From idea to impact: Arab entrepreneurship

An expert on social impact, entrepreneurship, innovation and the start-up ecosystem, Ahmad Ashkar has a few words of advice for the next generation of Arab youth

Arabs were the original entrepreneurs. We invented products and services that revolutionised thinking in science, maths, astronomy and technology. We reimagined medical care and research, and pioneered the study of social sciences and human behaviour. Innovation was what we did best, and the influence of our invention rippled across the seas and oceans, changing forever the way the world worked. We were champions of impact, pushing ideas and agendas that would make the planet a better place.

So what happened? Today, the Middle East as a whole has less patents than Belgium or Finland. Some time ago, we lost our compass and began focusing on things less important: money, social status, and baseless pedigree. We became copycats instead of innovators, and it is only now that we are returning to our Arab roots and the relentless pursuit of impact through innovation. Across Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and the Gulf, the emergence of social enterprise has empowered us to pave our own path towards self-preservation and equal opportunity with shared prosperity. The new generation of Arab youth can and will change the world, as long as they remember a few salient points:

Dare to imagine

The Arab Spring showed us that it only takes one dream, one stand and one opportunity to mobilise millions. We must push the boundaries of what is possible in the pursuit of impact. In turn, we must value failure as an opportunity to adopt positive lessons. We must not fear failure, nor shrink from those who dare to be bold. Mohammed Ashour, an Egyptian, dared to imagine in 2012. His inspiration came from our Arab lineage’s consumption of locusts, and from proven data that showed more than 2.5 billion people globally consume insects as part of their regular diet. Mohammad and his team developed an idea to commercialise protein and nutrient-rich insects as an affordable food source. Today, Aspire Food Group – a Hult Prize winner and start-up – is one of the largest commercial insect manufacturers in the world, providing food security to 25 million people through an array of products and services ranging from packaging and distribution, to insect by-products such as soluble powders and additives.

Harness the power of the crowd

We are better connected, informed and equipped than any of the generations before us. Utilise networks, digital communities and ICT to connect with your peers from across the Arab world and beyond to share ideas, inspire one another and to make imagination real. The use of the crowd to unlock ideas and solutions to the region’s toughest social issues is certainly the fastest and most efficient means to a breakthrough. Take, for example, our Hult Prize, which brings together more than 10,000 participants each year from 150 countries who collectively contribute 1.4 million man-hours to solving some of the world’s most pressing social challenges, including improving access to affordable healthcare, food, water, energy, housing and education. Crowd sourcing will not only provide an abundance of new ideas and ventures, the journey itself will enfranchise a wide array of stakeholders who will begin to see and believe in the objectives at hand. The crowd will spawn an ecosystem that entrepreneurs can leverage to mitigate risk and propagate success.

Reverse engineer and keep it simple

All great ideas and start-ups begin with identifying a major pain point in society, and work backwards from there to create a market-based solution. Ask critical questions: why doesn’t access to the benefit exist, or why is it so expensive? Then begin thinking about basic principles: who is currently paying for it, and why? Once these simple questions are answered, begin thinking about how to alleviate the pain points and bottlenecks found within your research. Look to the private sector for subsidies that can make your offering affordable, and don’t underestimate the sector’s interest in getting involved: top of the agenda at every Fortune 100 company is tapping into the billion-plus potential customers that currently inhabit urban slums, the world’s fastest-growing human habitat. It’s all about incentive. Take one of our start-ups, m.Paani, which uses a major telecoms provider as a subsidy source to bring clean water into slums outside Mumbai. The creative rebate programme gives the corporate partner access to a new market in exchange for a fee that is used to fund the delivery of social benefit. The net cost to the corporation is less than that of procuring and maintaining the customers on its own: a simple yet elegant business model that creates a win for the beneficiary, corporation and social entrepreneur leading to sustained growth, spread and scale.

Design for impact

In the future, it won’t be about giving away a percentage of your bottom line to the poor. Companies will instead be designed for impact: with the sale of a product or service, will come a by-product of positive social impact somewhere across the value chain of the company’s offering. The Coca-Cola Company is a good example of a worldwide player in this space. It is building an ecosystem-based approach to social impact, redesigning its entire supply chain to manufacture positive change. Unilever, meanwhile, is switching from using petroleum products to those made with biofuels, so that it can incorporate impact into the lifecycle of its products. Because of the state sector’s high visibility within the private sector in most Middle East countries, governments have the unique opportunity to be leaders in this vision and create a new culture where social impact is weaved into the DNA of a company. After all, isn’t it a government’s responsibility to look after its people?

We created the Hult Prize as a platform for our peers to leverage, and for the next generation of youth to learn from. We have inspired hundreds of thousands of young thinkers around the world, and helped to redefine the boundaries of what is and isn’t possible when it comes to solving the world’s most pressing social challenges. And as long as Arab youth continue to dream, then we can usher in a new era in the Middle East, where access to a life of shared prosperity and opportunity does not depend on the predisposition of any race, culture or creed.

About the writer

Ahmad Ashkar is the founder and CEO of the Hult Prize Foundation, which was named by former US president Bill Clinton and TIME Magazine as one of the top five ideas changing the world. Since founding the Hult Prize in 2009, he has led the growth of the initiative into the world’s largest millennial start-up movement for social good, with established offices in six countries around the globe. To learn more, click here