The seventh annual Rise Up summit took place on 5-7 December at the American University in Cairo. The largest entrepreneurial gathering across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Rise Up is an opportunity for budding startups, venture capitalists and everyone in between, to meet in contribution to the region's 'ecosystem' (economic system).
"The purpose behind Rise Up is to connect startups with the most relevant resources," Abdelhameed Sharara, CEO and co-founder of Rise Up, told MEMO at last weekend's event. The 400 investors, the 200 workshops and the 300 professional speakers attending the summit providing in-depth advice, all have the shared goal of launching a regional startup to success and building the MENA's ecosystem.
The seventh edition of Rise Up's summit was the largest to date with over 8,200 attendees, compared with less than 2,000 who attended the inaugural event in 2013, coinciding well with this year's theme, 'Journey to Growth.' Roughly 6,000 attended the growing summit in 2018.
The event concluded with a grand ceremony on 8 December in front of the pyramids in Giza, announcing the winner of a MENA pitch competition, where startups from Cairo, Beirut, Ramallah, Tunis, Amman, Dubai and Riyadh competed for funding for their respective startup ventures. Yanzo, an on-demand personal assistant startup from Dubai, walked away with $60,000, while Cairo's payroll platform, Paynas, won $50,000.
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Though still a fledgling market, the startup ecosystem in the MENA is maturing. At the root of every startup is a disruptive element – a goal of significantly changing an aspect of everyday life, adding value to society. Startups pop up in communities where problems persist, and traditional methods aren't sufficient. The MENA has been proving a prime market for these innovative solutions.
"Startups solve really core issues in society," Sharara noted, explaining the MENA's competitive edge in the global ecosystem, "and the majority of those startups in the [MENA] region are purpose driven. They exist because there was a very big challenge in society that they are trying to solve."
Almost 300 MENA-based startups, from seed-stage (pre-investment) to high-potential (over $100,000 generated in their first year), showcased their innovative solutions, ranging from delivery services and automobile repair, to hi-tech educational tools and health care.
Amr Abo Elyasid attended the Rise Up summit for the third time. "I'm very careful to attend Rise Up summit [each year] because we get a lot of outcome," the co-founder and tech lead of Zeal, a story loyalty program app, told MEMO. "You connect with people, you meet new people, you connect with investors."
"[Rise Up] is really important because a lot of startups, not only from Egypt, are here," asserted Ramaj El-Shenawy, the 22-year-old representative of the startup CUP (coffee utilised products). CUP collects used coffee grounds from businesses and uses them to produce local mushrooms, at double the efficiency. "[Egypt] is in the middle of the Middle East, so it's like a hub for startups here."
Three or four years ago, Rise Up CEO Sharara explained that money was a primary issue for startups to get going. But investors have finally taken notice of the advantages of working in MENA.
"MENA is much more of an uncharted territory," claims Hussein Kazem, Rise Up marketing manager, when describing the market advantages of the region. One advantage for Egypt, he continued, is its population of roughly 97 million, with over 20 million in the urban area of Cairo alone. "We're such a big market. There is an opportunity to fix so many things."
Though the ecosystem for startups is skyrocketing, MENA countries still have their fair share of challenges.
A major challenge, Sharara pointed out, is access to talent. There is no shortage of university graduates in the MENA countries, but students aren't always choosing the major that the market needs most. The region also suffers from 'brain drain' – when educated individuals go abroad and bring their skills to other countries. If they do stay, "a lot of people would prefer working for the government or working for corporations," proclaims Sharara.
Access to mentors – people who have previously undergone the startup cycle – can also be a challenge, though Rise Up is actively working to combat this.
Finally, advanced infrastructure is a common complaint for the startup ecosystem – access to proper office facilities, banking resources, and most importantly, high speed internet.
The internet has proven to be threatening to many MENA governments, who have enacted severe restrictions and censorship of this vital technological and communication tool. Egypt's restrictions of the internet "could be a hindrance in the rate [the ecosystem is] going to go. For example, if you don't have some of these restrictions, you can get to 5G much quicker," Kazem explained. Though in general, he believes, the government has been very supportive of Rise Up and of startups in Egypt.
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"So maybe the pace of things could be hindered, but whether that's a good or a bad thing, that's debatable," he continued, noting that since the ecosystem in Egypt has been exploding at a rapid rate, there needs to be time and space created for adjustments to these growing pains.
"It's kind of like going through puberty. You keep growing, and you're adjusting to this new body of yours," Kazem explains. "It's a similar way of describing the Egyptian ecosystem."
But to Kazem, hope is in the younger generations who have grown up in the age of technology. "True technology disrupts," he affirms. "We're living right now in a very different world than the world we grew up in."
Startups have given younger generations hope, too, in finding alternative ways to live and work – this is increasingly true in the MENA, Kazem points out, since the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2011 Arab springs.
"In this area of economic instability [post-revolution], you have this opportunity to build," he indicates. "In that aspect, it provides a lot of people of our generation with a purpose. Which you can't quantify."