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Wed 16 Mar 2016 09:47 AM

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Arab world’s pioneers of social entrepreneurship

Aziza Osman, an active mentor to many MENA-based social entrepreneurs, shines a spotlight on how to support social enterprises – profit-making companies that address social challenges – in the MENA region.

Arab world’s pioneers of social entrepreneurship
Aziza Osman’s mentees - social entrepreneurs at Impact Hub Dubai.

While social entrepreneurship is still a relatively emerging sector in the Arab world, there is evidence of its welcoming in the region over the last decade through international programmes and regional incubators and efforts supporting entrepreneurs in both the business and social sectors.

One prominent organisation supporting social entrepreneurship in the Gulf region is Emirates Foundation which has created developmental programmes to mentor, train and fund social entrepreneurs.

Impact Hub Dubai is another example of an international social business that aims to develop various but especially social start-ups in the region. But for the most part, social enterprises and start-ups are incubated and financed in the same incubators and accelerators as traditional and tech start-ups. Those are in5, Dtec and Turn8, from which some of the most successful Arab social start-ups emerged including Nabbesh, Teach Me Now and Loujee.

Social entrepreneurship is newly being recognised as an innovative model that can address persistent problems in Arab societies and has gained traction with its harnessing the potential of youth to fuel economic and social growth.

With the success of MENA-based social start-ups and their reaching international attention, the prospects of an increased number of social enterprise incubators, accelerators and interest in funding looks promising.

The government’s role

Although the trend of social entrepreneurship is growing in popularity, policies, laws and regulations are yet to follow by adjusting existing regulations to fit the social enterprise model and creating new ones to accommodate the unique ways in which they operate.

Various ministries should pass policies to ease the processes of social business establishment and participate with innovative business practices, proven industry tools, and real alliances.

Currently, many social businesses are registering for their trade licenses with government and free zone entities as LLCs.

They are regarded as ordinary commercial companies operating within the frame of their corporate structure.

The fact that the core of its activity as a social enterprise – bringing about positive change in society and tackling community problems – is not recognised in an official manner, disallows social businesses to separate themselves from traditional commercial enterprises.

If social businesses could have a distinct license or ‘activity’ section in their commercial trade licenses that is recognised by the governments, it would distinguish and acknowledge them as social entities, easily traceable by governments and partners for impact and influence on society and, most importantly, it would encourage more entrepreneurs in this region to venture into social businesses.


Assisting local organisations in reforming the legal and regulatory framework will open the door to investments and involvement of banks and the financial sector in the funding and success of social businesses.

Government recognition of social businesses would mean proposing new draft laws that potentially ease banking restrictions and encourage investments.

Another way to encourage investments in social businesses is to publish articles on the investments made by the funding entity, whether it be from the private, nonprofit or government sector.

We live in a region where praise and recognition are highly valued and there is an ongoing competition between organisations to gain publicity, market share and exposure.

If a social business secures funding, it would be a good tactic to maximise PR and publications highlighting the impact of the social business and the investing party to potentially encourage a chain reaction of investments in social businesses.

This is one way of implementing the suggestion made by researchers at Stanford University in a report published March 2012 “Social Entrepreneurship: Why It Is Important After the Arab Spring” in which one of their recommendations suggests “using media tools and outreach campaigns to educate the segment of the population that is not aware of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship about those sectors, to partly address the risk aversion that dominates business culture in the region.”


Another solution to tackling the challenges of social entrepreneurs and social enterprises is through education.

Educational organisations and training centres should offer tailored social entrepreneurship courses and encourage business and management students to understand social entrepreneurship and realise that the concept is much more than simply an altruistic vision.

The government should also play a role in the education sector by introducing entrepreneurial education in schools and universities to build a culture and awareness of this promising and emerging sector among youth.

The private sector

Fadi Ghandour, founder of Aramex and CEO of Wamda Capital, summarised the private’s sector’s responsibility in three words – Corporate Entrepreneurship Responsibility (CER).

“CER is the movement: the method through which to lobby, mobilise and organise the private sector towards building region-wide entrepreneurship ecosystems,” he wrote in an article published on Wamda on January 21, 2013.

Providing support for local organisations and academic institutions engaged in incubating entrepreneurship and increasing the number of such incubators, particularly ones working in the social entrepreneurship space should be at the forefront of private sector involvement in the Arab region.


Finally, we must not ignore one of the most effective means of promoting social entrepreneurship; the introduction of both critical thinking and community involvement.

The changes in the political and social environment in the region has an evident effect on youth and the population through an increase in civic engagement and a growing sense of responsibility which has brought about a culture of volunteerism, social activism and social entrepreneurship.

A new an upcoming social enterprise that recognises this trend is Social Tent, which created a platform to provide employment opportunities in the public service sector, NGOS, non-profits and other social enterprises in the MENA region.

Undoubtedly, more platforms, events and organisations encouraging active civic engagement, volunteerism, and careers in the social services sector should exist in the region.

How to get involved

The Arab world is a region of great hope and great change, yet too many of its people still face basic development problems.

Unemployment is dangerously high, particularly among youth. Women’s economic participation is among the lowest in the world, half of all women and a third of all men are illiterate, and scientific attainment is generally low. Environmental degradation, health problems, and social exclusion and are still prominent.

The ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘awakening’ - although I would not use that title to describe the change in the region’s political environment - brought its own set of challenges, doubling the existing numbers in development problems.

Through the applications to the Jusoor Entrepreneurship Competition, an initiative by Jusoor, we have seen a tremendous increase in applicants entering the competition as entrepreneurs in the social sector, addressing problems such as the delivery of education to remote areas and refugee camps, online job portals, remote medical assistance and mental health programmes.

One application that stood out was a social enterprise in the health sector manufacturing a wearable device that delivers information to hospitals by sending signals carrying information on its wearer’s health condition and location in the event of explosions.

This is a clear example of how today’s entrepreneurs have identified the root causes of severe problems within their own communities and have found outstandingly innovative ways to solve them.

Our responsibility as a community is to nurture the entrepreneurial ecosystem by providing training and mentorship to foster the potential of young Arab social entrepreneurs, establish funds and foundations that invest in social start-ups with the clear understanding and mission to value returns in the form of long term sustainable impact rather than short term financial returns and profitable exits.

Lastly, educating our youth using a results-oriented module that encourages them to look differently at themselves and their relationship to the world around them, continuously exploring ways of finding creative solutions to solve crises.

Social entrepreneurship is by its very nature a highly creative and democratic process, by nurturing social entrepreneurship ecosystems that would be the bedrock of the sector’s development, there is hope that social entrepreneurship will become a way of life.

About Aziza Osman:

Aziza Osman is one of the co-founders and board members of Jusoor, an international NGO that provides education and development opportunities for youth. She advises social start-ups in concept creation and development, growth strategy, and impact valuation and measurement.

Previously, Osman successfully founded, developed, and exited Fruitful, a Dubai-based start-up offering healthier lighter snacks for VOX moviegoers.

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