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Lebanon’s entrepreneurs are up and coming

As funds become more available to startups and supporting organisations attempt to break taboos of entrepreneurship, Tripoli proves it is more than ready to join in
Members of the Derby application team (MEE/Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club)

When Abdel Rahman Naboulsi and his friends wanted to play football in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, they would have to spend a lot of time, and phone credit, first trying to find an available pitch, then trying to find out who else was free to play a game.

Naboulsi, after attending an entrepreneurship class at university, decided that perhaps he could reduce this time-consuming problem by creating an application that would allow other footballers to not only find and book pitches with ease, but find other players to join them.

It’s not the usual story to be heard coming out of a city that is more often identified with bombings and deadly clashes between Alawites and Sunnis, but for more than a year now Tripoli has been home to a group of entrepreneurs keen to fertilise the young potential they see all around them - the Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club (TEC).

Sowing the seed

“In Tripoli we have big capacities compared to the image that people hear about the city,” said Fadi Mikati, one of the group’s founders. Initially meeting once a week for an "entrepreneurs' brunch" in Tripoli, the group of up to 25 people would discuss entrepreneurship in relation to everything from financing to strategies.

Part of this brunch was to play a game called "the pitch pot" where each participant would put an idea forward for a possible project. One day Mikati’s idea for an established club working with entrepreneurs was the winner.

Moving forward, the club, which consists of 12 Tripolitan entrepreneurs, including Mikati, started to host events and workshops to teach the youngsters who were interested how to turn ideas into startups.

“I know the road is very far now,” said Mikati. “But we have to start somewhere to show our value, that we can do something.” Mikati describes those who have come through their doors as like-minded people who want to invent, create and add value to their city and the economy of Tripoli.

As a financial analyst with Kafalat, Lebanon’s single loan guarantor company, Mikati is well placed to guide those looking into creating a startup when it comes to the money. Najwa Sahmarani, vice president of the club, is an entrepreneur herself. A mechanical engineer by trade, she was a founding member of the now growing bio-medical tech startup CardioDiagnostics. Since then she has founded Al Kindy, a social space in Tripoli dedicated to a love of books.

Tackling a problem

According to an International Labour Organisation report published in December 2014, youth unemployment is at 34 percent in Lebanon. Coupled with political instability and low wages, the country has for years suffered an exodus of the educated and talented. Few and unappealing opportunities in sectors from tech to law see many graduates leave for the US, Europe and other parts of the Middle East every year.

“We hope to improve the economic situation by tackling the unemployment and underemployment issue,” said Sahmarani. Creating work opportunities that the graduates are passionate about is the approach that she and the rest of the TEC believe will solve the problem in their community.

For the moment the TEC has the aim of creating and launching at least one startup. Part of the programme was a three-day bootcamp in September of last year. Three days were spent, with 25 youngsters aged between 17 and 27 taking part in sessions on how to develop ideas, business strategy, finance and the law in regards to their business.

It was the "idea pitching" session that saw the football-field-booking app Derby win first place. Now in an acceleration programme, TEC Derby’s founders are receiving help with building their beta version of the product. “They’re connecting us with people in the relevant domain,” said Naboulsi. “The consulting really helps the legalisation [of the product], as well as the marketing and market research.”

Others attending the TEC workshops are graduates working on projects such as a Bobzy, a compressed wooden racket that doesn’t break; Funsta, an app to help students link up and help one another with assignments, earning points; Wastericity, a solution for generating gas from waste; a startup looking to serve lifestyle desires of Nutella lovers called NutellaMore; and YouMade, an online platform for people to promote and sell homemade food products.

(MEE/Tripoli Entrepreneurs Club)

A growing scene for Lebanon

While entrepreneurship is still viewed in the Middle East as a wacky alternative to a standard job with security, the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Lebanon is steadily growing.

The business development center Berytech has been helping startups and SMEs since 2001; coworking space AltCity is a more recent addition, along with the government-facilitated project Beirut Digital District in 2012 as a nod to the awareness of the business sector and government of a need to grow what is oftentimes referred to as the "internet ecosystem".

This has all been complemented as well by the increasing availability of funds for startups coming out of Lebanon. In 2013, Lebanon’s central bank (Banque du Liban) announced Circular 331, an initiative that is seeing $400 million set aside specifically for Lebanese startups.

Under this initiative the various venture capital funds based in the country have been able to raise between $50 and $71 million, some with the intention of funding at a seed level, others at a growth stage.

At Beirut’s ArabNet conference held in March, Flat6Labs, a Cairo-born accelerator (a space that helps startups grow), announced it would be opening up a branch in Beirut before the end of the year. 

In the meantime, as Naboulsi’s Tripoli-based application Derby will continue to work with the TEC, he’ll gain invaluable advice from the seasoned members, and hopefully some investors when the time is right. “This app can work anywhere where there are fields, so yes, the whole of the Middle East is the end goal."

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