Move over, Brazil, Russia, India and China – the next wave of technological innovations could come from the Middle East and Africa, where novel uses of social networking, ingenious life-hacking strategies and young, booming populations are combining to nurture a clutch of young start-up scenes. That’s the case that Amit Vyas, the Dubai-based chief executive of the marketing and ad agency Nexa, will be putting to a crowd of American tastemakers at South by Southwest (SXSW), the mammoth festival for technology, film and music in Austin, Texas, during a session on Saturday called Forget BRIC! Middle East & Africa, Please Stand Up.
Vyas, a Londoner who studied computer science and business at Aston University in Birmingham, moved to Dubai in 2005 after he saw a gap in the market he knew he could plug. Local companies were struggling to create an online presence and wasting money on ad campaigns that didn’t work. Within a couple of months, he had found work helping them create websites, set up newsletters and get involved with social media, even though it was tough in some cases, he says, convincing people “to give up their billboards”.
Later, he helped local start-ups such as BlogyMate, a blogging platform, get on their feet, providing office space, training and contacts. The site now has a million users and there are plans to develop a complementary “content marketplace” called Quontent, where businesses in need of content can commission bloggers directly. It will launch in the next couple of months, Vyas says, and he’s looking to open new offices for his own company Nexa in the region – possibly Saudi Arabia or North Africa – in 2014.
“The UAE as a whole breeds entrepreneurialism,” he says. While he’s always been business-minded, he’s seen a lot of people change after they land in Dubai. “People in safe working environments are willing to give all that up and follow their dream.” It’s one of the reasons, he says, that along with a lot of solid infrastructure, a big workforce and access to early-stage funding, the UAE is a great place for young businesses to thrive.
He’s also excited about the future of the tech scene in the region more generally, mentioning the high adoption of Instagram in the Middle East; the “incredible talent” coming out of Egypt, Jordan and South Africa; and the Kenyan money-transfer and microfinancing service M-Pesa, which cracked a problem no western company could solve: how to easily transfer money between users who don’t have access to a bank branch or the internet.
It’s an encouraging picture, but Vyas also makes clear that there’s a lot more that needs to be done before the region can fulfil its potential. The big money for tech investment, he says, is still coming from Europe and the United States, where there’s an understanding that successful local companies may not be profitable in the first few years, and he advises Middle Eastern and African start-ups to build up their reputations in these parts of the world.
SXSW, for example, has a Start-Up Village, where young companies can network and demo their products, and Vyas says that often countries or cities will pick a handful of their most promising ventures and fly them over for the event. Scandinavia and South America tend to be well represented in the village, but during his previous visits to the festival, Vyas has been frustrated that there was no Middle Eastern presence, and specifically no UAE presence.
“The start-up scene is incredible here,” he says, “but unless [these businesses] are under the spotlight in the States it’s going to be tough for them to break away.” He’d like to see the UAE government selecting companies to take on other types of European and American tours, to meet investors and advisers. “A lot of work and support would have to go into it,” he says, but he’s going to keep on persuading people that it would be good for the whole country.
In Austin, Vyas is hoping to do a lot of networking, soak up ideas and create some buzz around the notion that “the Middle East and Africa can produce some fantastic technology”. When it comes to competing with the BRIC countries, we may not be quite there yet, but Vyas is convinced that it’s not an impossible feat.
“The potential is there,” he says. “I genuinely do believe it can happen.”