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The Next Revolution: Meet The Startups Reshaping The Middle East
August 21, 2013
To many, the Middle East seems an unlikely locale for flourishing entrepreneurialism, but it is increasingly producing startups and engineers changing lives in the MENA region – and the world.
Christopher M. Schroeder’s fantastic new book, Startup Rising: The Startup Revolution Remaking the Middle East, catalogues the entrepreneurial ecosystems forming across the Middle East. Drawing from lengthy interviews with 150 investors and entrepreneurs, Schroeder provides readers with insight into the startups beginning to thrive.
“I remember meeting Amr Ramadan, who was pitching his business to me, and I looked down at my iPad and I’d had his app [WeatherHD] for six months and used it every day,” recalled Schroeder. Weather HD, now named Clear Day, has since become the largest paid weather app in the world.
“I had no idea this guy was in Alexandria, Egypt, and more importantly, I didn’t care -- all I cared about was the awesomeness of the app.”
In the Middle East, the future is mobile. The Arab world sees a mobile penetration rate of 109%, with Saudi Arabia topping out at 187.5%, according to Wamda, a local authority on all things tech. While smart phone penetration is low, Schroeder reports regional mobile executives expect 50% penetration in Egypt within three years.
Wally, a Mint-esque personal finance service, has already gained 100,000 users since its 2013 launch. Palestine-based SoukTel uses texting to connect people with jobs through its JobMatch function, and put aid agencies in touch with those in need via its AidLink program.
The region also has its fair share of copycats, which Schroeder deems a necessary step for the burgeoning startup habitat. Some investors believe e-commerce is a gold mine – Dubai-based online shopping site Namshi has a whopping $34 million in funding from investors, including JP Morgan and German behemoth Rocket Internet. Other familiar ideas include grocery delivery sites like El5odary, as well as the recently-launched crowd-funding site Zoomaal, and Bey2ollak, a Waze-like app which provides user-generated traffic updates. The region also offers its share of uniquely Middle Eastern startups, such as Yatooq, an instant Arabic coffee maker, as well as some surprising ones, like PsstPsst, a new matchmaking app.
Many more hold serious international appeal, including Instabeat, a fitness tracker for swimmers, and Solarist, a startup which produces cheap, portable desalination machines that rely on solar power. Companies like Solarist, which use the region’s environmental challenges to solve worldwide problems, could truly have a global impact.
Clearly, the region has potential. In May, the International Finance Corporation announced a $374 million fund to support small and medium enterprises in MENA, which will hopefully be matched by similar investment from local entities, Wamda reports.
Perhaps startups could even be the answer to unemployment among young people in the Middle East. According to The Economist, half of the region’s population are under 25; 22% of 15-24 year olds are jobless. In Egypt right now, small and medium enterprises constitute 70% of the national economy. If startups can engage youth and successfully scale their businesses, they might just be able to change nations.