MENA Without Borders: Bridging the Entrepreneurial Gap Between MENA and Its Diaspora

Hani Azzam

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For many of us in North America or Europe, the past year has challenged our traditional conception of “location.”  As government restrictions and health fears have limited physical movement our worlds have shrunk down to the households and cities we live in. On the other hand, we’ve almost universally come around to the idea that co-location is no longer a prerequisite for people to build value together. Yes, the pandemic has reminded us, often painfully, that physical borders exist, but it has also paved the way for a borderless knowledge economy. As the barriers between countries blur online, so too can the dichotomy between a home country and its diaspora. This creates huge potential for countries, regions, and communities across the world. Some have already dedicated government and private resources to incorporating diaspora into the national community (See Ireland), but I think that MENA on the whole has underperformed in this regard until now. After all, a myriad of travel restrictions and political issues plague physical movement to and inside the region, and private and governmental funds have historically gone elsewhere. Perhaps now, we finally have the right conditions to start bridging the entrepreneurial gap between MENA and its diaspora.

To be clear, I’m not bullish on the potential and power of closing the economic and knowledge gaps between MENA and its diaspora now because those obstacles have disappeared. Rather, the individuals that make up the global MENA community now have the tools and the mindset to bypass them. 

This comes at a time when the MENA region itself stands primed (some would say in the middle of) a digital revolution of its own. While I lived in Palestine in 2015, and tried to keep up with the MENA entrepreneurship after moving back to Boston, the launch of StartMENAUp last Fall really opened my eyes to this massive economic shift. 

With 400 million people, who all speak (a variation of) the same language, the MENA market more resembles the U.S. culturally-speaking, than it does Europe. At the same time, more than half of those 400 million are under 25 years old. At about 22 years old, the region’s current median age is about the same as China’s was in 1980. Meanwhile, digital adoption in the region has skyrocketed. Internet penetration in the region already stands near 70%, compared to the 57% global average. Even before the pandemic, e-commerce in the region saw growth rates of 15-20% per year, well outpacing other regions. COVID-19 has only accelerated that trend. One survey in May of 2020 found that 53% of Middle East respondents that increased their usage of mobile shopping due to the pandemic, 92% planned to maintain their increased level of mobile shopping.

Who will harness this growing consumer demand? That answer lies with the other side of the “youth” coin. As the number of college graduates balloons every year, and society undergoes massive economic, cultural, and political changes, traditional employers in the region (namely governments) can’t employ everyone, nor can they offer the job security and the path to a middle-class lifestyle that they once did. So the graduates turn to the private sector, and there they start implementing solutions to the problems they face in their daily lives. In some cases, this means taking something that exists elsewhere, and adapting it to the region (Careem is a famous example of this) and in other cases, that means building more regionally-specific companies (See Halan). Either way, this is entrepreneurship fuel, and with no shortage of problems to solve, few established, dominant players, the region’s economy is just dying to put that fuel to use. 

Meanwhile, the region’s diaspora has played a prominent role in pushing digital entrepreneurship forward across the world. I already mentioned a bunch of prominent diaspora in a previous post, but it’s not hard to build on top of that list, with a specific eye to emerging economic trends. Sam Yagan, the son of Syrian immigrants, helped transform the way we study, we date, and we shop by founding SparkNotes and OkCupid, and managing ShopRunner. Chris Haroun, whose father hails from Egypt, is rethinking how we approach higher education. Deena Shakir, born to an Iraqi-American family, finds and funds companies at the emerging frontiers of technology, particularly healthcare, as a Partner at Lux Capital. These three illustrate a broader point. The talent of the MENA region extends way beyond its borders, and sits at the upper echelons of the global innovation economy, working inevitably in bridging the entrepreneurial gap between MENA and its diaspora.

I don’t know about others out there, but the combination of a) the deprioritization of co-location as a requirement for collaboration b) the potent ingredients for digital innovation in the MENA region, and c) the human (and financial) capital in MENA and its global diaspora has me really excited. Of course, bridging the gap between MENA and its diaspora alone will not magically unlock the region’s potential energies, but it can certainly help. That’s a huge part of why I took on the role of diaspora venture partner with Plus.VC – to personally stay plugged into the worldwide MENA entrepreneurial community and to try to connect others like me to the capital, markets, and expertise thriving therein.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one, nor is founding a company and getting funded by Plus.VC the only way for you to jump aboard this rocketship. Opportunities exist out there for individuals of any experience level. TechWadi, who just wrapped up their Annual Forum, has done an admirable job at building bridges between MENA and Silicon Valley.  You can collaborate with entrepreneurs in Palestine through GrowHome. You can mentor, or even hire MENA software engineering talent through Manara or the Lebanon Outsourcing Initiative. You can donate from your expertise (or pocketbook) to ecosystem enablers like Five One Labs or Jusoor. If you have the means, you can even invest and make money in the region through venture funds like Plus.VC (okay, I’m biased on that one), Ibtikar Fund, and others.  This list is somewhat Levant-centric because of my personal focus and experience, but I’m sure that similar initiatives exist for North Africa and the Gulf (and I want to hear about them!). 
The bottom line is that we’re at a unique moment where bridging the entrepreneurial gap between MENA and its diaspora is both easier and more beneficial than ever. If you’re like me and this strikes a chord with you, then yalla let’s do it.

By Hani Azzam
Hani’s LinkedIn

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