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The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business

The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business

When you’re looking at where to locate in the MENA region, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of the different regions. Here are Four Tips To Find The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business per Ahmad Saud Numan, Director of Marketing and Corporate Communications at Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone Authority (RAKEZ).

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Four Tips To Find The Right Place To Locate Your MENA Business
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Setting up a business is exciting, but it requires level-headed planning. To be successful you need to consider the logistics performance of the country in question, along with its reputation, ease of company setup process, simplicity of doing business, and opportunities for future growth. So, when you’re looking at where to locate in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of the different regions. If you’re considering this part of the world, here are four tips to improve your chances of finding the right place for your MENA business:

1. The best location for logistics A quick look at the World Bank Logistics Performance Index (LPI) helps define all the logistical considerations in six points: customs, infrastructure, ease of shipping, tracking and tracing, timeliness, as well as logistic services. These factors are important for all businesses and vital if you will be importing and/or exporting. Why the UAE has got logistics covered: In that World Bank Logistics Performance Index, the one MENA country that stands head and shoulders above all the rest is the UAE. It ranks 1st in the GCC and MENA. Globally it’s listed 11th, ahead of the United States and Switzerland. In terms of specifics, the UAE is placed 5th in the world for international shipments and 4th for timeliness. Meaning you can expect to have your deliveries reach their destinations by the deadline.

And it’s important not just to stop at Dubai when it comes to thinking about locations for your new MENA business. Investigate the other emirates that boast excellent logistical networks as well as ample warehousing space at a lower cost. Setting up in Ras al Khaimah, for example, is the perfect jumping-off point to do business across the UAE, the Gulf and entire MENA region, and it’s less than an hour’s drive to Dubai.

2. Finding an easy setup process Here we have to consider procedures, time, cost and minimum capital required to start a company. Different countries in the MENA region take different approaches to helping new businesses achieve this. There are a huge number of options, so it’s important to locate your company in a top-level business hub that can offer you a tailor-made solution. The UAE is always going to score highly when it comes to easy setup. Look for a hub within the UAE that gives you flexibility, allowing you to choose whether you want to set up on the mainland or in a free zone.

Why the UAE has the easiest setup process: In the World Bank’s Doing Business 2019 report, the UAE was ranked 25th in the world for starting a business, with a score of 94.06 out of 100. The MENA average was 82, with only one other regional country, Bahrain (89.57), breaching the top 100. Why? Well, the UAE was deemed to have hugely streamlined procedures and greatly reduced setup times. It’s worth looking outside of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well– Ras al Khaimah has put in place a highly-simplified and fast-tracked business setup process. So, look for a hub that offers this level of service, and get your company off to a strong start. It’s about costs as well: Choosing the right location can mean halving your setup costs.

3. The importance of a good reputation The MENA country you set up in will be a reflection of your business. Set up in one that is well respected for business equality and fairness and this rubs off on the organization itself. It also affects how you are perceived by companies in the MENA (and wider) region with which you do business. 

Why the UAE’s reputation speaks well for your business: The UAE has a great reputation for business for a number of reasons. It’s politically stable, has a strong economy, and offers state-of-the-art infrastructure. Its laws prohibit monopoly and encourage competition, while maintaining intellectual property rights and trademarks. No surprise then that it’s probably the major international business hub of the Middle East. Even if you do business outside of the UAE, being based there puts you in great standing with the MENA region.

4. Having the room to expand Whatever the size of your business right now, you’re probably aiming to grow. This means you need to keep options open because what might be the best choice now, especially in terms of location and suppliers, may change in the future. You need a location that offers flexibility. One that has good access to other markets and one that lets you expand your offering. For example, you could be attracted by the easy setup process and zero taxation offered by many UAE free zones, but perhaps one day you will want to do business directly with the mainland. Finding the right hub that allows that type of flexibility will be a vital part of your decision-making. So, it’s important to think about your immediate requirements, and how those requirements might change down the road.

Why the UAE helps your company grow: On top the strong economy and great transport links, choosing the right business hub in the UAE brings peace of mind that you are set up for years to come. You haven’t just taken an ‘off the shelf’ solution but got one that truly reflects the kind of business you want to run today, and tomorrow. 

Question your way to success

When setting up in the MENA region, you need to make an informed decision rather than a leap of faith. You can improve your chances of success by asking the right questions about your business needs and the locations on offer. The UAE ticks the right boxes– the question, then, is making sure you pick the right economic zone and the right location within it.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

In MENA’s Maturing Ecosystem dated September 3, 2019, author Chloe DOMAT says that “as the region’s digital startups and fintechs grow and prosper, they must learn to scale, despite a highly fragmented economy.”

The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

Once again this year, the digital economy of the Middle East and North Africa is set to break records. The first half saw $471 million in total funding and 238 deals, according to the latest report from Magnitt, a Dubai-based entrepreneurs’ network. That’s a 66% increase over the dollar volume in the first half of 2018 and 28% more deals.

Digital startups barely existed in the MENA region a decade ago. Now, fintech is a thriving sector embracing hundreds of new companies, jobs and investors. As the ecosystem expands with tens of newcomers each year, funding tickets get bigger and bigger.

“If we look back a few years, a deal at $2 million or $3 million would have made the headlines; today, we have multiple $10 million-plus deals,” says Omar Christidis, founder and CEO of Arabnet, a Beirut-based events and research company specializing in the region’s digital economy. “This is an indicator of the increasing maturity of the market.”

Major deals so far this year have included a $100 million capital injection in Dubai-based Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG); a $65 million Series A round for Yellow Door Energy, also in Dubai; and $42 million for Egypt’s Swvl, a transportation app.

There is still a disconnect, however, between the growing demand for funds at all levels and the capital currently available to satisfy it, industry insiders say. Money is expected to keep pouring in, as an increasing number of international institutions enter the region. Big names like Endeavor Catalyst (US), Vostok New Ventures (Sweden), MSA Capital (China), Global Founders Capital (Germany) and Kingsway Capital (UK) already make up a third of the Middle East’s investor list.

Aiming to attract even more foreign capital, countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also started establishing funds of funds.


CompanyActivityCountryFunding ($ Mil.)
EPMGReal EstateUAE100
Yellow Door EnergyEnergyUAE65
SwvlTransportEgypt42
AWOKe-commerceJordan30
Mawdoo3e-commerceJordan23.5
Jamalone-commerceJordan10
Noon Academye-learningSaudi Arabia8.6
Spriie-commerceUAE8.5
JustCleanServicesKuwait8
yallacompareFintechUAE8
 

For the first time, numbers of local companies are successfully reaching the end of the startup lifecycle and exiting through mergers or acquisitions. In March, Uber bought Careem, a Dubai-based ride-hailing application, for $3.1 billion, in a deal that marked the region’s first unicorn exit.

The pace has only picked up. At least 15 Middle Eastern startups have performed exits since January, including digital fashion platform Namshi, sold to Dubai’s Emaar Malls in February; the purchase by Majid al Futtaim, a Dubai-based shopping mall and retail operator, of Saudi Arabian online grocery store Wadi in May; and EMPG’s purchase of Jumia House, a property portal for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, in June.

These exits leave a new generation of former staff members with a lot of means. After Careem’s exit, 75 ex-staffers cashed out over $1 million each. That financial capital, as well as the beneficiaries’ acquired knowledge and expertise, will allow a number of them to start new business ventures.

The Imperative to Scale

While tech companies grow larger, entrepreneurs face new challenges.

“As mature startups move to larger funding rounds and raise interest for acquisitions, they need to scale operations, whether vertically with new business lines or geographically,” says Philip Bahoshy, CEO and founder of Magnitt.

Navigating across the region’s approximately 22 countries, each with its own complexities, is not easy, however. From Morocco to Iraq, Arab states differ dramatically from one another in size, population, wealth, laws, digital infrastructure and business culture.

“Seeing the MENA region as one big market is to a certain extent a misrepresentation because our markets are superfragmented,” says Christidis. “A company that wants to grow from Lebanon into Jordan into Iraq into Kuwait into Saudi Arabia has to enter five separate markets.”

The UAE is clearly driving the game. In the first half of 2019, the Emirates received 66% of the money invested in all MENA startups and captured 26% of the deals, according to the Magnitt report. Dubai has by far the most developed ecosystem, with a concentration of global firms’ regional headquarters, major funding institutions and accelerators.

The UAE, and Dubai itself, have worked to build an advantage. In 2017, the UAE became one of the first countries in the world to appoint a minister of artificial intelligence. Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has promised that the government will go 100% paperless by 2021.

“The UAE has been leading from the front,” says Amol Bahuguna, head of payments and cash management at Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD), which just launched a new e-invoicing service. “Everything that has to do with the government is going digital. You have a real top-down approach to innovation and things move fast.”

Much will hinge on how the UAE, and Dubai in particular, manage their response to the current economic slowdown. Recent government data show that real estate, financial services and tourism—the pillars of the economy—are in a slump. In 2018, Dubai also recorded its biggest net loss of jobs since the global financial crisis.

The Emirates have competition, too, from Saudi Arabia, the biggest emerging market in the region with over 34 million people and high purchasing power. The authorities there are keen to diversify their oil-based economy, including promotion of the digital sector.

Riyadh set up a fund of funds to attract foreign investors to support startups. Saudi authorities will invest dollar-for-dollar as a limited partner in any new fund that commits to investing in the kingdom. They have also promised to streamline the licensing process for foreign startups so that they can settle in Saudi Arabia easily.

New Saudi-based funds such as Saudi Telecom’s $500 million ST Ventures, Vision Ventures and Hala Ventures, that have emerged in the past three years, are becoming large players in the regional venture capital game, leading $10 million-plus investment rounds.

On the other side of the MENA map, North Africa is also showing strong digital growth potential. Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are investing heavily in the development of their own high-tech ecosystems, aiming to become the bridge to Europe and the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia recently passed laws supporting tech innovation; and in September, Tunis will welcome Afric’Up, a large pan-African startup-pitch competition.

Fintech’s “Gold Mine”

Although it hardly shows in this year’s top deals, fintech remains the fastest growing sector within MENA digital economy. In the first half of this year, fintech accounted for 17% of all deals, up 9% from 2018. Interestingly, almost 90% of the total $24 million funding went to early stage startups, underscoring that the sector is still in its infancy.

The data also reveals enormous potential. Arab countries are home to over 380 million people, half of them under age 26. Financial inclusion is among the lowest in the world, with only 52% of men and 35% of women owning a bank account as of 2017. The vast majority of those with bank accounts, however, own a mobile phone (86% of men and 75% of women).

By mid-2018, the whole MENA region, including North Africa, had 381 million unique mobile subscribers, according to GSMA Intelligence, a mobile industry trade body. Smartphones accounted for 52% of all connections and are expected to grow to 74% by 2025.

“These figures highlight the tremendous opportunity,” says Nameer Khan, founding board member of the newly established UAE-based MENA Fintech Association. “The region is literally a gold mine.” The lure for fintech investors and entrepreneurs is the chance to enter an untapped market in which hundreds of millions of users could leapfrog from the cash economy to the digital.

Fintech subsectors widely thought to hold growth potential include insuretech, robo-advisory wealth management and sharia-compliant services. But payment services, not surprisingly, stand out prominently for both the number of startups and the value of deals. Mobile payment, money transfer and lending platforms remain the main focus; while more-sophisticated technologies such as blockchain, the cloud and artificial intelligence still lag.

Egypt’s Fawry is one of the biggest success stories in payments. Launched in 2008, the company raised $122 million; its initial public offering on August 8 sold 36% of its share capital for $97 million.  Also attracting notice in the sector are PayTabs, a Saudi Arabian online payment facility that announced in August that it had raised $20 million to support its expansion in the region and into Southeast Asia, India, Africa and Europe; and the Dubai-based peer-to-peer lending platform Beehive, with a total capital injection of $15.5 million as of March 4.

The payment landscape looks to change rapidly, however, as larger players seek their share of the fintech market. Careem, for instance, claims over 30 million users in the region and is currently rolling out its Careem Pay e-wallet. If the service succeeds, Uber-owned Careem could become one of the biggest MENA fintechs.

Digital Banking Multiples

Banks and financial institutions view the fintech surge as an opportunity to outsource innovation and digitization. From simple online banking and mobile applications to investment platforms and e-wallets, most MENA lenders are seeking partnerships with startups. Some have even rolled out fully fledged, branchless digital neobanks, including Emirates NBD’s Liv., Mashreq Neo, and Gulf International Bank’s Meem.

These operate under a conventional lender’s license, however. Since they were developed by traditional banks, they are not industry disruptors, like startups Revolut and N26; rather, they act like new-business verticals, intended to seduce tech-savvy youth and target the unbanked. For a digital banking startup to seriously challenge the major players would be a monumental task.

“Banks in the Middle East are very large; what we are seeing recently is market consolidation, so they are getting even bigger,” says Arabnet’s Christidis. “I don’t think any of the startups really want to take them on, head to head. I’m not sure either that there would be investors ready to bankroll that kind of an investment. Furthermore, I question what kind of industry lobbying bite the banks would put on if they really started seeing that kind of thing emerge.” Christidis believes only an already established player from outside the region would have the financial muscle to give it a chance to compete.

Such a competitor might come from outside the financial sector entirely, however. Abu Dhabi Global Market, a key Emirati financial center, announced in July that it is ready to issue digital-banking licenses to nonbanking firms “with innovative value propositions.”

As this suggests, while the MENA digital economy is developing faster than ever, legal and regulatory frameworks need to adapt for growth to be sustained. Procedures to register a company, licensing and liability laws in case of business failure or bankruptcy are among the key differentiators governments will have to consider as they look to make themselves more competitive.

“Governments are showing concerted interest in building digital ecosystems for their countries,” says Magnitt CEO and founder Bahoshy. “There are still challenges to be overcome, but we can expect success stories to be more frequent, have higher value and have more impact in the coming years.”

Business set-up Package dedicated to Women

Business set-up Package dedicated to Women

Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ) has today launched its BusinessWomen Package, a ‘first-of-its-kind’ product in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) designed exclusively for women who are passionate about business.

Business set-up Package dedicated to Women
Business set-up Package dedicated to Women

The UAE’s first-ever business set-up package dedicated to women unveiled by RAKEZ

The package is offered at a pocket-friendly rate starting from AED 6,200 with instalment plan options, a free zone licence, a shared workstation and various support services in a one-stop shop.

Businesswomen who want to set up their company with the economic zone can either select the 1-Year or 3-Year Package. Both packages come with value-added services such as free usage of RAKEZ shared workstations, free printing of business cards, priority tokens at RAKEZ Service Centres and eligibility for a UAE Residence Visa(s). The 3-Year Package has an added benefit of one free investor visa, which is equivalent to AED 3,950. 

In addition, the newly-launched package gives businesswomen eight free zone licence types to choose from: Commercial, Educational, E-Commerce, General Trading, Individual/Professional, Media, Service and Freelancer Permit.

The UAE’s first-ever business set-up package dedicated to women unveiled by RAKEZ
The UAE’s first-ever business set-up package dedicated to women unveiled by RAKEZ

Commenting on the introduction of the new package, Ramy Jallad, Group CEO of RAKEZ, said: “We are very proud to launch the RAKEZ BusinessWomen Package, which is a clear testament to our commitment of encouraging more women to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams. In the past, we have conducted events exclusively for women, such as networking sessions. We have used these events as platforms to get to know what challenges they are facing and what can we do to support them. Then, here we are, we have introduced an entire package that has all the elements to help them become the successful businesswomen that they are meant to be. It comes with a selection of cost-effective office spaces, licences, as well as support services. All they have to do is pick the solutions that suit their needs and they are good to go.”

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr Jallad added. “Watch out as we are going to work on more initiatives to inspire women to be in business.”

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, there is a 40% gender gap in the Middle East and North Africa in various areas of the society, including business. Closing this gap by promoting female entrepreneurship can help the region achieve a more sustainable and inclusive economic growth path.

For information about RAKEZ BusinessWomen Package, please visit www.rakez.com/promotions/businesswomen.

It’s Good To Teach Entrepreneurial Thinking At A Young Age

It’s Good To Teach Entrepreneurial Thinking At A Young Age

Published by Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media, this article dated August 15, 2019, is an eye-opener on not only the educational requirements of the near future but on the times we’re presently going through. There are according to Helen Al Uzaizi CEO, BizWorld UAE, Three Reasons Why It’s Good To Teach Entrepreneurial Thinking At A Young Age.

Teaching entrepreneurial thinking at a young age can help kids learn and hone valuable skills that they can use to cope with stress and unforeseen issues that arise in their ever-changing world.

Three Reasons Why It's Good To Teach Entrepreneurial Thinking At A Young Age

Moving from childhood into adolescence can be a very challenging time for kids. Not only are social norms changing, but their ability to adapt to their quickly evolving environments is being developed. Schools change, responsibilities change, and their lives become different from day to day. Throughout this time, maturing happens, and it aids in their ability to critically think, react to situations, and become more independent.

But is there a way to develop these skills sooner to help them mature, and ultimately, cope better? In a nutshell, yes. Teaching entrepreneurial thinking at a young age can help kids learn and hone valuable skills that they can use to cope with stress and unforeseen issues that arise in their ever-changing world. Creativity, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence are just a few of these skills that can be gained through early teaching and long-term practice. For kids that practice entrepreneurial thinking, in difficult situations, they are able to problem solve effectively by analyzing long-term ramifications. This kind of processing comes with so many benefits that will bode well for kids from childhood all the way into adulthood.

1. Positive habit-forming Entrepreneurial thinking is not just an activity, but rather a lens through which all situations are viewed. This is also known as a “positive habit.” Instead of going down another path, the child has to make a conscious decision to change their perspective. By making these daily decisions, kids become more aware of the benefits that come along with forming positive habits and find them easier to engage in a variety of life aspects.

2. Emotional support When a child is able to effectively problem solve, and see the fruit of their efforts, positive feelings and increased self-worth follow. This internal confidence leads to kids feeling emotionally supported, and it has a great effect on their ability to take criticism and grow without fear of failure.

3. Behavior Most of the time, bad behavior comes from the inability to control one’s emotions and/ or the inability to communicate. Practicing entrepreneurial thinking solves both of those inhibitors by giving the child the tools to be able to look at the problem from a big-picture and emotionally intelligent perspective. All of the attributes that are gained from teaching entrepreneurial thinking tend to lead to better behavior, emotional health, and positive habits by giving kids the tools to not only cope, but thrive. Equipping them early helps kids navigate the landscape of their lives so that they can face obstacles with creativity and without fear. Difficult situations, new experiences and issues that arise are all the more easily handled and learned from by learning and practicing entrepreneurial thinking young.

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MENA start-up ecosystem on the rise

MENA start-up ecosystem on the rise

Saudi Gazette posted an article dated July 9, 2019, on MENA start-up ecosystem on the rise, explaining that it is all “positive news for the continually growing ecosystem with strong growth through a record number of transactions.”

DUBAI — Total funding across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)-based start-ups was up 66% from H1 2018, MAGNiTT, the region’s most powerful startup platform, said in its H1 2019 MENA Venture Investment Report, which provides an in-depth analysis of start-up funding and venture capital across the Middle East and North Africa.

The report highlights positive news for the continually growing ecosystem with strong growth through a record number of transactions.

Philip Bahoshy, MAGNiTT’s founder, said “the MENA region is hitting its inflection point. The acceleration of funding we saw in the latter half of 2018 has continued into 2019.”

Bahoshy noted that “there are many signs of an ever maturing ecosystem. As start-ups grow, we have seen more start-ups raising larger tickets, more exits and a continued interest from International investors in the region, especially from Asia.”

He also pointed to “UBER’s acquisition of CAREEM is another example of a large international player acquiring a local company after Amazon’s acquisition of Souq. This will further act as a catalyst to spur on the regions entrepreneurial environment.”

The report noted that H1 2019 saw 238 investments in MENA-based start-ups, amounting to $471 million of total funding. This is an excellent indicator, a 66% increase in investment dollars compared to H1 2018, in which $283 million was invested.

The number of deals remained healthy at a record high, up 28% compared to H1 2018, showing continued appetite in start-ups from the region at all stages of investment.

Noor Sweid, General Partner of Global Ventures, said “the growth in the start-up and tech ecosystem in the region is phenomenal, and yet, we are just at the beginning of a trajectory that will see technology-driven companies grow significantly and incredibly quickly over the coming years. These numbers illustrate the momentum and successes that the underlying companies and founders are achieving, and the growth in the investment ecosystem and opportunities alongside them.”

The UAE remains the most active startup ecosystem with 26% of all deals and 66% of total funding. Saudi Arabia was one of the fastest growing ecosystems, up 2% from H1 2018 recording 26 investments in H1 2019.

The UAE has maintained its dominance with 26% of all transactions made in to UAE-headquartered start-ups in H1 2019, while it also accounted for 66% of total funding.

Khalfan Belhoul, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, explains this by highlighting that “With the vision of our leaders, and a strong strategy in place, the UAE has cemented its position as an ideal destination for startups, founders, creative thinkers, and innovators. We have leveraged that vision, through creating dynamic co-working spaces, agile legislation that supports innovation and attractive visa policies for entrepreneurs and business professionals, and we continue our efforts toward positioning Dubai as a global testbed for cutting-edge technologies.”

However, the landscape continues to evolve. Tunisia was the fastest growing ecosystem in H1 2019 – receiving the 5th highest number of deals at 8% of all deals, up 4% from H1 2018. While Saudi Arabia recorded 2% increase in number of deals, up to 11% of all transactions across the MENA region.

FinTech retained its top spot in H1 2019 and accounted for 17% of all deals. Notable investments include the $8 million in Yallacompare, $6 million in Souqalmal and $4 million in Beehive.

E-commerce still remains prevalent accounting for 12% of all deals, followed Delivery & Transport, which was the third most popular industry in terms total deals in H1 2019, accounting for 8%.

The report furthered said 130 institutions invested in MENA-based start-ups in H1 2019, of which 30% were from outside the region.

500 Startups remained the most active venture capital firm, especially at early stage investments, while Flat6Labs was the most active accelerator program.

Moreover, H1 2019 saw the influx trend of foreign investors continue. The entrance of China’s MSA Capital and Germany’s food conglomerate Henkel, among others, highlighted continued international interest in MENA start-ups. In fact, 30% of all entities that invested in MENA-based start-ups were international investors.

Walid Faza, Partner and Chief Operating Officer of MSA Capital, said: “Chinese models are shaping the consumption habits of emerging market tech consumers and MSA’s deep knowledge in both ecosystems positions us to add a lot of value to companies based in MENA.”

EMPG leads the start-up ecosystem with a $100 million fundraise, followed by Yellow Door Energy and Swvl

EMPG receives the highest amount of funding by a single start-up, raising $100 million in February 2019. Yellow Door Energy ($65M) and Swvl ($42 million) complete the top 3.

In total, the top 10 deals in H1 2019 account for 62% of the total investment amount in H1 2019, down 9% from H1 2019. In terms of exits, H1 2019 has seen 15 start-up exits take place across MENA, an increase of 5 compared to H1 2018.

The largest of these was Careem’’ landmark exit to Uber. Magnus Olsson, Co-Founder, Chief Experience Officer noted “Our $3.1 billion deal with Uber was a hugely significant moment, not just for Careem, but also for the Greater Middle East. It was the largest tech deal this part of the world has ever seen and puts our region’s emerging technology ecosystem on the map of both regional and foreign investors.” On the impact the deal will have across the ecosystem, Olsson noted that “Careem views its colleagues as owners of the business and so we introduced an equity scheme that will now see them financially benefit from the transaction. We hope that the deal will act as a catalyst for the next generation of tech startups in our region.”

— SG

A new kind of company is revolutionising Africa’s gig economy

A new kind of company is revolutionising Africa’s gig economy

The World Economic Forum article dated 28 May 2019, could well be applied to most of the countries of the MENA region. Apart from the oil exporting ones, all the others’ informal economy appears to the naked eye as undergoing the same phenomenon but perhaps at a lesser density. In effect, very much like in the neighbouring sub-Saharan regions, the MENA’s informal markets seem to be pushing towards a new kind of business structure. A new kind of company is revolutionising Africa’s gig economy? Aubrey Hruby, Senior advisor to Fortune 500 companies replies.

For more than 30 years, governments and international development organizations have followed the same recipe for formalising the world’s informal economy; enacting new legislation and regulations or abolishing those that get in the way of the process.

Yet despite their efforts, 93% of the world’s informal employment is still found in emerging and developing countries, with 85.8% of employment in Africa considered informal. In Kenya, sub-Saharan Africa’s fifth-largest economy, the informal sector – commonly referred to as Jua Kali – is the country’s main job creator. According to the 2019 Economic Survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, Jua Kali was responsible for 762,100 of the 840,600 new jobs created last year. The ‘gig economy’, a new concept in developed markets, has been the norm in developing economies for decades.

A man waits for M-Pesa customers at his shop in Kibera in Kenya's capital Nairobi December 31, 2014. Safaricom, Kenya's biggest telecoms firm, is a model of how technology can be used to financially include millions of people with mobile telephones but without access to traditional infrastructure such as the banks that are available to the wealthy or those living in cities. Safaricom in 2007 pioneered its M-Pesa mobile money transfer technology, now used across Africa, Asia and Europe. It proved that money can be made from people who earn a few dollars a day.
Can ‘bridge companies’ like M-Pesa forge links between Africa’s formal and informal economies? Image: REUTERS/Noor Khamis

By 2035, Africa will contribute more people to the workforce each year than the rest of the world combined. By 2050, the continent will be home to 1.25 billion people of working age. In order to absorb these new entrants, Africa needs to create more than 18 million new jobs each year. Given the urgent need to provide jobs and livelihoods to Africans, it is time to examine the conventional wisdom that informal markets must transition into formal markets. Development finance institutions (DFIs) and private investors in African markets can play a critical role in both advancing Africa’s gig economy and changing the narrative that growth in informal markets is incompatible with sustainable development.

Across African markets, companies are pioneering business models that bridge the formal and informal sectors; in these models, each company is a formal entity but can mobilise large numbers of informal actors in their supply chains or service delivery. While this has been done in dairies in Kenya and at coffee and cocoa outgrowers across the continent and in other sectors for nearly a century, the penetration of mobile phones has enabled a new breed of African companies to monetise their ability to organize and inject trust into fragmented informal markets. However, unlike Uber or Airbnb, which disrupted largely formal sectors, many of Africa’s new ‘gig economy’ firms are writing the rules for whole new industries in local markets.

Perhaps the most high-profile example is Safaricom’s M-PESA. Since its launch in 2007, M-PESA, a mobile payments system developed by Kenya’s largest telecoms operator, has enabled millions of informal sector workers to move money at a lower cost, which has provided a significant boost to the Kenyan and Tanzanian economies. Another, more recent example, is Nigeria’s Cars45, operated by Frontier Car Group. Nigeria’s $12 billion used car industry is largely informal and characterised by distrust, a lack of standardisation and the absence of a structured dealer network. Cars45 facilitates the buying and selling of used cars by pricing and rating their condition transparently and conducting online auctions. Many sectors throughout the continent remain highly informal and would benefit from these types of bridges into formality. These ‘bridge companies’ are going to define the future of employment in African countries.

DFIs are ideally placed to invest in bridge companies in African markets, given their long presence and in-depth engagement with local financing environments. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the UK’s CDC Group already invest in technology-enabled start-ups, and others, including OPIC, are adapting their strategies to be able to do so. Many of the continent’s most promising technology-enabled bridge companies are starting to raise funding large enough to attract the attention of DFIs. Frontier Car Group recently raised $89 million, Kenya’s Twiga Foods raised $10 million, and Nigeria’s Kobo365 has raised $6 million. Overcoming a dearth of funding remains one of the highest barriers for African entrepreneurs, and the development impact of investing in those that improve employment is enormous.

The gig economy comes with limitations. Lack of legal rights, limited career progression, stagnant pay and a lack of benefits are just some of the issues that will need to be addressed in an ‘Uberised’ world. These challenges, plus the day-to-day economic uncertainty, make the informal sector far worse in many ways than the formal. Bridge companies – because they are registered, and have a public brand and centralised management – can be pressured into addressing issues around workers’ wellbeing. Studies into the financial behaviours and needs of low-income families by BFA, a consulting firm specialising in financial inclusion policies, found that workers often aspired to ‘gig economy’ jobs but hated casual labour (such as waiting on a corner to be hired for the day) because of the lack of reliability and predictability.

The future of work is changing and the mass job creators of today will not be able to meet the needs of tomorrow’s workforce in the same way. Bridge companies are pioneering new ways of injecting efficiency and higher productivity into traditional informal markets. Investing in this trend is critical to solving Africa’s pressing job creation need.

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