Diana Hollmann

Inspire, Empower, Connect: Celebrating Entrepreneurship in the MENASA region

Last week the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region (MENASA) saw a truly amazing two-day “Celebration of Entrepreneurship” event.

More than 2,400 entrepreneurs, business professionals, investors, academics and policy makers from across MENASA and beyond gathered in Dubai for this landmark event hosted by Abraaj Capital, the region’s largest private equity fund. The agenda was packed with almost 200 workshops, inspirational talks and mentoring sessions making it hard to choose which one to attend, as up to ten or more were running in parallel at any given time. (To help to stay abreast of agenda items as well as to easily locate and communicate with other participants and exchange virtual business cards, every participant was equipped with a mobile “Spotme” device – very helpful in finding the people you wanted to make sure to connect with!)

The underlying theme of the event was the question of how to catalyze entrepreneurship and SME development in MENASA to address the employment and demographic challenges the region faces. By 2020 the region will need to create 50 million new jobs just to maintain current unemployment levels. The growth potential is enormous: the SME sector accounts for more than 70% of MENASA’s employment, but only 30% of its GDP. In the U.S., the numbers range closer around 50% and 50%. Among the challenges for SMEs in the region is finance: the World Bank and the Union of Arab Banks reported that in the MENA region only 20% of SMEs have a loan or a line of credit – a share that is lower than in any other region of the world.

In a both entertaining and educational session, Ahmed Younis of Qatar-based non-profit Silatech, shared insights from the Silatech Index: Voices of Young Arabs, a biannual study prepared in partnership with Gallup. One of the findings: 26% of young Arabs want to start their own business in the next 12 months – quite impressive comparing it to the U.S. where only 4% of youth say they plan to do the same.

The event surely fulfilled its promise of inspiring, empowering and connecting all those who participated. But all the activity will go beyond two exciting days in Dubai:

Abraaj officially launched its Riyada Entrepreneurship Development (RED) fund that will provide $500 million in growth capital to develop early and mid-stage enterprises across 14 growth markets in the region. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) contributes $150 million to the fund following President Obama’s Cairo speech, in which he announced a fund to develop technology in Muslim-majority countries.

RED itself will partner with UK-based Mowgli Foundation for a one-year mentorship pilot program ‘MentorMatch’ to connect seasoned business people with aspiring entrepreneurs.

The event also saw the launch of Wamda (Arabic for ‘spark’), a bilingual online platform that aims to connect all those part of or interested in the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the MENA region. The idea is to equip aspiring entrepreneurs and those already in the business with information, tools and the social network that will help them build their ventures. Among the partners involved in bringing the platform to life are Acumen Fund, Ashoka and Synergos. The current Wamda 1.0 will soon evolve to Wamda 1.5 that will host the MentorMatch program and will provide webinars.

Endeavor’s Linda Rottenberg and Arif Naqvi, CEO and Founder of Abraaj Capital, announced a strategic alliance of their organizations. Part of the joint venture will be the establishment of an Endeavor regional hub for the MENASA region hosted by Abraaj in Dubai. In early 2011, Endeavor also will open country operations in Lebanon in addition to its current country offices in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.

Further announcements included the expansion of entrepreneurship education and training program INJAZ into Pakistan, a partnership between regional logistics and supply chain giant Aramex and the American University of Cairo to create case studies of innovative entrepreneurial ventures in the region, as well as the production of a reality TV series that will promote entrepreneurship among Arab youth.

In an energetic wrap up of the event, Arif Naqvi announced the establishment of a regional think tank on entrepreneurship. “You can have a lot of emotion, you can have a lot of excitement as we just did, but until you have an enabling environment, until we have a very solid set of tangible outcomes, I don’t think that any of us assembled here can agree as to whether we had a positive outcome to this event,” Naqvi said. The “open architecture” think tank is intended to provide thought leadership, disseminate best practices, and serve to create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship in the region. 30 representatives of a diversity of institutions ranging from Abraaj and Aramex, to Cisco, Ernst & Young, the American University of Cairo up to Young Arab Leaders committed to make a financial and time contribution to set up the think tank. After introducing the idea for the think tank, Naqvi prompted those in the audience who want to commit to contributing time and money to come up to the stage and join the group. Right away a line formed and more than 30 individuals representing their institutions came on stage one after the other pledging their support.

A great closing for a great event! Telling from the enthusiasm of those who attended the event was just the beginning of much more to come. Next to following the implementation of all the initiatives announced at the event it is worth keeping an eye on the region more broadly. Amongst current debates is the question on whether it is possible to create a regional framework for entrepreneurship that allows enterprises to scale beyond national boundaries into the regional market. Another question that came up at the event is how to establish a regional angel investor fund. Despite Abraaj’s efforts to spark the interest and commitment from local investors such a network has not yet materialized (Abraaj even said they would provide $5 million to help set up such a fund, without being involved beyond the financial contribution).

To gain more insight into what happened at the event, have a look at the Wamda site where several videos of event sessions are already online. All of them should be up shortly.