Localized entrepreneurship and innovation is transforming the Middle East and empowering individual changemakers to create solutions to problems in areas such as education, healthcare, and web-based communication through technology. A regional youth bulge is pushing for change, and the newfound individual autonomy provided by communications technology is changing conversations in the region surrounding women’s rights, the role of refugees, and political advocacy. This column, “The Middle East: Disrupted” aims to show readers how a revolution in technology and entrepreneurship is empowering Middle Eastern citizens to transform the region from the ground up, thereby disrupting the usual narrative of Middle East politics.
January 25, 2016 was the five-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution in which Hosni Mubarak was removed from power. Those 18 days of protest and disorder were organized largely through the use of communications technology. Despite the Egyptian government’s attempt to shut off all forms of digital communication, calls for revolution and justice ran through the streets of Cairo. And regardless of the failure of Mohamed Morsi’s democratically-elected government, there is hope for a new uprising within Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. An entrepreneurial revolution is transforming the hearts and minds of Egypt’s youth population and empowering them to change the country for the better.
Egyptian President al-Sisi has declared 2016 as the “Year of the Youth,” despite arresting hundreds of young citizens in the days leading up to the revolution’s five-year anniversary. Egyptians have spoken out against al-Sisi and the number of youth who have been arrested in recent weeks using social media. Yasmin Mahfouz, a young Egyptian woman tweeted, “Is this the ‘year of Egyptian youth’ or the ‘year of their incarceration?’” Inflexible government institutions, lack of opportunity, and unemployment are problems still facing Egyptian youth, but their fight to transform Egypt did not end with the Arab Spring uprisings in Tahrir Square or the fall of Mubarak in 2011. Egyptian youth have looked to other means to transform their society, demonstrating their resilience and entrepreneurial nature.
Entrepreneurship, especially in Egypt’s tech sector, is empowering individuals to take their futures into their own hands. RiseUp Egypt, an event which occurred in December of 2015, is an international conference celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation. The 5,000 attendees of the conference pitched their ideas and worked in teams to learn from one another. Startup ideas ranged from clean energy technology, to social enterprise solutions to support Syrian and Palestinian refugees. The successful and inspiring event held in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the uprising was encouraging to those who believe their hard work is having an impact on the country. Meanwhile, the arrests that were happening elsewhere in the country while the event occurred served as a painful reminder to Egyptian entrepreneurs of how much work has yet to be done and why they’re striving for change in their country. Dr. Ayman Ismail, Assistant Professor at American University of Cairo has observed that for Egyptian entrepreneurs, “At the end of the day the collective success is more important and you need to have enough scale for everyone to benefit. That scale comes from a lot of collaboration.” It’s not just about creating jobs anymore, but about working together and inspiring all members of Egypt’s society to make change through this entrepreneurial ecosystem. The Egyptian entrepreneurship is unique because it stretches across political viewpoints or family backgrounds. When taking part in Egypt’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, your “wasta,” or connections, won’t help you.
Youth have been disadvantaged by a lack of job opportunities and failed education reform since the late nineties. The 2011 revolution gave these unemployed youth hope, hope that ignited action. They’re responding to the unemployment crisis in the country by building jobs rather than waiting to receive them, turning to technology as a way to start innovative companies and use their skills, even when traditional jobs are not available. Egypt’s unemployment rate amongst those aged 15-24 was as high as 23 percent in 2014. The youth population has turned to technology in order to alleviate the burden of unemployment. For example, the founders of Agrimatic have developed new technologies to grow plants without soil in order to contribute to more sustainable food in the region. Kngine, a company in Sawari Ventures’ portfolio, has developed a unique algorithm to curate search engine data. Even more impressive, one of Kngine’s founders is a self-taught computer scientist. Over 50% of the founders of Cairo’s major tech companies have been between the ages of 21 and 26. With a young, tech-minded population, Cairo is seeing massive growth in mobile and web-based industries, which has spurred the rapid growth of its startup ecosystem. With 103 million mobile phone users throughout Egypt, it’s no surprise that the region-wide tech revolution has begun here.
Not only is Egypt’s growing tech sector helping to alleviate the burden of unemployment, but it is also exposing Egyptians to new opportunities for individual empowerment and civic engagement. Although this opportunity has yet to be realized in Egypt, there are developers throughout the world developing technologies to do just this. Take Nigeria, Africa’s largest mobile phone market for instance, where developers have created an app that allows voters to use crowdsourcing to report misconduct at polls on voting days. Although startups promoting civic engagement in Egypt have not yet been built through mobile technology platforms, Egyptian startups like Tatweer are promoting civic engagement by turning street kiosks into civic hubs, where community members can recycle garbage and receive community information. Entrepreneurship in Egypt is fostering a culture of inclusion, connection, and citizen engagement, the benefits of which have not yet been fully realized. For Egypt, a population that has more mobile phones than people, it is only a matter of time until its tech sector leverages this culture to challenge the status quo of a political system most Egyptian youth believe is solely benefiting those with wealth and status.
Egypt has not been primed for successful innovation and entrepreneurship due to its political instability and resultant lack of capital. Only recently have venture capitalists begun paying attention to the country, and Egypt’s entrepreneurs still face a significant financing gap. Despite a general fear of investing in the region, new Egyptian venture capitalist firms have focused their portfolios on local startups, rather than investing abroad, bringing capital that Egyptian entrepreneurs have historically lacked. Ahmed Alfi, the CEO of Egypt-based Sawari Ventures, a VC fund that has made nine investments in Egypt since 2011, believes that Egyptian youth possess a unique willingness to take the risk of starting their own business, despite political instability. Although a number of successful Egyptian entrepreneurs have found success in places like Silicon Valley, it was not until recently that these brilliant minds began to focus on finding solutions to the problems of their local societies. Egyptian entrepreneurs are not only developing new mobile and web-based technologies, but are developing socially conscious solutions to problems facing their society. Nafham, for example, is an educational platform that offers free online classes through crowdsourced videos, thereby working to make up for educational shortfalls in Egypt, and the rest of the region. It is this locally-based social consciousness, paired with the desire to find solutions to problems they face every day, that is allowing this entrepreneurial revolution to transform Egypt for the better.
The tech revolution occurring in Egypt is just one response to the vast youth unemployment problem facing the Middle East. It is my belief that through tech entrepreneurship, a new generation of innovative youth will take ownership of Egypt — of their people — and reshape their country long-term. These entrepreneurs are finding legal and regulatory loopholes and creating collaborative ecosystems that empower their fellow Egyptians, despite setbacks at the hands of the government. 2016 can be the “Year of the Youth” in Egypt, but the youth of Egypt have been driving change for years now, largely through innovative entrepreneurship and community-building. Egypt’s entrepreneurship ecosystem has already begun to spread throughout the region and encourage a more diversified knowledge economy, in places like Saudi Arabia that have historically struggled to do so. Perhaps the tech industry will not be fitting for all of the economies in the region, but entrepreneurship is proving to be a crucial facet of the economic diversification challenges facing almost every country in the region. And with the economic diversification that comes from a strong culture of entrepreneurship, citizens will be empowered to take ownership of the fates of their nations.
Miranda is a fourth-year Finance & Political Science combined major with minors in Global Social Entrepreneurship and International Affairs. Miranda has a strong interest in international relations, with a special love for the politics of the Middle East. She’s especially passionate about the role of small business development and entrepreneurship education in the region. Miranda recently completed a Saudi Arabia exchange fellowship through the National Council on US-Arab Relations, and is dying to travel to the Middle East again. Previously, Miranda has completed a co-op at Amazon.com and has just started her second co-op at Endeavour Partners, where she works as an Associate Consultant. As for campus activities, Miranda is an active member of the International Relations Council, IDEA, and the Social Enterprise Institute. In her free time she enjoys reading poetry by R.M. Drake, taking pictures, and running outside (at a snail’s pace, mind you). Read her column here.