In the post–Arab Spring world, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa are hungry to build economic value and add jobs — but tech entrepreneurs face a few common obstacles, including economies that tend to favor long established firms over new entities, a shortage of venture capital and banks that require substantial collateral for loans. More and more, start-ups find their footing in co-working spaces. In these spaces, they’re getting the guidance they need to break through bureaucracy and connect not just with funding but with other like-minded entrepreneurs. Here are three standouts.
Cutting Red Tape: AstroLabs; Dubai, United Arab Emirates
In addition to benefiting from collaboration-friendly space and classes in core skills like analytics and coding, AstroLabs members have access to subsidized licenses that make it easy to set up companies in the world’s largest free-trade zone. As the Middle East’s only tech hub supported by the Google for Entrepreneurs initiative, AstroLabs also has Google’s help in connecting its member entrepreneurs with mentors, networking opportunities and other founders who work in the initiative’s 22 tech hubs worldwide. In early 2017, AstroLabs announced a strategic partnership with IBM Middle East & Africa, which will connect its members with key players in machine learning and the Internet of Things.
Making Connections: Cogite; Tunis, Tunisia
No. 3 on a recent FORBES list of the world’s 10 best co-working spaces, the not-for-profit Cogite opened in 2013. Its founders aim to empower a highly educated but underemployed population (more than a third of jobless youth in Tunisia have university degrees) by helping them build the skills and connections they need to create employment opportunities for themselves and their peers. In its space, budding entrepreneurs can find potential collaborators and access a network of experienced Tunisian founders and funders — trailblazers who can help their mentees navigate the regulations and access capital.
A Founder Who Knows Financing: GrEEK campus, Cairo
In Cairo, the GrEEK Campus (named for its architecture and for the geeks it works to attract) combines office space for established companies with co-working space for those just starting up — more than 160 new and growing organizations in all. Founder Ahmed el-Alfi also started a regional venture capital firm and an incubator for tech firms, so he knows what entrepreneurs are up against: Egypt comes in at No. 131 on the World Bank’s ranking of 189 countries for their ease of doing business. But el-Alfi also knows that Egypt is ripe for start-up culture to take hold: Sixty percent of its population is under age 30.