The increase in entrepreneurship and start-ups in the region has been happening over the past decade as revealed by Arabian Business in the latest trends shaping the region’s start-up ecosystem
Financial technologies and e-commerce businesses dominated the market in the Web 2.0 wave, while blockchain and cryptocurrencies are slowly growing in the region
In the post-pandemic economy, it feels like start-ups are launching almost daily in unprecedented numbers, but the Middle East entrepreneurial ecosystem has been steadily growing for almost a decade now, explained Walid Hanna, CEO and founder of MEVP, a venture capitalist firm.
Talking exclusively to Arabian Business, Hanna looked back at the evolution of start-ups in the region and the major trends that dominated each phase until today.
What can you tell us about the regional landscape for start-ups in the post-pandemic economy?
The increase in entrepreneurship and start-ups in the region has been happening over the past decade.
We [at MEVP] began our journey back in 2010 and, at that time, we used to see one or two start-ups a week, while now we receive three or four business plans a day, so the multiplier has been enormous in terms of the number of start-ups.
This has been the case post-Covid as well. When the whole ecosystem realised how important technology is during the pandemic, it gave a boost to our portfolio of companies and they grew faster and it also gave a boost to potential entrepreneurs who left their jobs to start their own businesses.
Why do you think fuelled this growth in the pre-coronavirus days?
It’s a natural progression that happened across the US, Europe and China over the past two decades and since there’s always a lag with the Middle East, it’s finally happening here now.
If you look at the penetration rates in internet usage or mobile phone usage, the Middle East has typically been lagging, the exception being countries like the UAE. But, now they’re all catching up.
What are some of the trends you’ve seen among regional start-ups, in fintech and tech in general?
Trends have been evolving over the past decade as well.
Originally there was the Web 1.0 wave, which was only content-based such as browsing the internet for cooking recipes, for example.[Start-ups] were making money, but it was based on reading, there were no interactions or transactions involved.
Then it evolved into Web 2.0, where we saw a lot of financial technologies, e-commerce sites and software-as-a-service for enterprises. We’ve invested in 60-plus companies across those verticals.
We’ve also seen a lot of mobility plays, such as Uber, and we’ve seen that model [replicated] across tuk-tuks, motorcycles, electric scooters and trucks which, in a way, is good for the environment.
Within fintech, we’ve seen a lot of sub-verticals, such as the Buy Now, Pay Later model, which is a big trend at the moment – there are around ten [such start-ups] in the region and we’ve invested in an Egypt-based one. But there are so many other trends within fintech, including micro-lending, SME-lending or treasury solutions; payment solutions in general.
The hype over non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrencies, the whole blockchain business model, has evolved tremendously over the past couple of years and is just starting to pick up in the Middle East. We’ve seen two NFT marketplaces and a couple of blockchain business models. It is still quite limited, although I expect it to grow much faster in the next three years.
How do you identify the companies you will invest in?
Just as they say “location, location, location” for real estate, it is “people, people, people” for start-ups.
If a start-up is at the earlier stages, the best thing you can look at is how investment-ready the business is and how qualified the founders are with relevant experience. We look at how dynamic, hardworking and motivated they are.
We look at the total addressable market and try to understand if it’s big enough and if they are really answering a pain point that is large enough to make serious money. This is because we are not interested in a small niche in a tiny country. For example, if a start-up is trying to solve a small issue in a country like Lebanon and the issue is not the same in Saudi Arabia and the GCC, then we are not interested.
We also look at the business model and the unit economics to see if it is viable, meaning we try to find out if the cost of producing, marketing and selling whatever product is worthwhile. If you look at the cost of acquiring a user and realise that the margin you are making out of this one product is inferior to that, then it is not worth it.
We also look at how robust and scalable the technology itself is and the stack they use. We invest in tech start-ups only.
Growth is key to our assessment of technology companies. We don’t do seed capital so when we invest in Series A, we can already witness a traction behind the start-up. If the traction is interesting, we get interested but if it is not already interesting, we don’t invest.
What are the challenges that remain for entrepreneurs in the region?
It depends on the country. In the GCC, there are no currency risks because they are pegged to the dollar, but if you look at currency in Egypt, they got really hit by the devaluation about three years ago.
There is also a political risk because of the region’s instability and relationship with its neighbouring countries.
Enablers are becoming better and better, but we still have some issues with the banks, for example. Opening up a bank account for start-ups is very challenging across the region. It takes ages and a lot of KYCs.
Five years ago, the logistics were very poor. Even the online payment systems were very poor so it was difficult for start-ups to thrive within that environment. This has been enhanced over the past couple of years but, for some reason, many customers here still want to pay cash-on-delivery and not use credit cards online. Penetration is increasing in terms of card usage but it is still lower than the global average.
Other than that, the ecosystem has evolved well and the enablers have followed. I would say the only challenge that remains is for fintech companies in terms of licence and regulations. Government regulations are making it easier by offering sandbox licences, but other than that, the regulatory framework is quite limited. The process is very slow but will happen one day I am sure.
Exits are happening, but still at a low rate where selling the start-up is difficult. There are more investors from outside the region looking at the region, which is positive, and the big regional conglomerates have also started to acquire start-ups so the trend is good but the numbers are still behind.
We have good start-ups and we want to sell them, but buyers are scarce. We should expand our horizon of buyers towards the global market, such as China or the US.
The World Bank at a time when according to the IMF, the MENA region is on track for a recovery, despite some rising social unrest threatening the ‘fragile’ progress of low-income economies, produced the following enthusiastic remarks by World Bank Group President David Malpass address to the Arab Governors of the World Bank Group.
Remarks by World Bank Group President David Malpass to the Arab Governors of the World Bank Group
Let me begin by congratulating Minister Khalil. Your appointment as Minister of Finance comes at a crucial moment in Lebanon’s history. The World Bank Group will work with you to support the critical reforms needed to address Lebanon’s challenges. Thank you for mentioning Hela in your opening. She’s the new IFC Vice President for the region, and I want you all to know the high priority we place on private sector advancement in the region. All parts of the World Bank Group are making that a high priority.
Dear Governors and distinguished guests, it is a pleasure to be with you again to discuss the challenges and opportunities in your region. Thank you for your recent annual letter outlining the key and urgent development challenges of the region. Let me also thank our Dean Dr Merza Hassan for helping to convene this meeting and for his unwavering support to the MENA region.
We meet today against a backdrop of uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to reversals in development gains in many regions, threatening jobs, social stability – and lives.
MENA was hit particularly hard by Covid 19. Even before the pandemic, growth had stalled, poverty was on the rise, and the social contract between citizens and the state was strained. Climate change adds a further burden to the development challenge.
During my recent visits to the region, to Sudan, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, I saw firsthand the impact of this multi-pronged crisis. I was concerned by low investment levels, high unemployment rates, and low female labor participation rates.
I also saw potential via regional integration, pro-growth investment, and improvements in the enabling environment for business. The recovery in global growth provides opportunities to make positive changes, and I was encouraged by my discussions with officials and businesses.
As you know, MENA is the least economically integrated region in the world. We have expressed our support for any initiative aimed at developing economic ties between countries in the region, and we are thus looking at ways to support the gas and electricity potential connection between Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.
While we are not in a position to engage in Syria, we nevertheless are concerned about the Syrian people’s economic woes due to the degradation of the situation in the country. Our position has always been to look after the people, and we are doing so for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
In the year leading up to the next annual meetings in Marrakesh, my message will remain focused on the importance of improving access to vaccines; recovering from Covid; overcoming conflict; mitigating and adapting to climate change; containing debt; and creating strong sustainable jobs for the youth of this region.
Morocco has made progress on all of these, and I want to thank you for graciously hosting us in 2022.
As a region, MENA will need to generate 300 million new jobs by 2050. These will be created largely by the private – not public – sector. Reaching this critical goal of sustainable job creation needs governance and transparency, rule of law, and an attractive business environment.
IBRD, IFC and MIGA are fully engaged. I’m interested in hearing from you where the World Bank Group can position itself better.
As we move toward Marrakesh in 2022 and Cop27 in Egypt, how can the Bank Group assist in making these events a launching pad for more sustained and comprehensive development in MENA?
Thank you again for inviting me and let’s now open our discussion.
Hadi Khatib on AMEInfo of 18 September 2021 came up with this deep statement on the anxiety list for MENA entrepreneurs that is long, as is the one curing it
The anxiety list for MENA entrepreneurs is long, as is the one curing it
A research report on the mental health challenges and wellbeing of entrepreneurs due to COVID-19 in the MENA region revealed anxiety has several facets in the minds of these leaders. But all of these insecurities have cures.
55% of startup founders said that raising investment has caused the most stress.
More than 95% of entrepreneurs view co-founders as family members and/or friends.
Research finds that entrepreneurs are happier than people in jobs.
EMPWR, a UAE-based digital media agency dedicated to mental health and an exclusive mental health partner for WAMDA and Microsoft for startups, published a research report on the mental health challenges and wellbeing of entrepreneurs due to COVID-19 in the MENA region.
The research indicated that startup founders undergo higher levels of stress than the rest of the region, with twice the likelihood of developing depression issues.
55% of startup founders said that raising investment has caused the most stress; the pandemic was the second most-cited reason cited by 33.7% of respondents. 44.2% spend at least 2 hours a week trying to de-stress.
Other insights, uncovered by the report, include:
A good relationship between co-founders can help startups navigate the pandemic-hit market. More than 95% of entrepreneurs view co-founders as family members and/or friends
Many entrepreneurs live well below their means to fund their ventures, leading to stress that is detrimental to their health
With only 2% of healthcare budgets in the MENA region currently spent on addressing mental health, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young entrepreneurs and achievers could lead to an economic burden of $1 trillion, by 2030, according to the report.
EMPWR’s MENA partners shared special offers on their mental health services for the region’s entrepreneur community.
From Saudi Arabia:
Labayh is offering the technology ecosystem a 20% discount on their online mental health services for 2 months. Promo code: empwr, with the offer valid until October 29.
O7 Therapy are offering 50% off their online mental health services, for 50 Entrepreneurs in the MENA region. Promo code: Entrepreneur50, valid until December 1, 2021.
From the UAE:
My Wellbeing Lab is offering 20 one-on-one coaching sessions to entrepreneurs that wish to be coached and helped; alongside unlimited access for any entrepreneur to their “Discovery Lab”, a platform that gives entrepreneurs and leaders insights into their mental wellbeing as well as their teams. Promo code: MWL21.
Takalam is offering 10% off for 3 months. Promo code: Impact.
Mindtales is offering the MENA ecosystem 50% off their services for one month. Their App can be downloaded here.
H.A.D Consultants is offering 20 one on one coaching sessions to entrepreneurs. Promo code: HAD_SME01.
Nafas, a meditation app focused on reducing stress, anxiety, and help with insomnia, is offering access to its platform. Register as a user via this link to redeem benefits.
Entrepreneurs’ mixed emotions
Entrepreneurs must grapple with uncertainty and being personally responsible for any decision they make. They likely have the longest working hours of any occupational group and need to rapidly develop expertise across all areas of management while managing day-to-day business.
Work on the economics of entrepreneurship traditionally assumed that entrepreneurs bear all the stresses and uncertainties in the hope that over the long term they can expect high financial rewards for their effort. It’s false.
2. Highly stressful, but…
High workload and work intensity, as well as financial problems facing their business, are at the top of the entrepreneurs’ stress list.
But some stressors have an upside. While they require more effort in the here and now, they may lead to positive consequences such as business growth in the long term. Some entrepreneurs appear to interpret their long working hours as a challenge and therefore turn them into a positive signal.
3. Autonomy is both good and bad
The autonomy that comes with being an entrepreneur can be a double-edged sword. Entrepreneurs can make decisions about when and what they work on – and with whom they work. But recent research into how entrepreneurs experience their autonomy suggests that, at times, they struggle profoundly with it. The sheer number of decisions to make and the uncertainty about what is the best way forward can be overwhelming.
4. An addictive mix
The evidence review confirms that, by any stretch of imagination, entrepreneurs’ work is highly demanding and challenging. This, along with the positive aspects of being their own boss coupled with an often competitive personality, can lead entrepreneurs to be so engaged with their work that it can become obsessive.
So the most critical skill of entrepreneurs is perhaps how they are able to manage themselves and allow time for recovery.
Stress management tips for entrepreneurs
Identify what the actual source of your stress is. Is it tight deadlines, procurement issues, raising capital, managing investors’ expectations, building a talented team, or delay in landing the first sale for your new startup business?
Even if numbering more than a few, break them down because unmanageable tasks look simpler when broken down into smaller segments. Then, list down how you plan to successfully tackle each issue. Meanwhile, exercising multiple times a week has been rated as one of the best tactics for managing stress.
Another technique for handling stress is to take a break. Rest as much as you can before going back to continue with the tasks. It’s also a good idea to reach out to friends, family, and social networks because they are likely to understand what you’re going through and offer words of wisdom and courage.
Stay away from energy-sapping junk food. Eating healthy keeps you fueled for the next challenge. Finally, get enough sleep, and power naps. Sleep helps your body and mind recover.
Hadi Khatib is a business editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and copy of relevance to a wide range of audiences. If newsworthy and actionable, you will find this editor interested in hearing about your sector developments and writing about them. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Thousand Dinars: A Lamentable Legacy By Nejoud Al-Yagout is a story that is fairly common to all countries of the GCC.
The picture above is for illustration and is of the Parliament of Kuwait.
First, we heard that residents above the age of 60 would not be allowed to renew their residencies if they did not hold a college degree. Then, after outrage on social media (by locals, to be sure, since any outrage by a resident would lead to arrest or deportation), there was talk that the rule may not be implemented; instead, we heard that those who came up with the decree would, at least, reconsider the age bracket, perhaps hiking it up to residents over 70 years of age (which in and of itself is lamentable).
Then, it was back again to 60 a few months ago, but with a proposal to fine residents annually (that is when talk of KD 2,000 arose). This latter proposal brewed for a while until it was announced only recently – in the midst of a pandemic, in the throes of increased unemployment and suicides and drug-taking and crimes, and in the whirlwind of murders and corruption – that the Public Authority of Manpower would “allow” residents above the age of 60 who do not hold university degrees to renew their residency provided they pay an annual fee of KD 2,000; as though by making it look like a favor, a permission granted, so to speak, the harsh brutality of the cost of remaining in Kuwait would seem less pronounced, brushed under the rug.
Though already considered official by all of us who read about it in the news, it appears that the “decision” needs a couple more weeks, perhaps, to be considered bureaucratically official, unless a person with strings will use his position of power to take a stand against it. The likelihood of such a selfless act transpiring is well, let’s just say, unlikely. Highly unlikely.
Although many residents above 60 who have graduated from college may have breathed a collective, perhaps even audible, sigh of relief, many others will be in tears, for they have parents and siblings aged 60 and above who live with or near them and who do not hold college degrees, and they themselves, holders of college degrees, will not be able to afford such a fee to keep the family together. And what about us locals? We cannot ignore the two-thousand-dinar elephant in the room.
Many of us who work in the public or private sector, with or without university degrees, or even with Master’s degrees and PhDs, would not ourselves be able (or willing) to pay such a lofty fee. Two. Thousand. Dinars. Imagine. And if we think this will not affect us, we are wrong. “They” are us! They, who we consider expatriates and foreigners and residents are us. We are them. We are one in this society. All of us. Each one of us, a thread of the same fabric, interwoven. What hurts us hurts them and vice versa. Let this register for all of us. Again and again and again.
There are residents in their sixties who were born here and have lived here their entire lives; residents who do not want to go “home” because their “home” is here, in Kuwait, where they belong, with us. Kuwait is the land in which they want to be buried, in which their parents were buried. After all their years of service to our country, we are now showing them the door under the pretext of making rules we know people cannot implement, all so that residents can leave of their own accord.
But they will not leave of their own accord. Ever. They will leave because neither they nor their university-degree-holding families were able to pay such an outrageous sum; they will leave because they are tired of living in a country that does not want them here. So many have left already; others are waiting for the right moment to leave. Others are waiting anxiously to see whether things will get better (or get worse).
We cannot stay silent. We cannot. And the last thing residents need is sympathy; if we are to feel sorry for anyone, we should feel sorry for ourselves for who we have become. Instead of patronizing them with our sympathy, residents should be applauded for their resilience, their bravery, and their contribution. They should be rewarded; they should be given more benefits as time elapses, not less.
We have a lot to learn from them. Even while many are treated as second-class members of the community, they stay, they work, and they support their families. This rhetoric of residents profiting from us is immature and arrogant; we must remember they are doing us a favor, a huge one, by being here as well. We are in this together; and in a healthy community, that is how things work; we give and we take; we take and we give.
Some residents may still find a way to stay here, in their home. But with this new “fine,” there is no way they can save money or help their families. And how can we sleep at night knowing we are creating obstacles for residents to send money back home? How can we sleep at night knowing that there is no money to pay for a parent’s kidney transplant or a relative’s tumor removal or a child’s education because the money is being paid to an oil-rich country instead? What principles are we building our foundation on?
These are certainly not our principles. And as long as we hold on to these pseudo-principles, we will continue to create laws which protect us and ostracize others, laws which are far, far away from the values of our heritage, founded on hospitality and inclusivity. Aren’t we tired of this us vs them attitude? Do we really want a Kuwait for Kuwaitis? Is this our legacy? Can’t we remember who we are?
It’s done. All we can do now is lament and ensure we resurrect a new Kuwait based on the ideals of our welcoming forefathers who never flinched at demographics. All we can do now is remember that what goes around comes around. This is a law. It is not a doomsday prophecy, but a warning, an invitation to recalibrate, a chance, an opportunity, to restore the karmic balance.
This is our chance to wake up and ask ourselves: Is this our legacy? And we should ask ourselves this question every night. That way, we can rectify the situation before karma knocks on our door. Loudly and fiercely. Two thousand dinars. Let’s remember that number. For it may come back to haunt those of us who stayed silent, those of us who spoke out for justice only when it came to our rights and, often, at the expense of others.
The MENA region, like much of the undeveloped world, is characterised by an omnipresent Informal Economy with however differing specifics. This label dates back to most countries Planned Economy. So why is now the Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region? And how? All world economies have an informal economy, and the duties of all business and governments alike leaders are to sustain, help and assist in its good maintenance and eventual development. Informal Economy is not Black Market and can easily be formalised to become the locomotive of any nation’s economic life. Could Fintech be of serious help here?
Any way, the reasons are tied to those specifics at this conjecture as well summarised by Ayad Nahas below.
The Financial Technology (Fintech) industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) looks well placed to enjoy a period of substantial growth.
As many as 69% of adults remain totally unbanked in the region
Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia stood at 95.7% in January 2021
Fintech is going to be the “game-changer”
Fintech industry poised for significant growth in the MENA region
By Ayad Nahas, Communication Strategist
The Financial Technology (fintech) industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) looks well placed to enjoy a period of substantial growth.
Part of this growth could come from a large unbanked population.
GCC expatriates with low and middle-income salaries constitute a large proportion of the unbanked such as in the UAE, where around 80% of the population is outside the current financial system.
Yet, regional smartphone and internet penetration is very high, reaching 2 mobile-cellular subscriptions per UAE inhabitant in 2019, while Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia stood at 95.7% in January 2021.
Regional governments spotted this opportunity and introduced regulation to substantially attract investments into the sector.
Fintech is a term that describes new technology which seeks to improve and automate the delivery and usage of financial services. At its core, fintech helps companies, business owners, and consumers better manage their financial operations, processes, and lives by applying specialized software and algorithms on computers and, increasingly, smartphones.
Fintech’s adaptability across a slew of consumer sectors is propelling its widespread acceptability. Managing finances, trading shares, furnishing payments, and shopping online (often on your smartphone) has never been more convenient.
At the forefront of the fintech disruption are agile innovations such as peer-to-peer (P2P) lending and crowdfunding, providing alternative lending platforms, and widening access to fundraising.
While they may currently still need some centralized form of finance, at the minimum, P2P lending and crowdfunding can use fintech and blockchain to quicken the process, avoid paying high banking fees, and garner the interest of digitally-minded Millennials and future Z-generations.
A recent report by consultancy firm Deloitte also states that the UAE houses over 50% of the region’s fintech companies, with nearly 39% of the population using fintech for P2P money transfer.
According to a report by Crowd Funder, a leading online source for the fintech industry, the number of financial technology companies in the Middle East increased from around 105 companies in 2015 to 250 firms in the year 2021.
Hanna Sarraf, a senior banking executive from the MENA region, said fintech is going to be the “game-changer” that will decide the winners and losers within the financial services industry, globally and in the Middle East, in the short and long terms.
He points out that new technologies and advanced data analytics are transforming the traditional banking business models from the way banks interact with customers to the way banks manage their middle and back-office operations.
The global fintech market is expected to reach $309.98 billion at a CAGR of 24.8% by the year 2022 according to many key sources from the banking industry. In the MENA, the fintech industry is expected to hit a record valuation of $3.45 bn by 2026.
The growth of this sector is currently being propelled by the rapid rise in fintech startups as a result of the very high internet penetration in the region. Another major factor is that several traditional banks are undergoing digital transformations or even becoming neo-banks, a trend especially evident in the UAE.
In a survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) last October, 70% of respondents said they are actively searching for a new bank, and 87% said they would be willing to open an account with a branchless digital-only lender.
Today, the UAE is leading the pack in financial technology and developing itself as a digital-first nation when it comes to banking, payments, and fintech, as evidenced by the UAE’s first digital bank to provide both retail and corporate banking services and which will soon be launched and led by Former Emaar Chairman, Mohamed Alabbar.
According to many experts, the fintech market in the MENA region is set to account for 8% of the Middle East financial services revenue by 2022. COVID-19 turned out to be a wakeup call to switch from traditionally deployed financial services to more sustainable finance and technology platforms
The fintech revolution is set to continue to disrupt, and traditional banks must keep up with the pace of technology in order to stay relevant and competitive. In this rapidly evolving, ever-changing market, it’s time to innovate, integrate and accelerate into the future.
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