In a country with a 42% youth unemployment rate, savings reaching a low of 6.1 per cent of GDP and 57.5% of its people not earning enough to cover their basic needs, young Egyptians continue to look for ways and explore new methods to succeed in life against all odds. Ten of these hopeful young Egyptian entrepreneurs won their golden ticket to Silicon Valley when they were accepted to become part of a trip organized by TechWadi with the specific objectives of giving them the once in a lifetime opportunity to meet with the shapers and shakers of Silicon Valley and the chance to discuss their road to success with entrepreneurship pioneers in the Bay area, the possibility of being accepted into business incubators in the area and the potential to seek out venture investors.
As I stood before these young entrepreneurs in a Stanford Graduate School of Business classroom, I could see their eyes filling up with hope and hear their hearts pounding in enthusiasm and persistence. They had taken it on themselves to solve a wide variety of issues facing Egypt. Such issues run the gamut from job counselling to creative media production and efficient delivery of consumer goods; nothing was too big or too difficult or “off limits” for them to tackle. For the whole one hour duration of my design thinking workshop with them, they successfully managed to reaffirm my reasons for why they are going to be our nation’s next role models. Although some of the issues being tackled through their initiatives couldn’t be clearly identified as “social” in nature upon first look, each and every initiative that they pitched had an underlying social impact that it aimed to serve. This hypothesis was supported by the wide array of discussions that were conducted throughout the workshop to identify the pain points and needs of the initiatives. One the examples we used was that of “Goodsmart” which is an e-commerce startup that relies on the overnight delivery of goods to customers with a focus on price and quality. Such an online service in Egypt, especially in poor areas, might solve major problems like older people not feeling safe to go into the street to get their needs, people’s inability to fit grocery shopping into their busy schedules and absence of nutritional knowledge. The ability to eat right is something that requires a lot of time and effort even for the most educated people without the need for a dietitian to tell you what kinds of food are good for you. This is just one simple example for how some of the less “social” problems being tackled had a substantive social orientation underneath the surface.
Without the slightest shred of doubt, the MENA region and all regions for that matter are in dire need of youth’s potential for creativity and passion for solving old (and new) problems in innovative ways that are sustainable, cost efficient and have a social flavor to them. With youth aged between 15 and 29 representing more than 60% of the population of the Middle East region, it has become the responsibility of more experienced entrepreneurs to turn these numbers from a challenge into an opportunity by utilizing these young minds and putting their innovativeness and passion for the good of the society into good use. This is the phase in youth’s life that’s most filled with ambitions, hopes, dreams and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, it’s similarly the phase in which various demographic and socioeconomic factors come into play to set the stage for adult life and the rights of passage that this transition entails such as education, marriage, and acceptance into the job market.
Many research and survey results indicate that the MENA region is a fertile ground for social entrepreneurship. Indicators such as that 75% of universities in MENA teach social entrepreneurship, that there are around 78 globally recognized social entrepreneurs operating in the region (73 out of which are drawn from only five countries in the region: Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Morocco) and that 20-30% of business plan competition submissions are social enterprises are all indicative of the richness of the social enterprise arena in the MENA. Along these lines, this prevalence could also be noticed at the recent MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition, where 20-25 percent of the 50 semi-finalists were investing their time and effort in enterprises with underlying social and environmental impact.
Although the region’s potential for entrepreneurship has increased over the years, its various political, social, and economic systems have not effectively developed in a manner to fulfill the ever-changing needs of its young population that is constantly growing. All of these factors have noticeable implications on human and economic development in the MENA region. The degree to which this bulge of young people will turn into healthy and productive members of their societies greatly relies on how far governments and civil societies invest in social, economic, and political institutions with the objective of meeting the current needs of young people who are beyond prepared for such an opportunity especially in Egypt. According to a report published by the Brookings Institution, Social Entrepreneurship in the Middle East, Egypt is home to the largest number of social entrepreneurs. With such an increased interest in young minds, youth will be pushed towards achieving breakeven points in their startup businesses instead of being pushed towards breakdown points in their lives owing to despair and dependence associated with unemployment.