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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

SOCAP/Europe Preview: Beyond the Revolution in MENA

By Diana Hollmann

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has not been the most prominent one on the social entrepreneurship and social investment map. However, with the tremendous developments we have witnessed over the past several months big opportunities emerge: a whole generation of aspiring youth realizes the power of its voices and of joining forces for change. Simultaneously, the world zooms in on the MENA region, eager to learn more about this part of the globe that has been associated with crisis rather than opportunity for a long time. Appropriately, SOCAP/Europe will dedicate particular attention to the region.

David Munir Nabti helps to set up the two conference sessions that aim to shed light on opportunities and challenges in social entrepreneurship, social investment and philanthropy throughout MENA. A social entrepreneur himself, he has been working at the intersection of the terms “Middle East," “youth," “social media” and “change” long before we found that combination in the newspapers.

I had the opportunity to talk to David prior to SOCAP/Europe for us to learn more about his work, his insights and what to expect at the conference.

Diana Hollmann, NextBillion.net: Tell us briefly about the initiatives you work on, RootSpace, hibr.me and most recently, AltCity. What are they about and what do you aim to achieve?

David Munir Nabti: We've been working on two main initiatives over the past few years. First off, we established RootSpace at the end of 2008 to host a shared/collaborative social impact workspace for both non-profits and small for-profit social ventures, some light social impact incubation activities, and to organize events and activities related to social entrepreneurship, tech for social change, and alternative media. We also launched DevIneMedia - Development In eMedia, a social venture focusing on youth/alternative media, including running Hibr.me, a you(th)-powered media outlet that works online, in print - distributing 25,000 copies per month around Lebanon, and in person - organizing a wide variety of activities and events, including training over 500 young people in 2010 on issues related to basic writing skills, citizen journalism, new media/social media, etc. 

Recently, we've been focusing on building both those efforts to the next degree and launching a new social venture, AltCity. AltCity will run a hyper-resourced media/tech/social impact collaboration space in Beirut that includes a "newsroom" cafe and a variety of supports for media producers, media/tech innovators, and high-impact entrepreneurs. We are aiming to launch the anchor location in Beirut in Q3 of 2011.

NextBillion.net: How would you describe the state of social capital markets in the MENA region? What are the particularities?

Nabti: In both social impact and non-social impact circles, entrepreneurs and investors regularly blame the other for being the limiting factor in the local ecosystem. Entrepreneurs complain that investors don't want to take any risk or support innovative projects, while investors say that they are not getting pitched with strong, well developed, business ideas that are ready for them to put money into. I think both are true, and in this evolving entrepreneurial ecosystem I think there still remains the crisis of the lazy entrepreneur and the crisis of the lazy investor.

It is true that angel and venture capital investment in the MENA region is still limited, and difficult for most startups to access. The majority of investments go to large industrial or construction projects, or projects in the fields of tourism and entertainment. That being said, the state of innovation/tech startup investment in the region is improving, with several new entrants in the field and more services being offered for both investors and entrepreneurs.

The state of social impact investment is even more limited. Many investors don't understand that startups can simultaneously have both high profit-making potential and high impact-making potential; or if they do understand that, they tend to avoid any discussion or concern over "social impact" if it may possibly in any way have a negative impact on financial returns. There is also some movement in that field in the region, with some new funds launching, increasing interest by governments, universities, funds, and others, and increasing programs and efforts to support both high impact investors and high impact entrepreneurs. We hope to contribute to the building of momentum in this direction through SOCAP/Europe and the various other activities we are working on.

NextBillion.net: How might the current upheavals throughout MENA influence the role of social capital markets in the region?

Nabti: I think times of upheaval are times of opportunity, and the MENA region is no exception. There exists in the region both huge need and huge opportunity for the creative and determined social entrepreneur, and we must figure out ways to build these efforts forward. As far as I am concerned, the many crises in the region will not and cannot be resolved without the crucial contributions of social entrepreneurs, and the structures must be further developed to support such developments.  

NextBillion.net: There will be two sessions at SOCAP/E focusing on the MENA region – could you give our readers a roundup of what to expect?

Nabti: Sure! I hope these sessions will contribute to increasing our understanding of these critical issues in the region, and to helping pull together different groups, people, and approaches to chart out some steps forward in the near future. We want these sessions to be very practical and output-oriented.

One session at SOCAP/Europe will be discussing the role for social entrepreneurship and social impact investment in addressing the biggest challenges facing the region. Of course the region is facing a major unemployment crisis, but there are many other severe problems as well, in the fields of education, pollution, solid waste, energy consumption, food supply, water quality, and more ... and while job creation is critical, if millions of new jobs are created that have the same net negative impacts as many jobs do now - even if we are able to save communities from economic collapse - then they may still face other major social or structural problems. That's why social entrepreneurship approaches are so critical.  

The other session at SOCAP/Europe is designed to help improve the understanding of the state of philanthropy and social impact investment in the region, and to help us figure out how to improve and build momentum in those critical fields. 

While it is a time of incredible upheaval and turmoil in the region, it is also a time of incredible opportunity, and incredible risk. As of now, it is unclear whether the region will look much better in the coming one, two, five and 10 years, or much worse. Social impact entrepreneurship and investment are among the most critical and high impact things that can be done to push regional development in a positive direction.

NextBillion.net: What do you hope to get out of SOCAP/Europe?

Nabti: I am looking forward to connecting with many of the other key actors who are working, or are interested in working, in the MENA region, and to learn about some of the best practices and great examples from efforts around the world. I am particularly interested in seeing which groups might be interested in working together to do events, programs, activities, competitions, and more to accelerate development of the high-impact entrepreneurship/investment ecosystem in the region.

NextBillion.net: Thank you for sharing your insights, David! See you at SOCAP/Europe.

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