a sad reminder of the challenges to Middle East investment opportunities, the proliferation of hundreds of start-up incubators and small businesses brings an important sense of optimism to the Middle East.