Published on Arab Voices

Millennials Welcome! Young women are revolutionizing the startup scene despite conflicts in MENA

The start-up scene in the Middle East and North Africa region is booming. The growing number of incubators and accelerators that can be found from Beirut, Ramallah, Gaza to Cairo and Casablanca have gained recognition beyond the region. Our team at the MENA Youth Platform has been studying the emerging trends, and one thing is clear: the next revolution will look very different, and young women are at the forefront of innovation such as artificial intelligence. Impressively, a new startup-ecosystem index shows how Tunis and Amman lead the MENA crowd based on an assessment of available human capital, access to finance, the vibrancy of the startup scene, available ICT infrastructure, an enabling macro-context, and global market access.

Trend #1: Young women are at the center of this rapidly growing trend, exploring new value chains and expanding market niches. In fact, according to the Women’s Entrepreneurship Report, women entrepreneurs in MENA are 60% more likely than their male counterparts to offer innovative solutions, and about 30% have international reach – again, exceeding male-led enterprises. The reason for this is simple – young women lead startups in tech, finance, and entertainment, such as the region’s leading Arabic audio book producer, Masmoo3, straight out of Amman. Or take the tech startup Hello World Kids,  a coding program founded by Hanan Khader that has taught coding to 35,000 kids in Jordanian public primary schools, enabling them to use their analytical thinking, problem solving, and creativity-  skills that can help build a successful life.

Trend #2: Many women-led startups are leading social entrepreneurship. Selma Ben’akcha and Meriem Nadi co-founded the Moroccan manufacturer Alternative Solutions, which uses palm tree waste from the date harvest to produce stylish wooden boards and furniture. The lifestyle brand and social enterprise Up-fuse is another social impact company founded by two young Egyptian designers, Yara Yassin and Rania Rafie, who were among the winners of the World Bank’s recent We MENA competition. Their start-up produces bags from recycled materials sourced from Cairo in fair working conditions in collaboration with a local NGO. These are just a few examples, and there are women-led startups everywhere!

Trend #3: Countries hosting many refugees are experiencing a lot of pressure- women entrepreneurs are even turning those situations into opportunities. Aline Sarah has Lebanese roots and is the young woman behind Natakallam, a startup that leverages the gig economy to provide online work opportunities for Syrian refugees. In Lebanon and Jordan, the World Bank’s S4YE initiative is supporting a youth employment program for young men and women focused on creating digital jobs, training cloud-ready tech entrepreneurs, and with a special component to connect disadvantaged youth in rural areas with the digital economy.

Young women are not afraid of leading innovations in conflict-affected countries. Entrepreneurship in those countries is critical to promote the economic inclusion of youth resulting from lack of jobs. In Iraq for example, a new World Bank supported Youth Project assists 3,000 conflict-affected young people (half of them women) in entrepreneurial works and youth-led community projects. In the future, reviving cities that have seen conflict such as Mosul, Aleppo, or Taiz will require supporting a vibrant ecosystem for young entrepreneurs to create more jobs, and especially supporting young women.

Trend #4: For the development community, social innovation is one the most important transformative trends in the region. Social innovators are leaders that are driven to create progress for the sake of people, not profit. In Jordan, a group of young women and men founded Parachute16, an agency that aims to change the culture and ecosystem regarding entrepreneurs in the country, reaching young people and students. The Parachute16 team established nearly 90 innovation labs and incubators for youth throughout Jordan in partnership with national and international organizations.

It’s more than just business – for millennials entrepreneurship is about social impact. New startups range from for-profit to high social impact, and most startups aim to achieve both. In Jordan, The World Bank is supporting another project called Shabab Gadha (“Youth Can”). It aims to engage 3,000 social innovators (half of them young women) and youth-led community groups with seed funding to bring positive disruption into their communities. In another example from Sidi Kaouki in Morocco, the World Bank supported Open Village ecosystem promotes open source initiatives beyond just the collaborative online realm but also into the real world, hosting a number of women-led initiatives.

Trend #5: The entrepreneurial spirit can be found regardless of formal education. For example, nearly half of 5000 micro-entrepreneurs in Morocco recently supported by the World Bank were women without a formal high school degree. Above all, young men and women are a source of hope. They have the energy and perseverance to drive social change and create a new Middle East and North Africa region. Let’s roll up our sleeves and support more young women and men in their drive for social innovation and startups, not just through technology and capital, but also by expanding the entrepreneurship ecosystems!


Tobias Lechtenfeld

Social Development Specialist

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