Here’s our roundup of some of the most important or interesting regional entrepreneurial news from the Middle East in March.
One of the lesser known entrepreneurial gains of the stalled Arab Spring has been the uprising in creativity in media and the arts. People are expressing themselves creatively and artistically in ways never seen before, especially in the independent sector. In fact this creativity burst may currently be the best chance of cementing the cultural shift towards risk-taking, openness and entrepreneurship as the political realm is still resisting real change.
Thankfully, new social media delivery channels and business models have brought the monetization potential that was lacking in the independent sector before. The most famous example is Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart i.e. Bassem Youssef. His original YouTube show “B+” was so successful he was snapped up by the traditional media industry and he’s now globally recognised.
There are many smaller examples of media or content focussed startups, but as with any entrepreneurial venture, seed funding is always a challenge.
Therefore it was welcome news that the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF*) announced its Etisal fund last month. The $100 thousand fund is to help budding filmmakers to produce ten short films and documentaries. 28 Institutions from 20 different countries are investing in the fund.
Although the fund seems small, it’s actually the first step in creating an integrated marketplace for African film, an ambitious but much-needed goal. LAFF itself is an example of a post-revolution media startup, and this third edition brought together Arab and African filmmakers from over 20 counties.
Egypt was also the location of the Egypt Photo Summit (EPS) 2014. EPS is the biggest photography and CGI conference in these parts, and the two-day event had over 20 mini workshops, training sessions and keynote speeches from 30 international speakers.
The region’s biggest media and broadcast conference, CABSAT was held at the Dubai World Trade Centre. The conference featured daily keynotes from global experts, technical sessions and panel discussions focused on emerging trends and the global transition to digital broadcasting, how these developments affect the digital media and entertainment landscape and how to monetize multi-platform services. There were over 900 exhibitors, and even Oscar and Emmy award winners.
Speaking of the Oscars, a special shout-out must go to the three Arab nominees this year, “Karama Has No Walls” from Yemen, “Omar” from Palestine, and “The Square” from Egypt. The last two used “crowd” funding; “Omar” used the traditional FFF entrepreneurial method i.e. family, friends, and fools; while “The Square” used the modern method on kickstarter.
Back in the tech sphere, ArabNet held its annual Beirut conference. ArabNet Beirut continues to be the largest web & mobile conference regionally, and the 2014 edition tackled web and mobile’s impact on news media, the creative industries, FMCG and Luxury brands.
Tunis held its very first Entrepreneurship Fair at the beginning of March. The event was held at the Tunisian Union for Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts HQ, and saw 3500 visitors, 60 exhibitors, and 20 conferences on entrepreneurship.
Nearby Morocco hosted the MIT Global Startup Workshop (MITGSW). The 3 days-conference took place in Marrakech at the end of March and gathered 300 entrepreneurs from around the world. This event was organized in partnership with the OCP Foundation, one of Morocco’s biggest NGOs which recently created a department dedicated to the promotion of entrepreneurship.
Coupled with the fact this event was held under the patronage of the King, this is another significant sign about the new commitment in Morocco towards entrepreneurship.
In the Business Plan competitions, the Africa award was given to Hecuba, a startup from Ghana that aims to help pregnant women in rural areas benefit from medical assistance; the Global award went to Gradberry, a platform from Dubai to help students and employees find a job and take classes to have the right skills to enter the job market.
The International Social Enterprise Forum Morocco, in partnership with The British Council and The World Bank organized a 2 day conference to raise awareness about social entrepreneurship, as the concept is still new in the country.
Still in Morocco, Google is launching a programme call “Women in Web”, which will be managed in Casablanca by Fatim-Zahra Biaz, the founder of New Work Lab co-working space. They kicked it off during the “Pitch Lab”, the apce’s monthly startup pitch competition, with a 100% female competition and lab entitled “Women in Web, Women in Entrepreneurship”.
Back in Dubai Facebook held its first regional event, entitled FbStart Dubai. Topics covered at the event included making the most of the platform; creating a seamless registration/login flow to optimize conversion rate; how to share stories in the news feed to get discovered by the people who matter to a business; leveraging the unique targeting tools to reach to identify high potential prospects with similar characteristics; and how to reach and acquire high-value users at scale using app ads.
The first Egyptian Y Combinator startup HoverChat (formerly Ninja SMS) graduated and is going strong. The name change wasn’t the only new feature, but perhaps the most interesting is their in-app store, where there’s been over 125 thousand items purchased in-app in the first month. What’s also interesting is that users have consistently increased their SMS output by up to 50% in some countries after installing the app.
The app itself was also featured in the Play store worldwide, and with the app being downloaded thousands of times daily it looks like this startup is going places.
The American University in Cairo (AUC) celebrated the graduation of the first batch of its Venture Lab incubator. The incubated projects included land-mine detecting drones, an e-news aggregation app, an online textile industry portal, an online transportation services hub, an online video game, and a belt device that aids the visually impaired.
Cairo startup Integreight will participate in this year’s Silicon Valley based startup accelerator program sponsored by Google for Entrepreneurs with the mission to empower entrepreneurs around the world; BlackBox Connect.
CloudPress, another Cairo startup, was bought by NewsCorp in an aqui-hire deal. This marks the first real exit for a startup to come from the Cairo-based accelerator Flat6Labs, although as the technology looks likely to be scrapped, they’ll perhaps be keeping the Champagne on ice still.
Lebanon continues to punch above its weight investment wise. Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) announced a new fund that will leverage funding from eight Lebanese banks to offer a total of $50 million in investment to startups that are incorporated in Lebanon. The fund, named IMPACT, will invest in ICT, fashion, design, and energy startups which are targeting a regional or global market.
Souq raised addtional $75 million from Naspers. This brings the total amount of investment raised by Souq to $150 million, placing it beyond rivals Namshi and MarkaVIP, which have raised $34 million and $18 million to date respectively. Rumours place Souq’s current valuation at over $400 million. The move demonstrates that Naspers is confident of the medium-term growth of Arab e-commerce.
Finally, Diwanee, the Dubai-based digital media company, announced its majority acquisition by Webedia, a Paris-based digital publishing company. The terms of the deal aren’t known, but insiders have hinted that the valuation is between $20 million and $30 million, making this one of the largest regional majority investments for a digital company so far.
* Disclosure : LAFF kindly paid for my accommodation for a few days at the festival. In no way did that influence my opinions, I’m too renegade.