The pandemic has helped boost digital marketplaces in the region, opines Muhammad Chbib, CEO at Tradeling.
7 November 2020
The pandemic has propelled the use of e-commerce in the region and globally. What are the key trends you have seen? The most significant trend is the growth of homegrown capabilities in e-commerce in the region. Globally, while e-commerce has been recording strong growth – accelerated no doubt by the pandemic – the region has witnessed a transformational growth in the evolution of the digital economy. Not only have our homegrown companies demonstrated strong resolve to meet the needs of the people and support them, we have seen a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship – with new startups entering the market and building their own niche.
The second trend is more consumers warming up to the possibilities offered by e-commerce. While digital commerce was gaining momentum, one of the factors that has stymied its growth in the region is the relatively lower credit card penetration in some markets. There have also been typical concerns associated with conducting everyday business online. However, one thing the pandemic has brought about is the adoption of digital payments and the increased confidence of consumers to shop online and conduct e-commerce transactions.
In the B2B e-commerce space, how high is the penetration in the GCC market? Has it grown significantly this year? While B2B e-commerce was evolving at a slower pace compared to consumer-oriented digital business, this year has witnessed a real transformation. I believe it is a case of supply and demand. What matters is that in the new reality, business customers too want to access products and services easily, quickly and efficiently. We see a growth in the B2B marketplace – here in the UAE – and growing enquiries from across the GCC.
Which are the verticals within the sector where you see most scope for growth? It is really a matter of bringing more options to the customer, whatever the vertical. Customers like to shop around and feel they get value for money and exemplary service. But it is also a matter of sourcing new products and services that aren’t in the region yet.
For those entering the digital B2B industry, what are the main challenges? The main challenges are finding the right talent with expertise and insights into the B2B sector, which is a different terrain compared to B2C e-commerce. An in-depth understanding of the global market is essential in addition to knowledge of the trading dynamics. You must be flexible and agile to overcome any unprecedented situation. It is also a matter of understanding the customer – the B2B customer is very different from the B2C customer.
Our priority is making the customer journey seamless, taking away their pain points and streamlining processes to ensure efficiencies that save them time and money.
Tradeling launched in April, in the midst of the lockdown – how was your experience? Do you have any immediate plans to expand? We created Tradeling during the pandemic to connect regional and global suppliers to MENA-based business demand. Today, we have close to 400 suppliers from over 25 countries with gross merchandising value increasing from zero to a high two-digit million figure in just three months.
The key to overcoming the challenges was to enhance market confidence and we took decisive steps in this regard. Today, we have gone from a team of 40 to nearly 100 people and we continue to hire.
From logistics to financing support to ensuring a fully secure payment gateway, we are the first of our kind B2B platform across the region. This is our USP and this integrated approach to business has enabled us to address the challenges.
Looking ahead, what is the future of digital marketplaces in the region? Digital marketplaces constitute the future of retail and in the new reality, they will record a stronger rate of growth compared to brick-and-mortar retail. But the key for success is to define your own unique niche for the marketplace; increasingly, we see online aggregators trying to capitalise on the opportunity, which will only lead to market fragmentation. What we need is bold, innovative ideas that will help accelerate the momentum of e-commerce growth in the region.COVID-19DIGITAL MARKETPLACEE-COMMERCEGCCTRADELING
SMEs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) contribute approximately $1 trillion to the region’s economy per year, accounting for 96% of registered companies and employing approximately half of the workforce. Unsurprisingly, these businesses are the backbone on MENA’s rapidly evolving economies and are being recognised as a priority among the region’s governments. However, SMEs face fundamental obstacles to their potential growth, namely stringent regulations and compliance procedures, but chiefly access to finance. Indeed, traditional lenders have typically shied away from smaller and less established businesses in the wake of the financial crisis, instead opting for the assurances of larger companies.
However, as the region’s SMEs grow in importance, opportunities for alternative finance providers are emerging to plug the finance gap. Traditional lenders, including banks, are having to adapt and are increasingly responding to these needs and leveraging technology to ensure SMEs can tap into their full potential.
SMEs emerging as a priority
As the region shifts its economic focus away from oil to economic models that enhance the role of the private sector, governments have recognised the importance of SMEs. The added value of jobs and economic growth offered by these businesses has meant that SME have become a priority. For example, Dubai’s Department of Finance has most recently announced a set of initiatives to boost the UAE’s fledgeling SMEs, which have grown by over 30% in the last decade. Among these initiatives, the government has committed to allocating 5% of the government capital projects to SMEs.
Financial crisis still resonates for banks
With SMEs therefore seen as a catalyst for economic growth, they still face major obstacles that stop them from reaching their potential. Following the financial crash in 2008, access to funding has been more limited in the region and indeed globally.
SMEs face a $260 billion credit gap in the region, with just one in five SMEs benefitting from traditional finance and accounting for only 7% of bank lending. But now, the attitude of lenders, such as banks, is having to catch up as these businesses take on their role as pivotal contributors to economic growth.
Various types of alternative finance emerging
As a result of the credit gap faced by SMEs, innovative alternative financing options have emerged, fuelled by the increasing digitalisation of businesses in the region. Funding models, such as Peer-2-Peer lending are seeing growth increase, from $4.5 million total market volume in 2014 to $32.5 million in 2016. Over the same period, equity-based crowdfunding has enjoyed growth from $62 million to $100.32 million.
However, there are indications that this growth is slowing, where the lack of regulatory clarity and flexibility is making the activity of alternative finance providers more complicated.
Opportunity for traditional lenders fuelled by technology
The lack of regulatory clarity for alternative finance providers has created an opportunity for traditional lenders, such as banks – an opportunity they are beginning to tap into. The increasingly sophisticated digitalisation of finance has also enabled traditional lenders to adopt these processes, allowing them to mitigate risk and broaden their offering, making bank lending more accessible to SMEs.
One example of this is the growth of established models such as asset based financing and factoring. As this form of finance has evolved, the emergence of new technologies has improved its appeal to banks, making a long-established model increasingly effective, efficient and ultimately more attractive. This has resulted in asset based financing growing by 7% in the Middle East in 2018 alone – not far behind the global figure of 9%.
The increased take-up of such technologies by banks means that they can now not only compete with alternative finance providers to provide modern financing to SMEs, but they can also partner with these providers to evolve their offering even further.
MENA is experiencing a period of exceptional growth for SMEs, but in order to realise the true potential of these businesses, we must place greater focus on access to funding. Only with better access to finance can these businesses unlock growth as they navigate supply chains, working capital gaps and encourage innovation. Well established lenders have in recent years shied away from such businesses, but as technology evolves and the popularity of alternative finance providers signal the changing demands of businesses, there is an opportunity for them to tap into this market once again. Banks that recognise the opportunity to seize digitalisation and work to learn from the innovation in alternative finance, will be the ones who are working hand in hand with the region’s governments to ensure that the businesses that form the backbone of their economies reach their full potential.
This year marks a decade since Yahoo acquired Maktoob, in a deal worth $164 million. It was the first time that a technology company based in the Middle East had attracted such significant interest from a giant of its day.
At the time, the deal paled in comparison to the acquisitions and mergers typical in the region, between telecoms operators, industry and real estate. But for the entrepreneurship ecosystem, it was a seminal moment, validating the region as a place for technology and startups.
Back when this happened, there were no venture capital (VC) funds, mobile and internet penetration was low, Apple’s iPhone was still out of reach for most people and unicorns were mythical creatures with the power of flight.
Maktoob was founded in Jordan by Samih Toukan and Hussam Khoury as an Arabic webmail service. It grew to become the main destination for Arabic speakers on the internet and amassed 16 million users. Beyond the main portal, Maktoob offered online payments through CashU, an e-commerce platform that resembled US-based eBay called Souq and gaming company Tahadi MMO Games.
Yahoo was only interested in the main portal and so Toukan and Khoury established Jabbar Internet Group to absorb Maktoob’s other assets. In hindsight, Yahoo failed to see the consumer trends that unfolded in the region and the inevitable rise of online payments and shopping.
Souq became the biggest asset in Jabbar’s network. Emaar Malls reportedly made an offer of $800 million in 2017, but it was Amazon that would come to acquire the e-commerce site for $680 million of which $580 million was paid in cash. Emaar’s chairman Mohamed Alabbar decided to pump $1 billion into launching his own e-commerce platform, noon, as a result.
In between these two acquisitions, the technological landscape in the region had changed drastically. Internet penetration was on the rise, mobile penetration was close to or exceeded 100 per cent in every country of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Smartphones were also popular and Nokia’s dominance in the mobile phone market had been dismantled across the region, replaced by the app-friendly iPhones and Android-based Samsung and Huawei phones. With the introduction of 4G technology, the cost of mobile broadband fell from an average of $9.50 for half a gigabyte in 2016 to $5.27 for double the amount of data.
Empowering The Youth
Amid the protests and revolutions that disrupted the region’s economies in the so-called Arab Spring, the high youth unemployment highlighted the importance of the private sector for job creation. Entrepreneurship was presented as the silver bullet to stymie the rise of unemployment and a way to empower the youth, who make up two thirds of the region’s population.
Government policies and regulations across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) slowly became friendlier to entrepreneurs and investors. Efforts to cut down startup costs continue as regional competition to become a hub for entrepreneurship has ignited. Startups have been recognised as a way to create not only employment but a means to solve for problems that societies and economies face in the Middle East.
The general shift in attitude and government policies created fertile ground for companies like Dubizzle, Talabat and Babil to emerge, most replicating models and ideas that had proved successful in other parts of the world. Germany’s Rocket Internet arrived in 2011 and began founding startups aggressively, replicating successful business models to launch companies like Namshi, which was recently acquired by Emaar Malls, wadi.com and Carmudi. Serious investors began to emerge and institutionalise and the region became home to VCs and angel investors with an eye to reap lofty returns. Today, there are several funds dedicated to entrepreneurship and a few governments have established fund of funds, to co-match VCs and help develop a local ecosystem that can generate economic growth.
One of the most prolific of these early angel investors was Aramex founder and Wamda chairman Fadi Ghandour. He was one of the initial investors in Maktoob and then in Jabbar Internet Group before establishing Wamda Capital.
“The world was changing and I had felt the internet change the world, I already felt it affecting Aramex, so when Samih and Hussam came for investment, for me, it was a no-brainer,” he says.
Still On The Backfoot
But even after all these years, there has only been a handful of exits valued at more than $100 million across the Middle East. Oil still accounts for the majority of gross domestic product (GDP) in the GCC, youth unemployment is the highest in the world at 26.5 per cent according to the World Bank and costs to start a business in the current hub of the region, Dubai is among the highest in the world. For almost every country, regulations still need improvement beyond registering a business. Innovation is also lacking, the highest-ranking MENA country in the Global Innovation Index is the UAE at 36th place, behind smaller economies like Cyrpus and Malta.
Yet, there is hope.
“There are more mature companies and more mature VCs, so there are better deals happening. Exits like Careem and Fawry, those kinds of big companies that are having a real impact is one key metric of a potentially successful ecosystem,” says Abdelhameed Sharara, founder of RiseUp. “I think we are still very early compared to the US and China, but it’s a very promising space compared to the past.”
The region also has a more active female population in the startup sector, with 23 per cent of startups in Gaza and the West Bank led by women, while 19 per cent are led by women in Beirut, both ahead of New York which stands at 12 per cent. Even at RiseUp, women accounted for almost 40 per cent of the attendees last year.
“The region has really become a place where entrepreneurs can thrive and provides supportive environments for startups,” says Amina Grimen, co-founder of e-commerce beauty site, Powder. “In the beauty space, looking at the accomplishments of big female players like Huda Kattan and Dr Lamees Hamdan is truly inspiring.”
For purposes of mainly Invigorating Female Entrepreneurship in Egypt’s ecosystem, a “SHE CAN – 2019” organized by Entreprenelle, kickstarted by Rania Ayman in 2015 as an organization eventing conferences as a mean to empower and motivate women so as help them believe in their ability to change their destiny.
You’re reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.
SHE CAN 2019, a conference dedicated to MENA women entrepreneurs, hosted its third annual edition at the Greek campus, Downtown Cairo, Egypt, with the theme ‘Successful Failures’. Launched by Entreprenelle, an Egypt-based social enterprise which aims to economically empower women through awareness, education and access to resources, the conference held a wide range of panel discussions, talks and workshops on innovative thinking, creativity, technology, raising capital and invigorating female entrepreneurship in the ecosystem.
Gathering more than 5,000 participants and 50 partners, including UN Women, the Swedish Embassy, the National Council for Women, Nahdet Masr, Avon, Orange and Export Development Bank of Egypt, it also highlighted the endeavors of Entrepenelle alumni. It was also an opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from sessions featuring tips on pitching business ideas, mentorship, as well as startup competitions. Female-founded startups were also able to showcase their products and services in an exhibition area.
Speaking about the conference focusing on the necessity to experience failure on one’s entrepreneurial path, Dorothy Shea, Deputy Ambassador of the US Embassy in Cairo, commented, “As far as I’m concerenced, the sky is the limit. Women should be able to achieve whatever their dreams are. What I was struck by was this idea of “successful failures,” we need to not fear failure, it’s not a destination, it is a stepping stone to success. Sometimes there can be a fear of failure, but as part of this entrepreneurship ecosystem, they are really trying to move that inhibition away. We learn from our failures and then we take our plans to the next level. I was really inspired by this theme.”
Founded in 2015, Entreprenelle has more than 10 entrepreneurship programs conducted in nine governorates, including Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Minya, Assiut, Sohag and Aswan.
This article by Anthony Bartolo is about the Digital Transformation of all market sectors using Platforms in the context of the Middle East. Digital Platforms were in their worldwide application been copiously covered up until now. Could this essay published by TahawulTech be regarded as not only applicable to the Middle East but to the rest of the world.
There was a time when disrupting the status quo was the way to become a market leader. Now it’s simply a way of surviving. With the rise of the so called ‘platform economy’, it’s not just the likes of Uber and Amazon that are harnessing digital transformation – everyone is ‘moving fast and breaking things’, primarily to stave off competition and stay in business.
We have been witnessing technological innovations since the beginning of the 21st century. However, if you thought the past 10 years were disruptive, the biggest transformation is yet to come – especially in the form of employee mobility. Various researches have proved that mobility increases employee satisfaction, and subsequently improves their productivity. It is estimated that by 2022, 42.5% of the global workforce will be mobile.
Employees will be able to work anytime, anywhere, and can use their smart devices for work as much as they use it for leisure. Blue-sky thinking? It’s already happening and smartphones with a network connection or a device that is connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) is the go-to implement for this ‘mobile-first’ workforce.
So how will this mobile workforce shape in the new digital platform economy?
Anthony Bartolo, Chief Product Officer, Tata Communications
Supply isn’t satisfying the demand
With mobility, suddenly employees are liberated from being tied to a physical workplace. Enterprises now have their own social media space, using functionalities such as crowd-sourcing and the shared economy to create new ways of working.
To meet the needs of this rapidly mobilising workforce, CIOs must focus on a mobile platform approach that enables access to a multitude of corporate applications in real time via mobile, irrespective of the location or network.
Yet communications service providers (CSPs) are lagging behind. Although there are about 900 network based mobile CSPs, there is a reticence to expose networks and services to access via application programming interfaces (APIs).
Existing and emerging enterprises are now hungry for that exposure. They want to use that capacity to mobilise their workforce and open up access to a vast range of rich mobile services on a global scale.
There is a way forward
The next step then is to move on from simplistic mobile services – where end users simply send a message or make a call – to something much more sophisticated.
If service providers are prepared to offer more advanced mobile network services, then it’s win-win for buyers as well as sellers. Enterprises will see a significant shift in what’s possible via mobile – be it richer unified communications and collaboration experiences or easy access to cloud-enabled services. Meanwhile, the new business models and services that are created, can give rise to billions of dollars of added value for the mobile industry.
To get there is going to require another shift in thinking, where employers and employees start seeing mobility in the same way they view the worldwide web or cloud today. All apps, content and services should be accessible via mobile, irrespective of location and without the high cost of data roaming.
As the world moves towards 5G, we will see new models being adopted by mobile communications service providers. Mobile services can be delivered in a way that reflects how the worldwide web is constituted – offering a consistent, seamless experience and on a global basis.
The time to deliver is now
Ericsson forecasts that by 2022, we can expect 6.8 billion smartphones subscriptions around the world along with 29 billion connected devices.
Mobile services need to start delivering to this vast market now. And CIOs need to know that they can rely on programmable, borderless mobile services without any of the cost, security or access constraints they face today. The mobile communications platform of the future can serve as an innovation engine for next-generation mobile services, while acting as a powerful new revenue stream for mobile network operators
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