Diana Hollmann

From the MENA region: Ashoka and the Arab World Social Innovation Forum

As mentioned in previous posts, this is an exciting time to be in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA)! The awareness for entrepreneurial ventures addressing development issues is rising and new initiatives gain momentum. The Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, that took place just a couple of weeks ago in DC, gave an additional boost to already existing initiatives and to the implementation of new programs in Muslim majority countries including the MENA region.

This weekend’s Arab World Social Innovation Forum (AWSIF), to be hosted by Ashoka Arab World, promises to constitute yet another inspiring event to advance social entrepreneurship in the region. More than 200 practitioners and academics from throughout the Arab World will come together today and tomorrow in Cairo to discuss challenges and opportunities of social and market-based initiatives to economic and social development. A series of round tables will be held on youth innovation and entrepreneurship, the development of a social investment framework for the Arab World, as well as more broadly on market-based solutions to development (for twitter users: follow #AWSIF).

NextBillion.net talked to Dr. Iman Bibars, CEO and Founder of the Ashoka Arab World, about social innovation in the Arab World and the upcoming forum:

NextBillion.net: From your perspective, what are the particularities of the MENA region in the social entrepreneurship space? How is the region different from other parts of the world?

Iman Bibars: In the MENA region, social entrepreneurship is still a developing concept, although it is gaining traction. With a youth population of more than 60 percent under the age of 25 and a youth unemployment rate of 25 percent and more, and a string of other development challenges such as scarce water resources – the region needs to begin rethinking its development agenda. This is where social entrepreneurs step in as they have the potential to find creative ways to solve these lingering obstacles and can act as the catalysts for change in society.

However, many social entrepreneurs currently face a lack of adequate and continuous support. Some of the entrepreneurs gain recognition and are able to obtain seed funding, but after the first portion of their funding ends, there are very scarce options for continued support. Further, many donors do not truly engage with the social entrepreneurs. In other words, donors provide financial support, but do not offer additional assistance in the form of business, technical and legal support, or in terms of outreach and marketing advising. Such an additional involvement would make an important difference in terms of the exposure social ventures receive and the efficacy with which they run their organizations. This challenge could certainly be found throughout the world, but it seems particularly acute in MENA, where social entrepreneurship and innovation are still very much a nascent force.

NextBillion.net: What are the major challenges and opportunities you see in advancing social entrepreneurship in the Arab World?

Iman Bibars: The major challenge in the Arab World is the absence of a supportive regulatory and policy framework that defines social entrepreneurs’ role as well as a lack of clearly defined growth and impact measurements for social ventures. Also, because of a traditional dichotomy between the social and the private sector, existing social ventures have not been able to scale-up their initiatives. Social investments by the private sector are imperative to help social entrepreneurs get off the ground and increase their impact on society.

In addition, because the education system does not often encourage creativity, risk-taking, or entrepreneurship itself, there is only a vague understanding of what it means to be a social entrepreneur and the will to become one. On the other hand, social entrepreneurs could make use of the inexistence of such a framework to set the rules, definitions and expectations as well as to highlight the importance of the private sector to become more involved. Social entrepreneurs could also use this opportunity to introduce the concept in universities’ curricula in order to teach youth about long-term benefits, especially for solving the problem of high unemployment, hence allowing the youth to be change makers themselves.

NextBillion.net: You were one of the panelists speaking about Social Entrepreneurship at the Presidential Entrepreneurship Summit in Washington DC. What major insights did you gain from the session and the Summit overall that might be relevant for the region?

Iman Bibars: During the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, I was moved and rejuvenated by the common belief in the power of entrepreneurship, whether for business or social purposes, as a tool to advance our countries. The Summit also highlighted the importance of partnerships between the social and private sectors to help scale-up existing ventures and invest in new projects. As such, I am hopeful that the region will see more private investment in innovative start-ups that are geared towards having a sustainable social impact. I think this dialogue and fervor signal a turning point for the social sector; at least in terms of the recognition it is receiving and the interest it is generating from funders at the private and public levels.

Further, and although this might be stating the obvious, I came to appreciate more the universality of entrepreneurs. To some degree, each panelist and every delegate at the Summit can relate to the power of innovation. While entrepreneurship has been embraced to varying degrees throughout the world, creativity, diligence, ethical fiber and passion are common traits amongst all true entrepreneurs, of which we were reminded at the Summit.

NextBillion.net: Could you outline an example of market-based approach to a social challenge in the region?

Iman Bibars: An example of a market-based social venture approach in the region is the Ashoka Arab World’s Housing for All initiative in Egypt. It aims to provide affordable and structurally-sound housing in informal areas through a series of win-win partnerships involving microfinance institutions, Ashoka fellows, private sector construction companies, and impoverished individuals and families living at the Base of the Pyramid.

In short, the initiative engages several sectors. First, the local micro-finance organizations provide funding to individuals and families living in squatter areas. The money is used to purchase construction supplies from local private construction companies, which sell the materials to the customers at a reduced price. The idea behind the price reduction is that by dealing directly with the BOP, the companies significantly increase their client base as the two groups formerly had little or no contact with one another.

This is perhaps the most important aspect of the Housing For All initiative: the purchasing power of the BOP in Egypt is maximized while the construction companies are introduced to a new market. Using micro- rather than large loans to purchase material and make small upgrades to the homes enables easier repayment and guarantees that the construction companies have steady business.

Further, within the housing projects, engineering and architecture students from local universities assist the homeowners develop the most stable and environmentally sound homes. In addition to building safe and eco-friendly homes, the participation of these students also helps to involve the local community and local knowledge more effectively.

Another key facet of the projects are the Housing For All centers, which will serve as meeting area to support and manage the projects and nurture a sense of ownership. Local community members are also overseeing the upgrades to each home engaging them even further.

The community members, micro-finance institutions, and construction companies each have a share in the Housing For All project and the homes built, making them partners with vested respective interests in the project. The market-approach helps to create adequate incentives for each player, while also guaranteeing equity between them.

Lastly, and perhaps the finest aspect of the project is that through the formal construction done on their homes, tenants receive legal claim to their property, giving them full ownership.

These components of the project help make Housing For All a completely new market-based approach to development in Egypt, and a scalable approach that can be replicated throughout the region.

NextBillion.net: In your opinion, what is the path ahead over the next few years for the social entrepreneurship sector in the region?

Iman Bibars: Social entrepreneurship is a new field in the region, and is gradually becoming more present. Ashoka has moved quickly and has been able to identify and support Fellows in roughly half of the region, but there is still much ground to cover.

The sector’s potential can only be materialized if there is a concerted effort by all stakeholders to forge partnerships. Finding innovative solutions to the region’s most daunting development obstacles is not an easy task and definitely not one that can be solved by only one sector. Therefore, the challenge is two-fold: we must continue to identify and recognize social entrepreneurs and simultaneously encourage much closer collaboration between the social and the private sector.

We see glimpses of the two working closer in tandem. But as I mentioned previously, without them being in agreement and steady cooperation we will not realize their full potential.

NextBillion.net: What are your expectations for the upcoming Ashoka Arab World Social Innovation Forum? What specific outcomes can we anticipate?

Iman Bibars: AWSIF will unite leaders from the private, academic, social and public sectors to find innovative solutions to the region’s most critical social challenges and help build partnerships between guests to promote cross-sector collaborations. We also hope that the Forum will showcase a new, dynamic element of the Arab World that often goes unnoticed – the innovation and ingenuity of its people.

The forum will also host three round table discussions. The first discussion will debate and brainstorm the development of a framework for social investment. Participants will explore, define and hopefully set the fundamental building blocks for initiating and forging formal methods of collaboration between the social and the private sectors. In the second discussion we will focus on promoting youth innovation and entrepreneurship to address high youth unemployment rates in the region. Last but not least we will engage participants to discuss market-based solutions to development, both in the Arab region and globally as well.

Central to this discussion will be Ashoka’s Housing for All initiative, which will serve as a reference point and heart of the round table. To conclude the discussions and the forum overall, participants will be encouraged to write down pledges to initiate financial, technical and other additional support programs for social entrepreneurs. This will help stimulate and sustain social entrepreneurship in the region and engage individuals and organizations from all sectors in the change making process.