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Paradigm Shift: Developing The MENA Region's Gig Economy The latest instalment of Entrepreneur Middle East's #EntMELive online webinar series had key players from the MENA business ecosystem commenting on the state of the regional gig economy, as well as the steps that need to be taken in order to bolster it in the long-term.

By Pamella de Leon

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.


Under the title "Paradigm Shift: Developing The MENA Region's Gig Economy," the latest instalment of Entrepreneur Middle East's #EntMELive online webinar series had key players from the MENA business ecosystem commenting on the state of the regional gig economy, as well as the steps that need to be taken in order to bolster it in the long-term. Moderated by MediaPix Limited Director Aly Ramji, the discussion was livestreamed to over 400 attendees online- here's a rundown of the key points brought up by the speakers in the event.

Natalia Sycheva, Senior Manager – Special Projects & Entrepreneurship, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Natalia Sycheva, Senior Manager – Special Projects and Entrepreneurship, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, kicked off the discussion by noting how the growth of the MENA's gig economy was an indicator of the population's rising interest in entrepreneurship as well. "What we see is that the entrepreneurship spirit remains very strong," Sycheva said. "This is based on the numbers and figures that we've seen at Dubai Startup Hub, the entrepreneurship initiative launched by Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2016. Since then, we have served more than 10,000 entrepreneurs and founders, predominantly in the tech field."

Even with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Dubai Startup Hub's membership saw a growth of more than 200%, which Sychev referred to as "an unprecedented growth rate." She also credited the UAE government's role in ensuring that startups get the support they needed. "Dubai and the UAE government have emphasized entrepreneurs and SMEs as the key part of transitioning to the digital economy, and building a knowledge-based economy," she said. "What's important when we speak about this is that it shouldn't be about anticipating and figuring out what entrepreneurs and startups would like to have, but instead about having these mature, established dialogues and collaborations between the government and startups and entrepreneurs."

Zaheer Merchant, Director of Corporate Affairs, QI Group

Given his role as Director of Corporate Affairs at QI Group, Zaheer Merchant pointed out how his enterprise's field of expertise -i.e. direct selling- sits in the sweet spot when connecting micro-entrepreneurship and the gig economy. As an especially people-oriented industry, direct selling is, according to Merchant, finding itself being driven by current trends in the digital space, which include social selling, data analytics, and influencer marketing.

The rise of tech savvy consumers who are open to developments in the space like enterprise and blockchain technology, omnichannel experiences, artificial intelligence, or virtual and augmented reality is also set to spur this ecosystem ahead. "With that entire mix, when there's a tech factor and a direct sales element attached to it, it's just a massive positive for the industry," Merchant said. Given that the interest in micro-entrepreneurship and industries like direct selling is only set to grow in the months and years to come, Merchant also highlighted the importance of creating a conducive environment that would enable such trends to further develop and grow.

Leena Khalil, co-founder and CCO,

In her perspective as a UAE-based entrepreneur, co-founder and CCO Leena Khalil noted that entrepreneurs, regardless of the industry they serve or the type of business they run, need to make the effort to effectively know their customers, whilst keeping in mind their limited attention span and the data overload they are exposed to on a day-to-day basis. "It's more fun than ever to try to reach the consumer, but it's more important than ever to understand who your target market is," she said. "Small brands are going viral globally and with very little marketing budget. It's all about knowing your customer and trying to be very, very creative."

Taking her own enterprise as an example, Khalil said that's growth in the years since its inception (and its recent acquisition earlier this year by Saudi healthcare distributor Tamar Group) was a result of the business always keeping its target customers at the heart of what it did and offered. "It was all about understanding the mom's journey, what a mom is going through, from her point of view," she said. "If I was launching a company today, I would feel that I need to have access to the relevant consumer group, and then, all I had to do was to understand them."

Related: Fostering Innovation: Insights From An Entrepreneur Middle East Round Table Presented By Du

Maria Paula Oliveira, MENA Innovation Leader, Ernst & Young

Having described her role as someone who "helps companies develop innovation muscles that enable them to thrive through change," Maria Paula Oliveira, MENA Innovation Leader at Ernst & Young, suggested that entrepreneurs need to make sure they are exercising their "innovation muscles" as they navigate the region's gig economy. "You, as a founder, need to learn how to run disciplined experiments," she said, but she also noted that entrepreneurs need to always be sure that their businesses are continually showing proof of progress by reaching key performance indicators in sales, customer retention, and other similar growth rate metrics. "All of these are innovation metrics if you do disciplined experiments- which you can later showcase to your investors to convey certainty and security," she said.

Abdelhameed Sharara, founder and CEO, RiseUp Egypt

Abdelhameed Sharara, founder and CEO of RiseUp Egypt, one of the biggest entrepreneurship summits in Egypt and the Middle East, emphasized the importance of building long-lasting relationships in a community of changemakers and trendsetters so as to solve today's pressing issues. "We're in a very fragile world right now, and part of this resilience that we can see in this community is because they're under one purpose or larger vision for a better world," he said. "They're all looking at problems and challenges as potential solutions, and trying to create new things in order to make the world better/easier going forward." Sharara also noted that while a community offered belonging, it could also help in developing user-centric and human-oriented solutions, as well as access to customers, insights, and likeminded people- something that can be of great use when operating in a gig economy.

With the direct selling market being a key part of the gig economy, here's what the industry looks like in figures

Retail sales of the direct selling market worldwide in 2020: US$180.5 billion
Leading direct selling markets worldwide in 2020: US: US$40.1 billion, China: $19.8 billion, Germany: $17.97 billion
2020 top 10 direct selling companies: Amway ($8.5 billion), Natura & Co ($7.16 billion), Herbalife Nutrition ($5.5 billion)
Largest product category of the direct selling market in 2020: Wellness
Top selling sales by product category in US in 2020: 37.4% wellness, 22.6% services, 17.9% home and family care, 12.9% personal car, 6.1% clothing and accessories, 3.1% leisure and educational
Number of direct sellers in US in 2020: 0.9 million full-time, 6.8 million part-time

Source:,,, Dubai Economy and Visa Middle East, Fitch Solutions Data

Related: The Recap: The Future Of Healthcare Forum Staged By The UAE Ministry Of Health And Prevention In Collaboration With Entrepreneur Middle East

Pamella de Leon

Entrepreneur Staff

Columnist, Entrepreneur Middle East

Pamella de Leon is the Startup Section Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East. She is keen on the MENA region’s entrepreneurship potential, with a specific interest to support enterprises and individuals creating an impact.

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