If you think about it, there is no reason why technology could not start from anywhere, specifically from MENA. There are some huge market opportunities that are so specific to emerging markets that they are not even on Silicon Valley or Europe’s radar.
While attending a quiet barbecue at his dad’s house in Lebanon, my partner Henri Asseily discovered a tech geek who created a 50-micron 3D printer faster than a coffee brewer in his garage next door. My house in Beirut has electricity 24/7 in a country with power cuts that average 6 hours a day thanks to a locally developed energy management solution that now sells as far as Africa. Last week in Tunis, I sat with an entrepreneur who developed highly efficient proprietary windmills that are currently being installed in India. Be it a global cloud communication solution out of Saudi, or a bug reporting solution, the MENA tech scene is becoming global.
Startups, whether from MENA or any other region, need to have a technological edge. They need to be fit enough to compete globally. Venture capitalists and entrepreneurs alike need not only to nurture that edge, but also to sharpen it. This comes with all players upping their game significantly and aiming much higher when it comes to technology. It means having faith that global innovation and disruption can start in exotic geographies, among them, MENA. I attended the NOAH conference last month in London and the debate is similar in Europe: the mindset is shifting to building global technology businesses from day one. It also means reaching deeper into pockets to be able to first, tap into global tech talent and second, invest in tech R&D within startups. Innovation does not have one capital/center but rather multiple centers of excellence spread out around the globe. A tech-driven startup from MENA can leverage all of these at the same time while starting from home, given they have enough emphasis on solid management, processes, and governance.
Just within Lebanon’s rapidly growing startup scene, Keeward has 60 engineers globally, and inMobiles 50. Proximie masters augmented reality, Hedgeguard disrupts fund management using AI and blockchain, and Myki, an identity manager, engages an internally-developed growth-hacking bot. NAR is a drone-based pipeline management system. These are not a succession of fancy buzzwords but rather, a true representation MENA-made tech startups.
The first wave of successful start-ups from the region –and from Europe- led most people to think that only copycats of successful business models outside the region or online B-to-C replicas of offline business models could come from MENA. There is no doubt that the region’s needs are specific enough to leave room for innovation in e-commerce models and MENA-focused startups. They are still the driving force behind the current entrepreneurship ecosystem. The job opportunities they have created, and continue to create, as well as the innovation that has come out of them is quantifiable and real. But at a time when building local operations in MENA for a global player is somehow a trend, the spotlight should shift to tech innovation from MENA.
There are more and more global technology solutions and disruptive innovations starting in the MENA region. Let’s make sure we develop the proper ecosystem to support them as they continue to develop internationally. This means everything from recruiting global talent, to expanding the ambitions and reach of investors. It also implies broader collaborations from VCs locally and internationally.
The ability of MENA entrepreneurs to grow on such a global scale is a convincing argument for investment. The potential for great returns poses a real and attractive opportunity for local investors looking to be less dependent on the local economy, and entrepreneurs are already delivering quantifiable results. Let’s arm these startups with the proper tools to succeed. Entrepreneurs are ready to enter the global market; local investors should be too.