The wave of corporate initiatives supporting job creation in the MENA region is still very new and has not yielded definitive, long-term results. But the surge of activity and anecdotal evidence convinces us that the trend is significant and could prove pivotal to the region’s economic development and job creation abilities. We have identified two areas in which private companies are already making big moves to nurture the entrepreneurial ecosystem and promote SME creation: (1) education and networking, and (2) financing.
Education and Networking
Education is a broad category that includes everything from instilling basic financial literacy, to teaching business theory and practices, to providing hands-on training and guidance from mentors with business and startup expertise. At the base of this education pyramid is teaching fundamental concepts about saving, budgeting, and investing—the CSR focus since 2006 for SEDCO Holding, a private wealth management company based in Saudi Arabia. That year, the company conducted a nationwide survey of 1,000 Saudi youth—the demographic segment that makes up 40 percent of the overall population—to assess their habits in managing expenses, saving money, and investing. According to the survey, only 11 percent kept track of their spending, and 80 percent didn’t budget. However, 90 percent said that they wanted to increase their financial knowledge.
In response, the company launched its financial literacy program, called Riyali, partnering with the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Operation Hope, an international nonprofit organization based in the United States. Working with public-sector agencies and local universities to increase scale, Riyali aims to reach tens of thousands of students over the next few years. If young people “don’t have the basics of financial literacy today, they’re going to fall into many, many problems when they enter the workforce tomorrow,” noted Amr Banaja, Riyali program director and vice president of corporate communications and marketing at SEDCO.
Another example comes from the Abdul Latif Jameel Group in Saudi Arabia, which established the Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives (ALJCI) in 2003. ALJCI’s current CSR work focuses heavily on job creation. Its Bab Rizq Jameel (BRJ) program (or “The Beautiful Gateway to Prosperity”) focuses on identifying job opportunities, providing skills and training to individuals, and granting microfinance loans to new entrepreneurial ventures. To date, BRJ has created hundreds of thousands of jobs—including nearly 50,000 in 2011 and more than 58,000 in 2012—for men and women in Saudi Arabia and other MENA countries, including Morocco, Syria, and Egypt.
Several large companies are stepping up to provide information and education on more sophisticated business concepts. For instance, Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (known commonly as du) launched the Q&A platform Ejaba.me in 2013. The site provides entrepreneurs with answers from experts on topics such as management, legal services, funding, and intellectual property rights. Designed by French entrepreneur Joanna Truffaut, Ejaba.me is intended to give entrepreneurs access to affordable advice at a time in their development when funds are scarce. The site charges by the answer: US$20 for short answers and $30 for longer ones. It is also considering offering monthly subscription packages with lower costs for heavy users.
Other companies in the region are offering more hands-on training and mentorship to entrepreneurs in fields as varied as telecommunications and maritime operations. Dubai-based digital media company Intigral, a joint venture between Saudi Telecom Company (STC) and All Asia Networks (ASTRO), launched an accelerator named Afkar.me to support startups building digital products and services. The startups work out of Intigral’s offices in either Dubai or Riyadh for three months to develop their ideas with the help of the agency’s expertise and network of mentors. Afkar.me has created regional partnerships with Astrolabs, ArabNet, the Online Project, consultancy Oliver Wyman, PR firm Ketchum Raad, and Wamda programs. These partners provide mentoring, legal advice, product development, design, marketing and PR, and business development support. The goal is for the startups to create viable products that Afkar.me can plug directly into telecom opportunities in Saudi Arabia, Africa, and Asia.