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This article was published on June 3, 2014

Tech news from the Middle East: What you need to know from the past month

Tech news from the Middle East: What you need to know from the past month
Omar Aysha
Story by

Omar Aysha

Omar started his career as a UK video-game developer during the last days of the Mega Drive (remember that?). He switched to the business s Omar started his career as a UK video-game developer during the last days of the Mega Drive (remember that?). He switched to the business side of IT a few years later, before becoming a serial entrepreneur with mixed success over the next years. He moved to Egypt late 2010, and works mainly as an Egyptian entrepreneurship evangelist and 'righter'.

Here’s my roundup of some of the most important or interesting regional entrepreneurial news that happened in the last month.

As always, if you’d like to draw my attention to an important regional story, please contact me on Twitter (@startupegypt) or by e-mail at [email protected]. And a quick word of advice for those that contact me, I’m more likely to follow-up with those that make life easy for me, so include stats and info in the email body and cut out the fat. It’s tedious reading press-release attachments telling me how great the CEO or CMO is. Rant over.

Investment and ecosystem news

Egyptian Google executive Wael Ghonim atWe’ll start with the news that Wael Ghonim has joined Google Ventures. He’s been out of the media spotlight for a while, after he’d become super-famous as an Egyptian revolution activist in 2011. What most people don’t know is that previously he was a successful tech entrepreneur, founding the regional stocks and shares portal Mubasher, so this move sees him going back to his roots.

Another regional entrepreneur maintaining the spotlight is investment platform Alice‘s CEO Samer Karam. He gave a keynote entitled “Bridging the Valley of Death” at DigiTalk ’14 in Bulgaria, which apparently went down a treat with the investors in the audience.

On the games front FunRock, the Swedish online strategy games developer and publisher, is establishing an office in Dubai. CEO Lars Hagelin believes anyone serious about the MENA market needs to “invest in having a live on-the-ground presence”. FunRock enters the market already having established a strategic partnership with Dubai-based game developer and publisher, Gameguise. The association should see FunRock hit the ground running and avoid the mistakes that most foreign companies experience when first entering the MENA region.

Flat6LabsFlat6Labs, the Cairo-based accelerator is going from strength to strength. Flat6Labs Jeddah held its second demo day, showcasing 11 startups. Flat6Labs Cairo held its 7th Demo Day, the first after moving to a six month acceleration cycle, showcasing 10 very varied startups. The event was the biggest yet, with most movers and shakers in attendance.  CEO Ramez Mohamed took the opportunity to announce the establishment of their third location.

Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi will be formed in partnership with twofour54, Abu Dhabi’s “tax-free media content creation” zone.  While Flat6 is yet to experience an exit of note, this latest move cements it as the region’s top accelerator.

Seedstars Casablanca was held for the first time in Morocco. Seedstars World is a worldwide startup competition focusing on emerging markets that took place in 30 countries this year.

The local competition was co-organized by StartupYourLife, the growing community of innovative entrepreneurs in Morocco in partnership with OCP Entrepreneurship Network, IBM and Ingenico. Out of 18 startups that pitched, MyVLE won first place and will represent Morocco at the final in Geneva in February 2015, with the hope of raising up to $500,000 in investment.

Startup GrindStartUp Grind, the startup success enabler, is opening a chapter in JordanStartup Grind Jordan will feature monthly conversations between industry leaders and entrepreneurs, with the intention of really digging deep and extracting the lesser known details about running a startup.

Plug and Play Tech Center, a high tech accelerator from Silicon Valley, has signed a MoU with Umniah, one of the more innovative telecoms companies in Jordan and a big supporter of high-tech entrepreneurs, on the launch of an Umniah Plug and Play Accelerator in Amman, Jordan.  

Finally in Jordan, the Queen Rania Foundation unveiled Edraak, a MOOC portal for the Arab world. Powered by the Open edX platform, Edraak will deliver quality online education from Arab instructors and regional academic institutions, as well as Arabic-translated courses from prestigious international universities.

Jordan has one of the most established high-tech startup ecosystems in the Middle East, and these three news items are sure to help Jordan maintain its entrepreneurial edge.

DubizzleDubizzle, the regional online-classifieds leader, is (slightly) rebranding. A small change to the logo is coming with a new tagline “It’s Worth More Than You think”, with another all-encompassing very expensive ad campaign to follow.

Dubizzle Egypt is celebrating its first anniversary with some impressive numbers, they’re averaging nearly 107 million page views and 5.5 million visitors per month.  Mobiles, tablets and their accessories are by far the top-selling items on the site.  Interestingly, the top searched job over their first year was in accountancy, but accountancy didn’t even feature in the top 5 available jobs, obviously a lot of Egyptian accountants are out of work. 

From an environment angle, the Dubizzle team calculated that 320 trees would have been chopped to print the millions of ads they’ve displayed!

Startup MENA started its series of startup events in Egypt that I spoke about a few months ago. Its inaugural Investor Lounge event in Cairo, aimed at startups ready for Series A funding was well received, and there’s a buzz about the forthcoming events.

Ooredoo, the forward thinking Qatari telecoms company, announced a partnership with German internet incubator Rocket Internet, to jointly develop eCommerce and other digital services in Asia. Ooredoo and Rocket Internet will become equal partners in Asia Internet Holding, the joint venture that will create and develop online businesses in the region. 

Technology for social responsibility 

New HorizonsOoredoo New Horizons, Ooredoo’s CSR drive targeting regional youth, carried out an extensive regional survey called “Young, Arab and Connected”, about digital attitudes and aspirations across MENA.  

Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen are rated worst regionally for internet infrastructure and electricity supply dependability.  Youth across MENA are optimistic about their future overall, despite less than half working in a job they like, and a fifth living below the poverty line. 

A strong undercurrent of entrepreneurship runs through the respondents, this is certainly a potential solution to the limited prospects in the region.  Nine out of ten youths across MENA believe technology is the basis of a modern, forward-thinking & functioning society and believe technology opens up communication channels to promote peace & understanding. 

Only a third of internet users in MENA are female, and from them 78 percent access the internet from home.  Thankfully, 77 percent of youths accessing the internet across MENA believe women should be given the same business opportunities as men.

Speaking of empowering women, Zoomaal (the region’s premier crowd-funding platform), partnered with Hivos (the international development organisation), to deliver the “Women Pioneers Challenge”.  The aim is to recognize women’s pioneering role as change-makers in the region.


Projects that caught my eye: “Orb,” a sci-fi short film about immortality, repulsion and Beirut City in the year 2050; “A Way Out”, a series of short films about 4 Egyptian women who succeeded in overcoming awful odds (disclosure: I liked this project so much I’ve become a co-producer on it); and “I Read Arabic”, a free app to help very young children develop early reading skills in Arabic. 

I ask readers to donate to these or any of the other campaigns, they’re all worthwhile and all need your financial assistance. Spread the word.

Startups to watch

JobeduFunding remains an issue regionally. So it was good to hear that Jobedu, the crowd-sourced Arab clothing store, launched a funding campaign on Eureeca and were fully funded in 4 days! Eureeca is the region’s crowd-investing platform, and this campaign is an all new record for them. It looks like until regional business angels and VCs get their acts together, Eureeca is a very viable alternative.

Jawabkom is one regional startup causing waves. The online Q&A platform for Arabic speaking countries, like an Arabic Quora, launched in January.  The site drew around 100,000 visits the first month, but is now getting over 3 million visits per month with around 4,000 questions being posted per day. It’s on track to become one of the fastest websites worldwide to gather 1 million registered users. 

Jordanian Raed Malhas is the founder and CEO, and he expects the number of questions posted per day to double month on month in the short-term. In a lesson on localisation, he and his team customized the pages for the different countries/cultures and identified what topics were appropriate to avoid isolating or insulting segments of their user base; and not break any local laws about what can/cannot be posted.

Intriguingly, the most common questions from Arab women focused on divorce, alimony and custody, accounting for 28 percent of total questions received; and 65 percent of the questions posted to relationship counsellors came from men.  Further proof gender relations need a revolution regionally.

Two Arab startups demoed at TNW Europe Conference in April, and things have ramped up for them in the month since:

EzentsEzents is from Palestine, and is a B2B event-management platform.  Launched in April 2014, they now have over 130 businesses registered from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, UAE and Saudi; as well as the US, UK, Switzerland, Denmark and Germany.

UserTalkUserTalk is from Egypt, and the service is based around an embedded button that delivers voice and text-based communication between businesses and their customers. The service is in public beta and has already gained a number of large regional businesses.


TellUs won the StartUp MENA Investor Lounge competition mentioned above.  TellUs is a customer service messaging app, think of it like Whatsapp but where you chat to a business’ customer service rep instead of your friends. I’ve know about this startup for a while, and I think they can go far if they focus.

Hsoub, the regional startup dedicated to “developing the Arab web”, has just released Asnad, the Arab world’s first online marketplace dedicated to digital products. Hsoub is still the number one regional digital network for Arabic ads, and this new product is a savvy addition to their range of offerings.

Digital content is one area where regional budding entrepreneurs can avoid most of the normal logistical problems we encounter daily.  Indeed the digital sphere is undoubtedly the only place with any real freedom in the region.

Image credits: Shutterstock, AFP/Getty Images

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