The employment challenges facing the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and beyond are clear. Some 65 per cent of the region’s population is under the age of 30 and the rates of those out of work range between 20 and an alarming 40 per cent – translating in some areas to twice the world average. This means that a staggering 100 million new jobs must be created in the region by 2020 to prevent these unemployment statistics from rising further, but a dearth of readily-available credit combined with regulatory barriers to business creation in the private sector has created a knot that is only getting tighter.
The solution that is being championed across the region is entrepreneurship – the ability of young, motivated people to create their own opportunities through a combination of talent, determination and tenacity.
One initiative that has been launched to spur this effort is Wamda, a pan-Arab platform designed to galvanize entrepreneurship in the Middle East and North Africa, supported by leading private equity firm Abraaj Capital in Dubai, in conjunction with a number of private-sector, educational and government partners, including Aramex. With three main vehicles- a seed investment fund, a media arm, and an upcoming series of programs and products, it is designed to inspire, empower and connect the region’s entrepreneurs. In the words of Habib Haddad, CEO of Wamda, “in an emerging market where the ecosystem is missing some of its core elements, we need to take a 360 degree approach by igniting those elements simultaneously. This is why we invest in, provide media coverage for, and advise startups at the same time.”
The content is certainly rich enough to both inform and illuminate, with thousands of articles and original videos on regional entrepreneurs, innovators and SME facilitators uploaded to the site, as well as features and tailored “how to” guides on setting up, running and growing a business. Resources include in-depth country information guides and reports and statistics from leading business schools and think-tanks, as directories of local suppliers. Underlining that entrepreneurship isn’t simply the process of starting a business but an ongoing philosophy, there are also sections on leadership and strategy.
“It is designed to facilitate entrepreneurship in the Middle East North Africa region,” says Tom Speechley, Member of the Executive Committee at Abraaj Capital. “We asked ourselves how would it be possible to increase the capacity of entrepreneurs in the region, and put them on the same footing as their counterparts in more developed markets. Obviously, there’s investing money in SMEs, and we’re already doing that through our Riyada Enterprise Development programme. The other are is to build entrepreneurial capacity by providing inspiration, knowledge and a platform on which they can connect and share.”
Wamda, which means “spark” in Arabic, is intended to unite the “islands of entrepreneurship” in the region. The Middle East and wider MENA region is hardly lacking a culture of business ownership, but the support networks, educational resources, funding vehicles and peer-to-peer connections that enable small companies to flourish have been sorely lacking. Wamda seeks to reduce the barriers to development and empower local entrepreneurial spirit. “We want everyone to engage in this exchange,” says Tom Speechley. “Entrepreneurs, managers, investors, policy makers, advisers, trade associations, NGOs, and so forth. Through Wamda, an entrepreneur can seek a mentor, and in due course you’ll be able to seek out angel investors, too.”
A series of “webinars” has also been launched, providing another platform for industry-specific insight from business authorities. But it’s not only about publishing information online. In the last few months, the site has been active in the ecosystem across the region, for example hosting a Facebook contest for the Best MENA startups in 2011in which users voted for the best startup in each category.
Wamda is a powerful example of corporate leadership fulfilling an important societal need. Delivering such a tool will, it is hoped, help develop the next generation of regional business success stories – and deliver lasting change to a region in need of both economic opportunity and business diversity.