By Courtney Trenwith
Protests across the Middle East in recent year have highlighted the potentially catastrophic consequences of Arab youth unemployment. One programme has been working to give hundreds of thousands of young people each year the courage and skills needed to create their own economic prosperity
Arab youth face a debilitating issue: there are more of them than there are new jobs, multiple times over. With governments no longer able to afford to take on everyone of working age — a common expectation in the richest Arab nations, including those in the Gulf — as many as 250 million young people will have to create their own economic prosperity in the coming few years alone.
While various incubators have sprung up across the Middle East, one programme is starting at the beginning by teaching Arab youth not only the basics of establishing a business but to develop the confidence to do so.
About 300,000 high school and university students now participate in Injaz Al Arab each year, while there are 2 million alumni.
“It pushes us forward to really want to do something, to achieve something, to show that young Arabs can be entrepreneurs, can make their own products, can open their own companies; they can be the managers, they can be the CEOs, all this at a young age,” Dima Humaidan, a 17-year-old Palestinian, tells Arabian Business.
Dima and her five colleagues were finalists in Injaz Al Arab’s high school competition, in which they have created their own company from scratch, including business and marketing plans, real products and a balance sheet that proves they are profitable. Dima promoted her team’s business so heavily in the lead up to the final, held in Muscat in November, she almost lost her voice. But such is her enthusiasm, she passionately continued to explain the purpose of her team’s business, Zinnia, which sells recycled Phoenician glass products and plants that do not require soil.
“After so many brainstorming sessions we chose these two products and made them creatively to spread awareness among different nationalities — starting from Palestine, then the Arab world, then globally — so that people know that Phoenician glass belongs to Palestine. We feel bad that not everyone knows that it comes from Palestine and only Palestinians are able to make it,” she explains, wearing her company uniform.
“There are many strategies we’ve used that mean people have really started to notice our company and not just because they think, ‘oh you’re so cute, I’m going to buy from you’. No, we really showed our own perspective and we showed that age doesn’t matter.”
Nor does circumstance, as several participants — including Dima — proved. Despite war raging through their country for much of the year, the Yemeni school team still managed to participate in the final in Oman. It took the Haddah Valley Junior High School students four days to travel via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar after months of carefully planned meetings to avoid the ongoing conflict.
The company started with 13 members but only four finished the programme due to the crisis, according to the group’s mentor Zaki Al Khatary.
“For example, they would usually meet on Thursday afternoons [but sometimes] they would wake up in the morning and there had been an attack in Sana’a, so half of them couldn’t come because their mothers or fathers wouldn’t let them,” Al Khatary says.
“There was an attack almost every two weeks when they were supposed to meet. I told them reaching [the final] was an achievement in itself.”
But the war also inspired their product — environmentally friendly biodiesel.
“The idea just posed itself on us because we have no fuel in Yemen,” team member Ghadeer M. Alamah tells the judging panel during the final, before he and his colleagues also answer questions about how they have overcome the smell and whether there is a similar product globally.
When asked if they believe they will be able to gain approval for their product when the crisis ends, Ghadeer responds: “Yes, Inshallah. We hope it will be easy”.
It is this blend of entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen that the judges are seeking.
“I’m really looking for the spirit of Injaz and what Injaz stands for, and that is, to instil the feeling or spirit of entrepreneurship in young people, to give them the feeling to say ‘I have my destiny in my own hands and I’m going to enlarge the pie and not only take a piece of it’,” says Abdul Aziz Al Yaqout, senior partner at Meysan Partners law firm and a volunteer on the high school judging panel. “Of course, we look at how they present and are they pricing too high or too low, is the marketing material convincing or not, do they understand their product, have they done their research, market analysis - everything you’d expect of someone when they put a company together. But with the young teams it’s really about the spirit of entrepreneurship.”
The 12-month programme is based on experiential learning with the aim to teach students financial literacy and workforce readiness as much as entrepreneurship. Sconaid McGeachin, Hill+Knowlton Strategies president & CEO for India, Middle East, Africa & Turkey, says the winning teams also have shown qualitative skills such as teamwork and innovative thinking.
“It’s not about one individual having the idea and the others following,” McGeachin, who has judged for two years, says. “[Winning teams also] not only grasp the idea but take it further.
“A lot of them have been very honest about the challenges they faced during the process and that to me was also very interesting because we all know what it is like [to run a business], nothing is easy. Sometimes it’s even been challenging to get team members to turn up to meetings because they’re not used to that extra responsibility; people might be committed at the beginning but how do you maintain that commitment? Some have been very honest that they’ve discarded people along the way because they weren’t focused, and I like that honesty.
“[The winners also have] tried different things; to me trying something and realising it doesn’t work and learning from that is exactly what everybody needs to do in business. So it’s a very real-life situation that is giving them this opportunity at a very early age to actually see what is it like if they were to have a business with the support of a mentor from Injaz… so they’ve got that guidance and comfort behind them before they maybe do that in the real world.”
Many of the finalists’ products also have the potential to positively contribute to society. The Algerian high school team has already earned more than $3,000 selling their organic fertiliser that helps solve the North African country’s waste problem, while Qatari students created a world-first fire-proof vest for children that has been approved by the civil defence department.
“[Injaz] gave us the opportunity to believe in ourselves,” says Tasneem Refai, the 17-year-old director of Qatar Save Yourself, which created the vest.
In Egypt, more than 40 Injaz teams have gone on to significantly elevate their businesses under a specially created accelerator established amid the post-2011 revolution buzz.
The woman behind it, CEO of Injaz Egypt, Dina El Mofty, says: “A lot of alumni got interested in starting their own business and they did amazing accomplishments - that’s when we started to think we really need to raise the bar and not just offer programmes; we need to capitalise on that and seed fund those ideas, help them to scale up their business and accelerate it, help them get mentors, give them all the help they need to actually launch a successful business into the marketplace.
“Over the past four years… we’ve had very, very innovative and different ideas, from renewable energy to recycling businesses to tech businesses, to service businesses, all sorts. Some of them have received second rounds of investment, some have really grown their business and scaled their operations and are generating amazing revenues. The potential is phenomenal and we’ve continued to try and grow this.”
El Mofti says even before businesses are profitable, they are significantly boosting morale in a country that has endured economic and social upheaval for the better part of five years.
“Many of the students graduate with a sense of hopelessness, [believing they] need wasta - to know someone — to help me get a job, but with this entrepreneurship culture instilled in them at this young age, the sky is their limit,” she says.
“It’s a shift in mind set — I’m not going to wait around anymore for a job to come my way, I’m going to create my own work opportunity. Those who are really serious and really committed to their business, who are able to come up with a sustainable business, something that’s scalable, profitable, has a social impact and they’re really passionate about, become unstoppable. What we help them do is just reach that goal.”
This energy epitomises that of the late cofounder of Injaz Al Arab, Soraya Salti. Salti first established the programme in Jordan in 2000, with less than 2,000 students. By the time she left to open a regional office with Akef Aqrabawi in 2004, there were at least 45,000 participants annually. Today, Injaz reaches 300,000 each year across North Africa, the Middle East and Pakistan.
“Soraya has always been my ultimate hero; her passion, her positivity, her energy, [she was] full of life, she was an unbelievable person,” Aqrabawi, who is president and CEO of Injaz Al Arab, tells Arabian Business during the final. “I am so touched now I almost see her in every corner [of the event]. It is a great loss for all of us, for all the youth in the MENA region.”
Salti had left Injaz prior to her death but her legacy continues. The organisation aims to reach 1 million students annually by 2018, although this target is becoming less attainable as the time approaches. With cities well penetrated, there are plans to expand into regional areas, but the lack of private sector enterprises — and thus, volunteer mentors — presents a significant challenge.
Injaz is piloting online mentoring with some of its existing teams, although so far this is only in addition to face-to-face sessions.
Finding enough volunteer mentors is one of the organisation’s greatest obstacles to expansion, as well as, in some cases, gaining the support of education departments.
But Aqrabawi says once teachers and officials witness the dramatic effects of the programme they become avid supporters. Aqrabawi says during a pilot phase in Riyadh eight years ago, teachers were stunned when a student who was typically rebellious in class made an impressive presentation.
“One of the teachers asked me, ‘what is this student doing on the stage?’ I told him he is talking on behalf of the group, he’s the marketing manager. The teacher said ‘he’s not doing good academically’. But this student did a fantastic job on the stage. Why? Because he gathered all the talents that he has that he couldn’t show them during his traditional classes,” Aqrabawi explains.
“Right after the session, the teachers said we need to implement this programme in all the classes in the school, because they saw the impact on the students; they were shocked to see this student talking in this way.”
Al Yaqout says one of his most profound moments while judging also occurred in Saudi Arabia, where more than 80 percent of workers are employed by the government because it is safe and “given to you on a silver platter”.
“I remember a young girl, she was wearing a veil, and when I asked her, ‘what did you gain out of this?’ she looked at me and said, ‘what I learnt out of this is that I want to have my own business and I will have my own business’,” Al Yaqout recalls. “I was so proud of this young girl, she was 18, living in a very conservative society saying ‘I am going to build my own destiny’. That for me is the summary of what all of this is about.
“In my view, the core issue we face today in the Arab world is employment and growth of opportunity and there’s been too much dependency on government - from the cradle to the grave, the government will take care of you. We need to get away from that because it’s not sustainable. We have to give people the opportunity to enlarge the pie, not to only say, ‘what is my part of the existing pie?’
“It plays a huge role in all the issues we face today — if you have something to lose, you will not grab a gun, you will ensure that the opportunity prospers and grows. The government cannot deliver that and that’s why initiatives like this are immensely important.”
The consequences of unemployment have been playing out in Tunisia in recent weeks, with violent protests in various parts of the country leading authorities to impose a night-time curfew. Five years after a revolution also sparked by unemployment, many Tunisians claim the situation is now even more dire, with youth unemployment at about 40 percent.
The Arab population is one of the youngest in the world, with more than two-thirds, or about 250 million, aged under 30.
“This is shocking. How will these waves of youth succeed in the marketplace knowing that governments are no longer hiring people and the private sector has certain criteria to give them jobs?” Aqrabawi asks. “That is why Injaz is important, to bridge the gap between academia and the marketplace. Our implementation model… is a great example because we’re making this partnership between public and private sector.”
Al Yaqout says governments are becoming increasingly cooperative.
“I think governments are starting to become much more responsive to what we’re doing, what we stand for and how we can add value,” he says. “In the past, we’ve had governments that have been very hostile — the old Egyptian regime, for example, was very hostile in the sense [that they thought] ‘you want to teach us how to educate our children’.
“I think there was also a concern over giving people too much independence. But I think the Arab Spring has shown that you cannot control it… you have to give the people that freedom, it is not a political issue, it is an economic issue.”
Injaz Al Arab may well be a competition, but it is proving to be a significant influence in the reality of the next generation of Arab youth.