Middle East and Africa: youth are driving its innovation ecosystems

A headline that caught my eye this week was in the Huffington Post, ‘Why a War & Shrinking Economy Can’t Stop Syrian Innovation’, and having just returned from Libya, I can see the point of the article.  It suggests that war, terrorism or violence doesn’t stop the enthusiasm of youngsters to make things happen, sometimes despite government.

Whether in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Israel, or many parts of the Middle East and Africa, you often only hear news reports of the troubles. But look deeper and there’s a lot more that’s going on.  There are initiatives like PITME (progress in technology middle east) encouraging Middle East entrepreneurs, there is Israel’s Silicon Wadi which has shaped many of our electronics and wireless technologies of today, and even a VLSI (‘very large scale integration’ electronics systems design) industry in Egypt forming part of the next generation Bluetooth low energy technology.

In Libya, post-revolution, there is a boom in entrepreneurship. You can sense the eagerness of the young of the country to make things happen, to build tech parks, create their own environment to boost business and startup opportunities despite slow government decisions. One meeting in a coffee shop in Libya and you can see the vibrancy of the youthful environment – it’s like sitting in a coffee shop anywhere in a major city in the world, and in that I include New York and London.

Youngsters are creating their own opportunities in the Middle East and Africa, and as the Huffington Post article also suggests, there are no big companies in technology, so there aren’t many job opportunities for graduate engineering students. The only way to make a good career is to start your own. Otherwise graduates find themselves working as IT support, coders, or system administrators.

While it’s not exactly true in Egypt that there are no large global multinational technology companies, there are places like the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC) which aims to drive innovation and entrepreneurship in ICT for the benefit of national economy.  One of its successes from the mobile, embedded and integrated circuits competence center is Silicon Vision, which provides Bluetooth low energy and power management semiconductor intellectual property to global electronics companies.

Israel and its Silicon Valley

Another part of the region has had its place in the global technology scene for several decades. I first noticed this when I was working in electronics in the 1980s and 1990s, when you would hear about potential customers and partners in Israel. It was difficult to imagine when news about the region only ever reported troubles.

In Israel, its Silicon Valley like spirit has been known for a couple of decades, and it is sometimes referred to as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, or as ‘Silicon Wadi’.  The companies in this tech ecosystem have already been influencing global electronics and mobile technologies for some years.  So it’s no surprise that some 4,000 of the 75,000 visitors at this week’s annual mobile event, Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, speak Hebrew, says Roy Barzilay, a technology scouting service provider in Israel, and a senior advisor to the Israel Export Institute.

He says that 100 companies presenting their solutions on the Israeli national pavilion at Mobile World Congress were selected out of 4500 Israeli vendors. Israeli tech companies are developing technologies at the forefront of many current trends – such as the Internet of things. Barzilay says, “Personally, I believe that it may take longer for the IoT vision to ramp up. Many carriers see the domain of machine to machine (M2M), smart city, smart home and other ‘everything is connected’ areas, as an opportunity. The point is that becoming a significant player in those markets requires not only building a structured and reliable technological ecosystems, but also deep sales skills, integration capabilities and support organization.”

Hence he says Israeli companies are developing and showcasing at Mobile World Congress a wide set of M2M solutions – smart home, remote medical care, mobile payments, location based tracking, biometric ID, smart grid, smart city, M2M billing, and remote M2M device management.

Two years ago, I saw the Middle East and Africa well represented at the Global Innovation Summit (GIS) held in Silicon Valley. At the 2012 GIS, we interviewed Nima Adelkhani (see ‘Middle East peace, one startup at a time’). According to his organization, PITME (which stands for ‘Progress in Technology Middle East’, and also ‘Peace in the Middle East’), there is a huge amount of entrepreneurial talent in the region.

The region’s founder spirit comes out of hunger for disruptive, political, social, and economic change. Belief that technological innovations are the long-awaited answer to many problems in the region has resulted in the uprising of a bottom-up entrepreneurship ecosystem. This ecosystem is succeeding in spite of government failures, societal influences, poverty, and lack of resources.

In recent years, the media has conveyed generally negative sentiments on areas of political unrest, economic risks, and infrastructure. This has created a need for supportive organizations whose goal is to uphold the entrepreneurs and developers who have been ignored. PITME™, under Nima Adelkhani’s stewardship, showcases the region’s tech talent, founder energy, local and regional incubation programs and links them skilfully with Silicon Valley (USA) thought leaders, VCs and funds. Its goal is to provide traction for local and regional entrepreneurs through acceleration programs, creating the needed exposure and revenue to equip them to rise as the next generation of tech stars on top of the global entrepreneurship scene.

The combination of youth and a drive for having technology is going to be the key driver in growth in the Middle East and Africa. It has been suggested that data traffic carried over mobile networks is forecast to increase 14-fold in the Middle East and Africa from 2013 to 2018, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast. This follows a 107 per cent increase in the region’s mobile data traffic to 105,655 terabytes per month during 2013. Cisco forecasts that data traffic on mobile networks will rise to 1.49 exabytes (about 1.6 billion gigabytes) per month in the region by 2018, a compound annual growth rate of 70 per cent.

What’s clear is that, despite what you hear in the news, the youth and young startups in the Middle East and Africa have the enthusiasm to put their mark on the global map, and be known for their innovation and entrepreneurial nature.  The Middle East and Africa is not all about war and unrest. There’s plenty of innovation and technology development which is emerging, and we will no doubt see more as and when peace and stability comes to the various countries in the region – possibly even with stronger growth than the so called BRICS nations.

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