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The Little Island With Big Ideas A look into Bahrain's entrepreneurial ecosystem and the startups, entrepreneurs and governmental and semi-governmental entities who are part of that ecosystem.

By Fida Chaaban

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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It's hard to know where to start with this feature after spending a week in Bahrain getting to know the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and the entrepreneurs who are part of that ecosystem. From startups to full-fledged lifetime achievers who have inspired generations of their families to follow in their footsteps, there really is a ton of enterprise activity in Bahrain. I can tell you for a certainty that things on the island are different: to begin with, there is synergy between all the governmental and semi-governmental entities that promote and support entrepreneurship in the private sector.

In the eye of this storm is Tamkeen, and heading Tamkeen is Chairman and Acting Chief Executive H.E. Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa Al Khalifa, who is also the Political and Economic Affairs Advisor for the Court of the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Bahrain. A semi-governmental entity, Tamkeen can be considered the epicenter of all things startup and SME in the Gulf state, and concerns itself solely with developing the Bahraini private sector and supporting the growth of the Kingdom's enterprise space and entrepreneurs.

H.E. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Essa Al-Khalifa, Chairman and Acting Chief Executive, Tamkeen.JPG

Established in 2006, Tamkeen's tagline, "working for a prosperous future," isn't just a tagline. Every person I meet with who is even remotely connected to entrepreneurship has heaps of praise for the organization, and through Tamkeen I was familiarized with the entire structure of the startup and SME space in the Kingdom.

For those of you who aren't aware of the bevy of opportunities available to entrepreneurs in Bahrain, let me assure you that this little country has a big voice. Not only do they have banks ready to wade right in and finance projects even from ideation stage, they've also developed a number of singular startup showcase models that I haven't seen anywhere else in the MENA region. One such example is Riyadat, the Bahrain Women's Competence Development Centre, a several-storey mall of outlets comprised of women-founded startups allowing them very low subsidized rent spaces that they can use to sell their products and services. A collaborative effort between Bahrain Development Bank (BDB), the Supreme Council for Women (SCW) and the Bahrain Business Incubator Centre, Riyadat Mall is essentially a women's incubator that actually gives startups a chance to be directly in touch with their potential customer base while receiving the benefits of incubation.

Annada scarf 90 X 90, The Point's End Lailac by artist Ebrahim BuSaad

One of the startups that has tenancy in Riyadat is Annada. Far into the profit range, Annada founder Nada Alawi now exports her wares globally and her small second floor space in Riyadat acts as both workshop and atelier. It's worth mentioning that Tamkeen gave away hundreds of special edition Annada scarves imprinted with the Bahrein Noor El Ain festival logo as guest gifts at the first Bahrain Awards for Entrepreneurship, supporting Annada by actually acting in a customer capacity.

The tenants of Riyadat Mall are guided on actionables like business development, financial planning and even HR concerns, and setting up shop there is considered somewhat of a partnership between Riyadat themselves and the entrepreneur behind each company. Shatha Rashid Al Jalahma, Senior Manager of Riyadat, adds that they have anchor outlets like telco Zain and popular Bahraini restaurant Basta 23, who have agreed to come into the space as a CSR initiative of sorts to encourage footfalls, so that the entrepreneurs have a better chance of engaging with fresh clients and drumming up new business.

+973 Artisinat, a national project launched in 2012, is another such cross-organization collaborative effort to give budding startups who show promise in design, artisanal endeavors and handiwork crafts a space to display and sell their products. The retail setup is presented in a fashionable factory model, and the design of the structural interior was actually executed by Bahraini entrepreneurs. Dr. May Al Otaibi, CEO of Mayasem Communications, walks me through the space detailing +973's numerous micro-business success stories. "Once a designer has reached a certain level of success after a personalized period assessment, their space is allotted to a new entrepreneur for two reasons: to change the selection of the products and designers available to customers, and to give new entrepreneurs a chance for the exposure we can provide and the business."

Riyadat Mall, an incubator for women's startups in Bahrain

Dr. Al Otaibi singles out The Wood Jewelry, an artisanal woodcrafts range founded by Mohammed AbuDrees, as a notable Bahraini story of entrepreneurship and artwork. The woodworked keepsakes are collected far and wide, and the homegrown brand is consistently given a section in +973 because it acts as a traffic draw. The Bahraini Ministry of Industry and Commerce interacts with +973 closely, and directly supports this and many other undertakings involving businesses even at the micro level. "We're always active, we host exhibitions and we use every kind of promotion from social media to advertising. I think mainly, the benefit is twofold: the exposure and the help, and also having a space to present your work and see it as a business."

At the time of my visit to +973, there was also a pop-up coffee shop by a young Bahraini entrepreneur placed in the far corner of the factory space serving a variety of light bites and beverages. "Last year we graduated 60 entrepreneurs, and we're very proud of this. We have graduated seven very famous Bahraini brands now; a few have moved on to Riyadat Mall. No one can believe how much the government is doing for the people here- Tamkeen is here is help, they'll cover their expenses up to 80% and there is no program out there like this. National projects generally don't have this kind of vibrancy; this space is alive and I want everyone out there to know how even the royal family themselves contribute and support +973."

"Her Royal Highness the wife of King, Princess Sabeeka [Bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa] personally came to open this project." Narjis Haider Al Moosawi, Director of Small and Craft Industries for the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, points out countless different levels of interaction between the respective Ministries and all the different areas of Tamkeen -all of this is structured to provide every type of assistance imaginable- no matter how small the idea, and no matter how untrained the "trep. "These measures are extremely important to us as 90% of our business here is SMEs. We partner with several entities, like UNIDO. Every month we have two batches and we bring them mentors to help with finance, marketing, feasibility studies and everything we can," explains Al Moosawi.


After my tour and introduction at Riyadat, I am also introduced to Dr. Hashim Suleiman Hussein, the Head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization Investment & Technology Promotion Office (UNIDO-ITPO) in Bahrain. He walks me through the various programs they have for entrepreneurs past, present and upcoming, and they too are many and comprehensive. UNIDO's work in Bahrain runs the gamut from training and mentorship to actual event staging like the Health and Wellness Exhibition for "treps exclusively for "fit and healthpreneurs through UNIDO's Health and Wellness Program" that took place on March 21st at the Al Basta Market, Bahrain International Circuit under the patronage of H.E. Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa, Governor of the Southern Governorate and staged in cooperation with the Ministry of Health. If you've got a business idea, UNIDO-ITPO will find a way to support you, and that will include tutelage and actual hard training in finance. The entrepreneurs that UNIDO-ITPO works with are rigorously vetted, and they cooperate with Tamkeen across a number of channels as well. Another workshop event that took place in March was "Secrets of Business Innovation and Innovative Entrepreneurship: How to Lead, Create, Market, and Sell Like an Innovator," as part of the Bahrain International eGovernment Forum 2015.

But what about the money aspect of it all? Eva Hasan, Private Sector Support at Tamkeen points out that "there are a variety of banking institutions available to people here looking to setting up business. Tamkeen is in partnership with BDB; on a yearly basis, we inject around 50 million dinars just to provide facilitates to entrepreneurs or entrepreneurs-to-be in loans and equity. We offer a full solution, and this includes subsidies, grants for your equipment, consultancy services, participation in exhibitions, as well as taking you to the next level by providing you with total quality management, ISO certification etc.- we call it the Jawda program. We believe by providing you with this grant amount and investing in you, that will position you on the market. Alhamdulillah, from 2007 until now, more than 29,000 SMEs were served throughout all of our programs including finance and incubator schemes, enterprise support program and others."

Hasan explains that the multi-organization cooperation was needed to provide every level of support, and I can attest that during my week in Bahrain, every part of the ecosystem was accessible and ready to explain where and how they fit into the total picture. Hasan is clear on Tamkeen's mission: "Our main focus is to make the private sector the engine of growth. We conducted a study in 2006 to see the market gaps, and find out what obstacles forbid SMEs from growing. Those challenges were converted into solutions- like access to finance. Whenever there is small to medium enterprises, there is Tamkeen."

And there is also BDB, judging by the number of different cross-over initiatives that mention BDB as a key partner. Sheikh Hesham Mohamed Al Khalifa, Deputy General Manager of Development Services at BDB is a big proponent of everything entrepreneurship, and like everyone else I speak to in Bahrain, asserts that there is a bevy of enterprise talent on the island, and that there is always room for more burgeoning businesses. "Our mission is to foster an entrepreneurial, innovative and enterprising society. We are the enablers for those that dare to dream." Operational since 1992, BDB is licensed by the Central Bank of Bahrain as a conventional retail bank and a great deal of their work revolves around encouraging the health of the private sector.

Dr. Hashim Suleiman Hussein, the Head of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization Investment & Technology Promotion Office (UNIDO-ITPO)

"We have the Bahrain model, endorsed by UNIDO as the best SME model development in the world; there's about 42 countries follow it. That model takes a would-be entrepreneur from the idea stage to training, coaching, pre-seed capital, incubation, financing and equity participation as well from the bank. I feel it's an opportune time today for entrepreneurs to actually pursue their dreams." Sheikh Hesham talks fondly about several of the bank's programs from Takween, a partnership between BDB and the Ministry of Education to empower and equip school age children with the idea that they can grow up to be entrepreneurs, to Rowad, "our long-term plan that identifies the entrepreneurs and innovators."

A decade ago, at the beginnings of Rowad, 30% of the startups backed by BDB moved into the profit-making stage, and now a significant 80% of their startups are in the profit-making stage. What are the qualifiers for funding? "It takes a willingness from the person –we don't look at the person if he's bankable or not in terms of collateral, we look at the person themselves, if we can bank on him- not just the idea. We bring them in, and they are assessed in a way to give them the ability to understand their own set of skills and what they need from Rowad. It's not just subsidized rent in an incubator, it's actually presenting them with soft skills, guidance, mentorship, and training for them to succeed. Financial literacy is also part of the program."

The Sheikh mentions that Bahrain is celebrating tons of success stories just in the last decade, and through BDB's partners, they endeavor to continue to educate people that starting their own business is a viable alternative: "We all work in partnership here, entrepreneurs looking to set up in Bahrain can come see us, they can see Tamkeen. Be it equity, be it financing- there is a way for us to help."

Sheikh Hesham Mohamed Al Khalifa, Deputy General Manager Development Services, Bahrain Development Bank

A former entrepreneur himself, Sheikh Hesham was later appointed to his position at BDB and has a vested interest in seeing Rowad's candidates succeed. "The direction of supporting and promoting entrepreneurship began with meetings on a weekly basis back in 2000, 2001. The CEO of BDB, Dr. Hashim [Suleiman Hussein] of UNIDO, and myself, we were thinking of how to foster the entrepreneurial culture, and we came up with the Bahrain model."

BDB also distributes its own quarterly entrepreneurial publication in both English and Arabic to support the program, Rowad Magazine, featuring success stories that Sheikh Hesham personally endorses. "Ali Al Khayat is a great example. This guy started from a small village, Sitra, and he worked as a mechanic on marine engines. He later opened a small workshop, and then dared to dream and came to BDB. He now owns one of the biggest furniture factories in Bahrain." Incidentally, Al Khayat, the founder of what is now known as Creative Design, was awarded the SME Enterprise of the Year distinction at the Bahrain Awards for Entrepreneurship less than 24 hours after this interview took place.

Another entity that crosses over with Tamkeen heavily is the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) in a myriad of links and cooperative capacities. "Tamkeen is a sister organization to the EDB. We almost have a remit to work with the different divisions of Tamkeen in different ways. Our main role at EDB is to bring in foreign direct investment into Bahrain, address policy-related issues in the country that affect the business environment, and to support entrepreneurship in Bahrain in the country," explains Vivian Jamal, Executive Director of Business Development at EDB. She is yet another big proponent of the country's prime positioning and affordability, highlighting various incentive schemas afforded to both Bahraini and foreign companies, large and small.

Vivian Jamal, Executive Director of Business Development, Bahrain Economic Development Board

"Each country in the Gulf has its own specificities, and I know that external countries in the world don't necessarily understand it so they kind of brush us all with the same stroke. When you actually look at Bahrain versus some of the other countries, there are three things that set us apart. First, the access and the market- we never look at Bahrain on its own because it's just too small of a market itself, but we're the closest neighbor to Saudi Arabia. We know our environment is conducive socially or from a business perspective; it's conducive to having internationals [expats] live here and do business there. We're sort of a platform to do business in that area, and there are certain restrictions in Saudi that we don't have here. Basically, in that sense, the infrastructure is set up to support that. We're a smaller country so we're also protected a little bit from the inter-regional competition."

The benefits of basing your enterprise in Bahrain doesn't end at proximity, it's also about having the power to make things happen for your business, and in the event things go awry, get a quick resolution without wading through red tape. "Just due to our small size, we're an agile country, meaning that it's very simple for companies to set up and find their way through the system. If you have a specific problem as a corporation that you need resolved, it's easy to get an appointment with the right official and get that sorted out. You may be a small fish, but because you're in a little pond, you're given the access."

Jamal says that SMEs account for 73% of the employment in the country, and that one of goals for their 2030 Economic Vision is to raise the GDP percentage it accounts for as it's currently sitting at only 28%, and that also ties into fostering more startups that can grow into SMEs. "We have an annual Tenmou MENA Angel Investor Summit which looks at startups from around the region. People fly in and there's a competition, and they vie for an award which is basically a sum to help them get started."

This year's Tenmou event will take place in May, and I'm hoping to see tons of "treps from across the region head to the island to get to know one of the most enthusiastic ecosystems in the GCC. I did, and I came back to tell you what they already know: starting up in Bahrain is feasible and even beneficial, and they'll do everything they can to help you succeed.

Rowad Magazine, published by Bahrain Development Bank, featuring entrepreneur Ali Al Khayat on the cover
Fida Chaaban

Chief Communications Officer, KBW Investments

Fida Chaaban is the Chief Communications Officer of KBW Investments, a privately held Dubai-based investment concern that works across multiple sectors. Prior to her most recent appointment, Fida was the founding Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East and Entrepreneur Qatar magazines. She is a big believer in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region’s startup ecosystem, and endeavors to use both print and web to positively encourage development in various entrepreneurial spaces and across industries. Based in Dubai, UAE, Fida is a social media enthusiast and sees it as the medium of today’s effective enterprises.
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