Residents of other countries often regard the Middle East, especially the UAE to be a place of glitz and glamour. Of course, there is no doubt about the luxuries UAE nationals and expats entail; however, the region is also witnessing a surge in social entrepreneurship as the country predominantly has diversified in multiple businesses other than the oil sector.
While many entrepreneurs with a social focus may have some regard for profitability at the beginning, the primary driving force behind their venture is usually an underlying social issue or problem.
The country is distinguishing itself with not just its intricately-designed skyscrapers but also with a space-age innovation where businesses can thrive. While not many people may consider this region to develop successful social enterprises, this piece is going to explore the five pivotal reasons why UAE can produce a potential business model that revolves around social entrepreneurship.
A sustainable future
In line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030, UAE continues to strive towards enhancing sustainability and building a greener economy. In 2019, The Supreme Council of Energy in Dubai announced that the country recorded a great improvement of 60%, bringing per capita emissions to 15.7 CO2, whereas global tycoons like the USA had recorded 16.5 CO2 per capita.
While UAE may not be the most sustainable country or one amongst them, it certainly does have the potential. In 2016, Dubai and Abu Dhabi were regarded as the most sustainable cities in the Middle East as per the Arcadis Sustainable Cities Index. Furthermore, with Dubai hosting World Expo 2021, the desert nation is set to mark a sustainable future outside the oil industry with bold innovation strategies offering numerous opportunities for social enterprises to shine.
Evolution of social entrepreneurship
In a release sent out by Thomson Reuters Foundation where countries were indexed for the “Best places to start a social enterprise”, in 2016, UAE had secured the 19th position in the overall ranking. Consecutively, in 2018, the country moved to the 12th position, up by seven places. The release further enunciated how the entrepreneurs are able to access non-financial backing like technical aid and legal support. The improvement in the ranking does exemplify how the country is advancing towards building a niche community for social entrepreneurs and the diverse support systems the country is able to produce and maintain.
Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center (Sheraa) is a regional example that has contributed to the growing social enterprises’ ecosystem by driving innovation and empowering human potential. Over the years, the organization has supported over 160 business ideas, graduated over 70 startups that are prevalent in the market and generated over $24 million in revenue by creating over 500 job opportunities. Some of the successful start-ups supported by Sheraa include Solve – an organization offering environmentally-friendly solutions by promoting fully-electric motorbikes optimized for functionality and sustainability. Another example is Rise who owns a wealth-management platform for migrants to manage their finances and discover the numerous possibilities of building a better future.
The organization has become a powerful tool for social entrepreneurs as they welcomed over 10,000 people to their events and distributed over $500k to the startup community as grants and awards. With such entrepreneurship hubs like these, UAE nationals and residents can form a niche culture where startups and social enterprises can thrive.
An avenue for training
While numerous people are aspiring to become successful social entrepreneurs, there are only a handful of associations who support people with the right pathway and aid. In a recent survey in 2020 by Injaz Al Arab and Oliver Wyman revealed that MENA youth working in private corporations have a heavy inclination towards entrepreneurship in the UAE. From the 2,400 participants who were between the age group of 16 to 36 amongst 17 MENA countries, 84% of them aim to fuel their entrepreneurial venture in the near future. This is where association like Emirates Foundation comes into play! With the social enterprise wave, the foundation believed to lay a strong base where the future generation could learn and get the required guidance.
Hence, The Emirates Foundation appointed Impact Hub to develop and design a youth entrepreneurship program that is in line with the UN. This program is set to encourage people to open social enterprises and with the rate at which technology, innovation, and infrastructure is rapidly moving, this can be only a stepping stone for the youth to build international business models.
While a lot has been said about the support to-be entrepreneurs receive, plenty has been happening with small business social enterprises as well. A local fashion brand like Palestyle is a social enterprise where Palestinian refugee women are employed in order to produce luggage, home décor and handbags. A percentage of the retail sales are further invested in Palestinian projects.
Another positive instance is NOW Money, a UAE-based social enterprise. Their mission is to empower the people who do not have bank accounts. This tech and banking-based corporation is the first FinTech company in the region to use technology inbuilt on phones to offer accounts and financial inclusions. All of these examples conclude the social awareness amongst people and the will to venture into exciting and new projects is only growing with the coming years.
Entrepreneurship events, platforms & workshops
The ever-growing entrepreneur culture is celebrated in the UAE with full spirit and vigor. Along these years, there have been numerous events and workshops that help attendees to inspire and immerse in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. One such unique event is the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Festival which gives creative and business minds an opportunity to express their ideas to potential partners, investors and mentors. Alongside, they can participate in informative workshops and even a 100k competition that will expedite their journey in the corporate industry.
Another interesting one is the C3 Social Impact Accelerator (a Sheraa-supported start-up), a program that invites over 600 applicants and selects 23 finalists from 8 countries in the MENA region. They are then given the chance to participate in a 3-month virtual program. This gives them a stage to virtually meet and network with capitalists, social practitioners and industry experts. While these are just a few, there are many such events and workshops that allow people to diversify into this exciting and challenging industry.
With the UAE being a relatively young country, it has great opportunities that attract and allow social entrepreneurs to flourish and build business propositions that are supported effectively by local organizations. While the country could be primarily represented for its glamour, it may just be the right place for successful social entrepreneurs to take off.