The Challenges Of Change In The MENA Entrepreneurial Ecosystem With startups in the region attracting a significant US$4 billion in venture capital during 2021-2022, it is evident that MENA is brimming with innovative and non-traditional thinkers.

By Jane Khedair

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Many of us feel concerned about the mutable nature of the modern world, which is continually being made and unmade before our eyes. Yet, there is a more uplifting and positive perspective that one might entertain. By taking control and choosing to plot a distinctive course of action, the future can be shaped and directed. As the American inventor Buckminster Fuller once said: "The best way to predict the future is to design it."

Buckminster's maxim is perhaps best characterized by what is taking place across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a region that has discovered its own unique enterprise-minded approach to benefiting from this period of revolution and persistent transformation. Small-and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the enterprise culture is the backbone of the global economy, and the MENA region is not an exception. These agile enterprises drive job creation, foster innovation, and contribute significantly to economic growth.

The MENA's dynamic business landscape showcases a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit. With startups in the region attracting a significant US$4 billion in venture capital during 2021-2022, it is evident that MENA is brimming with innovative and non-traditional thinkers. The surge in startups in the MENA region is driven by a multitude of factors, most notably the various government-backed initiatives which become crucial safety nets and growth drivers. The region has a growing young and tech-savvy population that is eager to embrace innovation and create their own opportunities. This, coupled with digital connectedness, has given rise to a generation of trailblazing entrepreneurs ready to turn their dreams into realities. Meanwhile, access to funds, which has historically been a source of frustration for entrepreneurs, is also becoming a non-issue, given how increasingly active angel investors, venture capitalists, and crowdfunding platforms are in the region. This is particularly pertinent against a backdrop of external economic challenges elsewhere, like high inflation and fluctuating interest rates, as well as dampening investor sentiment.

State-backed endeavors, such as Saudi Arabia's ambitious $200 million fund initiative as well as the UAE's emblematic "Make it in the Emirates" campaign stand as tangible examples to the region's dedication to innovation. Additionally, the UAE's National In-Country Value (ICV) Program further underscores its dedication to fostering homegrown entrepreneurial talent. Economically, the benefits of cultivating entrepreneurs and growing successful startups is clear. The growing number of SMEs in MENA signals a healthy, busily diversifying economy.

At the same time, reforms to business regulation and visa applications, and investment in infrastructure and technology, have created a go-to environment where business development is encouraged, and deal-making is straightforward. Such reforms and investments, together with the radical changes to business culture and outlook, are helping to grow the region's reputation, building trust in the economy, and fortifying the entrepreneurial ecosystem. As the MENA looks hopefully to the future as well as the anticipation that continual change will be the norm, we can begin to see more clearly the power of entrepreneurship: its potential as a force for good, creating many more opportunities for many more people, and making the region and the world a better place.

Personally, I do not share the dystopian view of the future that many among us seem to have. After all, we humans are too ingenious to lose out to pessimism. What is more than likely is that many more of us, in the MENA and across the world, will be running our own small enterprises. Those that grow fast and become bigger companies have the potential to create nearly all new jobs on the planet. By virtue of Moore's law (and further advances in digital technology), we are now running businesses with a global reach– virtual experts, able to do business anywhere. Imagine a world full of people exercising their creativity, and providing value to each other. Looking at the world in the later 2020s and beyond, I can see a bright future for us on the horizon. Our shift towards entrepreneurship and our sheer adaptability are positively inspirational.

Related: Dubai Chamber of Digital Economy Releases A Free Guide For Entrepreneurs Who Want To Launch Businesses In Dubai

Jane Khedair

Executive Director, Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital, London Business School

Jane Khedair is the Executive Director of London Business School’s Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital (IEPC). The IEPC, together with AstroLabs, is supporting the 2023 MENA Startup Competition. 

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