Wamda and Area 2071 hosted a panel discussion on Wednesday, November 6, to discuss the growth of the startup ecosystem over the past decade, and investigate the challenges that remain to be addressed.
The event opened with remarks by Khalfan Juma Belhoul , chief executive officer (CEO) of Dubai Future Foundation. Moderated by Wamda executive chairman Fadi Ghandour, the session featured Magnus Olsson, co-founder and managing director at Careem, Rabea Ataya, co-founder and CEO at Bayt.com, and Ronaldo Mouchawar, co-founder of Souq.com, vice-president of Amazon Middle East and North Africa.
Khalfan Belhoul: Dubai provides supportive infrastructure for entrepreneurship
Khalfan Juma Belhoul, CEO of Dubai Future Foundation, said that Dubai supports entrepreneurs and brilliant minds from around the world and provides them with the infrastructure to develop their businesses, and turn their innovative ideas into reality, and as such contribute to building innovative solutions to current challenges.
Belhoul pointed to the importance of providing global platforms for startups to scale their business and enhance their potential by having access to more support and financing opportunities. “Area 2071 represents on a global scale a successful model of an entrepreneurial and supportive community of innovators, founders, government entities, corporates and investors brought together to facilitate and accelerate collaboration,” said Belhoul.
Entrepreneurship as a vital engine of economic growth
“Since we started in 2000, we have seen an incredible amount of change in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem,” said Rabea Ataya, founder and CEO of Bayt.com. “On the plus side, the role of entrepreneurship in addressing regional economic and unemployment woes is better recognised. The number of mentorship programmes is growing, as is venture capital and government interest,” said Ataya.
Entrepreneurship has since been recognised as a vital engine of economic growth and job creation, prompting most governments across the region to improve business conditions to enable founders to launch and grow healthy companies. Across the region, founders have witnessed a proliferation of startup communities, accelerators, incubators, and industry- or stage-specific programmes catering to startups of all stages.
A change in Mena’s investment landscape
“The entrepreneurial ecosystem has come a long way from when we first launched Souq in 2005. The e-commerce sector was in its early stages with many suppliers hesitant to have their products online and others unclear on how the internet worked. Our aspiration when we started the company was to create a local marketplace for the Arab world by leveraging technology. Today and after our acquisition, customers can choose from tens of millions of products available on amazon.ae from local and international sellers,” said Ronaldo Mouchawar, co-founder of Souq and VP of Amazon MENA.
There has seemingly been a shift in mindsets, noted the speakers, with an increasing number of individuals looking to launch their ventures as a means to become agents of their futures and those of their communities.
“In 2000, when we were out looking to raise capital, there were no venture capital funds to begin with – only friends and family, and no other ways to raise money. Today, there are hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of venture funds across the region. Even from a human capital perspective, bright minds see startups as opportunities to learn and grow, whereas 20 years ago, most smart people were interested in joining big multinationals. It was a pretty crazy time to start an internet business,” said Ataya. “There’s also been a shift in mindset with investors backing up startups with seed funding and the government launching initiatives to encourage budding entrepreneurs,” said Mouchawar.
“The journeys of Bayt.com, Souq.com and Careem have boosted the ecosystem by creating role models, encouraging a more entrepreneurial mindset across the region, and proving that it is possible to launch, grow and exponentially scale a business across our region,” said Wamda executive chairman Fadi Ghandour.
“We have seen the ecosystem mature and evolve, with governments and corporates launching initiatives to encourage founders and ease business challenges. We are also observing unprecedented startup activity in new sectors, such as food tech, blockchain, Software as a Service (SaaS), e-commerce enablers, as well as fintech. Our responsibility as ecosystem enablers is to continuously support, nurture, and invest in startups as well as help founders navigate the complexity of the Mena region,” said Ghandour.
Magnus Olsson, co-founder and managing director of Careem, highlighted the importance of Dubai and the UAE’s support for entrepreneurs and startups as well as its innovative environment, which encourages work on modern solutions contributing to the development of new economic sectors. He pointed to the wide opportunities available to startups across the region which boasts local and international talent capable of supporting future sectors such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and blockchain among others.