Building Start-Up Culture in MENA 2.0

A friend today emailed me an interesting article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review that describes the rapid growth of Al-Tibbi, a Jordanian start-up bringing Arabic-language health technology to the masses. The founders of Al-Tibbi have managed to find both a market niche and investment capital allowing them to to grow ”from 5 employees in 2010 to 23 in 2012, plus 10 freelancers.” While the particular future of global e-health is fascinating and filled with potential, I think the larger story here is the entrepreneurial opportunities that are being created all across the Middle East and North Africa, aided by expanded internet penetration. The article explains that:

This conversation now also includes e-commerce—in fact, business-to-customer online sales in the region could reach USD$15 billion by 2015 (MRG International—October 2011). In a recent report of 8 countries by the Dubai School of Government, 84 percent of 4,000 Internet users said that social media tools can assist in developing entrepreneurial skills, and 86 percent thought that social media was an important tool for startups. This suggests that Internet users are looking to the online space to shape civic and commercial participation, helping them to learn and enhance productivity.

The transition countries in North Africa are facing myriad complex challenges from the development of civil society, political reform, economic diversification,  and addressing staggering unemployment.  But these issues aren’t silos. There are tools that can help move the dial a many of these fronts simultaneously. Connecting foreign capital to educated wannabe entrepreneurs in Tunisia, for instance, would be great for the local economy, the investors, the composition of and stability of the national economy and tax base, in addition to creating tools and platforms that can be used to shape and enhance civic participation.

A long-term strategy for aiding the development of a more open, democratic, and prosperous Middle East will require action in many areas, but an important and under-discussed tool should be a huge push for creating and empowering entrepreneurs in the region and then connecting them with investors, capital markets, and partners. Once we stop thinking of the region as a series of fires to be put out, we can start to see it for what it is and can be: A growing consumer market of 300 million people that is brimming with potential based on internet penetration,  mobile adoption, relatively high levels of education, and a deep hunger to create better lives for themselves and their neighbors. That’s MENA 2.0.