Entrepreneurship is booming across the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2018, $900 million was invested across the region in 386 deals, an increase of 31% in total funding in 2017, according to a report released ahead of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa, which is taking place in Jordan on 6-7 April.
The report, The Start-up Ecosystem in the Arab World, serves as an overview of the state of entrepreneurship across the region, and also coincides with the release of a list of 100 of the Arab world's most exciting start-ups.
From camel milk antibodies and the region's first unicorn to glasses that help visually impaired people live an independent life and an app that predicts traffic accidents, Arab start-ups are helping to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the region, and beyond.
Mirek Dusek, Deputy Head of the Centre for Geopolitical and Regional Affairs at the World Economic Forum, says: “The Arab world will need its private sector to address youth unemployment, the current skills gap for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the inclusion of women in the workforce.
“Start-ups, and the entrepreneurs building them, are key to a strategic public private dialogue on these issues and to creating corresponding new opportunities in society.”
Khalid Al Rumaihi, Chief Executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, which partnered with the World Economic Forum to produce the list of start-ups, said: “Across the Middle East, entrepreneurs are devising increasingly innovative ways to tackle the evolving societal challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with novel applications of technology. These efforts need to be encouraged, recognized and supported by investors, business leaders and policy-makers.”
Here's a closer look at just some of the start-ups that are helping to solve several of the region's most pressing challenges.
The first MENA unicorn
Careem (United Arab Emirates)
App-based ride-hailing car service Careem is valued at more than $1 billion after it was recently acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion. Operating in more than 120 cities across 15 countries in the region, including the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, it is the leading technology platform for the greater Middle East. Careem, which was co-founded by CEO Mudassir Sheikha, operates with more than 3,500 colleagues and one million drivers, or “captains”.
Sunglasses that can see - and read
Amal Glass (United Arab Emirates)
Amal glasses contain an artificial intelligence (AI) device that can detect colours, read Arabic and English and aid the wearer in navigating their surroundings using GPS - helping blind and visually impaired people to live an independent life and integrate with their community.
Adel Boseli, CEO, and Mohamed Islam, founder, launched the product this year after eight years of research and development. Another 14 languages are set to be added to the glasses, which have been designed so that new applications can be easily downloaded as they become available.
The company treating acne with camel milk
MonoJo was started in 2005 by Penelope Shihab, a bioscientist from Jordan. So far, her team has filed UK and US patents for products that treat acne and acute digestive infections using antibodies from camel milk.
Shihab, who won EY’s Jordan Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014, hopes her success will encourage more Jordanian women to consider a career in science. "I want to create more jobs and raise the profile of women in Jordan and Arab countries", she said in a recent interview. "I want to be a role model."
Derq (United Arab Emirates)
Road traffic accidents kill 1.35 million people every year, according to the World Health Organisation. Derq wants to change that.
It uses AI and vehicle communication technology to help predict and prevent vehicle collisions, detecting road users’ movements to track their behaviour and warn drivers of potential dangers. It also provides traffic planners with insights into road use to help improve highway design and management.
Wearable tech that can warn of a seizure
More than 65 million people live with epilepsy. Epilert, co-founded by CEO Firas Rhaiem, has developed a wearable device to help them live a full and safe life. Using AI technology, the Epilert bracelet works with the user’s mobile phone to monitor their health, contact caregivers in the event of a seizure, and, through machine learning, predict when an incident might occur again.
The device monitors the wearer’s skin temperature and movements, and uses geolocation to call for help when needed. It also transmits data to the patient’s doctor so they can monitor their health and learn more about the condition. The bracelet is waterproof and can be worn 24 hours a day.
The AI app that’s shaking up recruitment
Searchie (United Arab Emirates)
Searchie helps to match recruiters with the best candidates, using AI and video interviews to predict personality, natural abilities, competencies, learning agility, leadership styles and cultural fit with the employer’s organization.
It analyses more than 360,000 factors, including tone of voice, vocabulary, body language and micro facial expressions, to recognize personality traits automatically from just 10 minutes of video.
Using trash instead of cash
Bekia allows people to trade their household or business waste for food and domestic items. Through the company’s website, users accumulate points from inorganic waste such as drinks cans and cardboard.
Bekia arranges the collection of recyclable materials and users can then order food and household items. Businesses can also buy office supplies using points based on how much they recycle.
Bringing barren land back to life
Desert Control Middle East (United Arab Emirates)
Desert Control is on a mission to “make earth green again”. Presented by Managing Director of Desert Control Middle East LLC Atle Idland, its patented liquid nano clay (LNC) technology increases water retention in soil by 65% and has been used to turn desert into fertile land producing crops.
A mixture of water and common industrial clay, LNC can be sprayed directly using existing irrigation methods. Its particles then seep into the sand to create spongy, hollow structures that retain water about 40 to 60 centimetres underground – the typical depth of plant roots.
The Dubai government has awarded the firm a place on its social impact incubation programme ‘Expo Live’, which is part of the emirate’s World Expo 2020 initiative, offering up to $600,000 start-up funding support.
Putting energy poverty in the shade
Shamsina is a Cairo-based social enterprise that aims to eradicate energy poverty by designing and making affordable solar technologies and enabling communities to create their own energy supply.
It operates out of a workshop in Cairo’s al-Darb al-Ahmar district and, using raw materials from small local businesses, trains and employs members of the community as well as providing them with energy services.
The virtual surgeon that could revolutionize healthcare
Proximie uses augmented reality to connect surgeons in developed countries with those operating under austere conditions. It’s designed by doctors for doctors and wants to revolutionize the delivery and education of healthcare.
Co-founded by surgeon Dr Nadine Hachach-Haram, Proximie allows doctors to transport themselves virtually into any operating room anywhere in the world to visually and practically interact in an operation from start to finish. And it’s not just shaking up how patient care - it also significantly reduces the cost of delivering the best possible care to patients.
The region’s first bootcamps for budding coders
Coded was established in 2015 as the first coding education company in MENA. To date it has run 22 Coding Bootcamps in Kuwait to teach web and mobile development with the latest programming languages and frameworks.
The Coded Academy has more than 200 coding graduates and also runs Coded Juniors, a four-week after-school programme to help the next generation of coders. Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Hashim Behbehani is also a mentor to other start-ups in the region.
For the full list of 100 Arab start-ups, click here.