Let’s be honest. The Middle East and North Africa is burning, and in some areas it is literally burning. Conflict and fragility have long warped what once was the cradle of civilization and the inspiration for the many inventions we can’t live without today. However, in the midst of that fire hope rises, a driver of change that is transforming the ugly reality into a bright future.
After I fled the war in Iraq in 2006, I was pessimistic about what the future was holding for that region. Year after another, the domino-effect of collapse became a reality that shaped the region and its people. Yet, fast-forward to 2017, I have witnessed what I never thought I would see in my lifetime: the new renaissance in the Middle East and North Africa.
I have just recently come back from attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa at the Dead Sea in Jordan. This year, the Forum and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, partnered to bring together 100 Arab start-ups that are shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
There, the positive vibe was all around; no negativity, no pessimism. Instead there was a new sense of optimism and enthusiasm, hunger for change, and the will to take the region to a whole new future, away from conflict and the current norm of pessimism.
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In a first for Africa’s Sahel region, entrepreneurs from Senegal to Chad assembled in Niamey, Niger, for the SahelInnov Expo last month to showcase their businesses and exchange ideas. From livestock to drones, all sectors were on display as a new generation of entrepreneurs and start-ups emerges with bold and innovative ways to address the challenges facing their countries and communities. Increasingly recognized as a strategic path to economic growth, supporting SMEs and entrepreneurs has a key impact on development and is generating more interest from governments in the Sahel.
Michaëlle Jean, the Secretary General of the International Organisation of La Francophonie, His Excellency Mahamadou Issoufou, the President the Republic of Niger, and Almoktar Allahoury, the CEO of CIPMEN.
Photo Credit: CIPMEN
Hosting the event was Niger SMEs Incubator Center (CIPMEN) whose CEO, Almoktar Allahoury, lauded the initiative. “This is the first time all stakeholders have come together: entrepreneurs, public officials, investors, academia and development partners in one place to discuss the many opportunities and remaining obstacles for the private sector — this is just what we need to take the region to the next level.”
Indeed, entrepreneurship could be especially important for this extremely poor region, with half the population living below the poverty line. Burkina Faso and Niger, for example, are among the fastest-growing economies in the world, yet their GDP per capita are just $395 and $652 respectively, compared to the Sub-Saharan African average of $1,647. A vibrant and active entrepreneurial ecosystem would therefore not only boost economic diversification and improve productivity, it also could prove the vital lever to tackling two of the Sahel’s biggest challenges: youth unemployment and climate change.
The devastating combination of climate change, mass migration, trafficking and the rise of violent extremism has resulted in recurring humanitarian crises and massive food insecurity, affecting more than 20 million people across the Sahel in 2015. Enduringly high birth rates, furthermore, will require millions of jobs to be created to respond to the needs of a rapidly growing and increasingly young population. Institutional reach remains weak and a state of protracted insecurity has taken root over vast swathes of territory.