Tough times spur spirit of entrepreneurialism

Female social entrepreneurs to have emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring

Syrian refugee women work at a sewing workshop at a refugee camp for Syrian refugees in Islahiye, Gaziantep province, southeastern Turkey,Wednesday, March 16, 2016. Nearly 300,000 are housed in 26 government-run camps similar to this one. The European Union and Turkey hope to reach a comprehensive deal this week to tackle illegal migration and the refugee crisis spurred by conflicts in Syria and beyond. In return for its efforts, Turkey stands to gain 3.3 billion US dollars in EU funding to help it improve the situation of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees already within its borders. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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Despite driving for several years in Cairo, Nayrouz Talaat still lacked confidence navigating the streets of the Egyptian capital.

The aggression she faced on the road coupled with her limited knowledge of the car’s mechanics propelled her to find a solution.

For many women in Cairo, driving is the safest mode of transport, but the lack of female driving instructors and the poor quality lessons can be a hindrance. So Ms Talaat developed Direxiona, an app that enables women to book driving lessons with female instructors in their area.

Ms Talaat is one of the many social entrepreneurs to have emerged in the wake of the Arab Spring. Their businesses target problems they face in their daily lives and while some are non-profit and are purely driven by creating social impact, others are more commercially driven, focused on turning a profit.

“In the years after the revolution, I found in Egypt there was a boom in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” says Ms Talaat. “Their goals were to make Egypt better and to solve our daily issues which needed creative solutions. This was the inspiration for me, to bring a solution to the problem I was facing.”

A report from the Dubai-based investment services firm Wamda lists “festering social problems”, “structural rigidities” and “misguided developmental strategies” for the rise in social entrepreneurship across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region.

“These entrepreneurs typically formulate their ideas for a social enterprise during some form of engagement with community problems or as a result of personal experience or affliction caused by a social problem they seek to address,” says the study.

Since there is no definitive or legal registration status for social enterprises in many parts of the Middle East, exact figures of how many exist are difficult to find.


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“There is a lot that needs to be done when it comes to the social enterprise world,” says Catherina Ballout, the chief operating officer at MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab. “There is no accelerator that is focused on social impact investment. The culture of social entrepreneurship needs to be further strengthened, we’re lacking the education.” Founded in 2005, the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab is a non-profit promoter of entrepreneurship and innovation worldwide affiliated with the prestigious MIT University.

The MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab this year introduced a social enterprise track for its start-up competition in which winners received cash prizes and mentorship.

“We introduced it because we received a lot of applications that were not getting a chance because they were competing with all the other start-ups,” says Ms Ballout.

The slow return on investment is one factor why investors are more reluctant to consider social enterprises. Wamda’s study suggests two thirds of social enterprises face financing issues during early start-up stages.

“The elements of success are identical in both, when you talk about social entrepreneurship, it needs a business model that can be financially stable and shouldn’t be dependent on grants and sponsorship,” says Ms Ballout.

Yet despite the difficulties, many across the region are determined to realise their ambitions. One particular catalyst for the rise in social entrepreneurship has been the war in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis.

According to the UN, there are three million Syrian refugees, the majority of whom have ended up in Lebanon and Turkey. Countries such as Egypt and Jordan are also hosting Syrian refugees as well Libyans, Yemenis and Iraqis fleeing the ISIL.

“The region is experiencing such painful humanitarian crises around us and yet we are safe,” says Theresa Tsui,the co-founder of Skills3, a Dubai-based creative skills-transfer social enterprise. “Our innate need to help the refugee and displaced community situation and our geographic location has helped pave the way for social enterprises to seek solutions in giving back to the wider community.”

Skills3 organises workshops on sewing, knitting, soap-making and gardening alongside other creative skills for displaced and disadvantaged communities in the Middle East. The team has travelled to Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to teach refugee women how to sew. So far they have taught more than 120 women how to sew, who then pass on their skills to others in their circles.


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“Creative skills such as sewing provides purpose and dignity and restores well-being,” says Ms Tsui. “Handouts from charity, although worthwhile and address immediate needs, can diminish over time. A tangible skill such as knitting, soap-making, sewing or gardening is lifelong.”

Others across the region have also launched businesses that equip refugees and other vulnerable groups with skills that they can monetise, creating a sustainable business in the process.

Rania Kinge, a jewellery designer from Damascus, launched I Love Syria in 2013 to help the internally displaced people (IDP) she had met in shelters around the city. She turned her living room into a workshop, teaching 20 women how to make bracelets, which were sold online to customers globally, from Japan to the US.

Today, I Love Syria has expanded to employ more than a 100 women in its workshops in Damascus and Latakia with a range of jewellery and bags that are sold in a showroom in Geneva. Working with the UN, the brand has become an example of a successful e-commerce business in conflict zone.

“We have become an International Trade Centre project where IDP women will train others on e-commerce and teach other entrepreneurs in Syria how to digitise their products,” says Ms Kinge.

Prices for I Love Syria’s bracelets range from US$7 to $40 with 70 per cent of the proceeds going to the women, helping them each earn about $250 per month, which is enough to sustain themselves and their families.

“Empowering women generates peace,” says Ms Kinge. “We almost quit several times as sometimes it was just too hard, but I kept the focus and faith and here we are.”

Many entrepreneurs can empathise with Ms Kinge, and it is this faith that propels them to keep going and make an impact on society, despite the challenges they face.