At first glance, given the ongoing unstable political and economic situation, and deteriorating infrastructure in the country, such as unreliable internet and decades-long power cuts, it is often easy to think that Lebanon is a third-world country on the brink of collapse – and that’s not far from the truth.
“Despite more than five months of wrangling, premier-designate Saad Hariri has been unable to form a new government, putting a precious $11-billion aid package (garnered at a Paris conference) at risk,” AFP reminds.
Foreign parties have come forward to provide support, but those in charge in the Lebanese government can’t seem to agree on anything, which is putting any hopes of foreign aid in jeopardy.
Yet, some local entrepreneurs and visionaries have refused to give up.
Enter the Beirut Digital District (BDD).
Google campus in Lebanon?
One step into the BDD, and you’d be remiss to not think you’d stepped into some Middle Eastern version of the famous Google campuses. Colorful, full of young people and brimming with life, the BDD has brought to Lebanon a community hub for tech startups seeking to make a name for themselves in their ailing country, and potentially beyond.
Playing host to all kinds of startups, from marketing firms to design agencies to video game studios, the BDD is breathing life into a startup ecosystem with great potential.
Tech Crunch (TC), the American tech news site, would not have chosen the BDD as the premier destination for its Startup Battlefield competition in the MENA region otherwise. The event was held on October 3.
Hosting Startup Battlefield
The BDD served as the first Middle Eastern host to this international event, bringing together budding entrepreneurs from all walks of business. Facebook was also partnered with the event, and in fact, share a good relationship with the BDD.
“We have been partners with Facebook for almost two years, and this partnership has been evolving over the years,” Stephanie Abi Abdallah, the BDD’s Programs Director told AMEinfo at the event.
“Last year, supported the first international Battlefield in a non-typical market, in Africa. This year, they decided to take Startup Battlefield to the MENA region, and in the MENA region, they picked Beirut.”
Facebook’s relationship with the BDD was instrumental in securing the Beirut hub as host of the event.
“This is how we became local partner, and not just a hosting partner – we had a supportive role throughout,” she explained.
There is hope
When one thinks of startups and entrepreneurship, big names like Dubai and Saudi Arabia come to mind. This makes the BDD’s achievement the more impressive.
Speaking to Mike Butcher, the Editor at Large for Tech Crunch, he told AMEinfo a rather surprising bit of information: “When it came to the point that Tech Crunch wanted to expand its coverage and its events, Lebanon seemed like a natural place to take .”
Ali Abu Kumail, a Senior Private Sector Specialist at the World Bank, revealed recently that “Even if investments are happening in places like Dubai mostly, ideas and talent are available elsewhere. More than 40% of ideas that came to Dubai last year were actually from Jordan and Lebanon.”
For the BDD, hosting Tech Crunch’s competition is truly a feather in their cap.
“It’s really a testament for all the hard work that we’ve accomplished so far. For all the entrepreneurs, the VCs, every single ecosystem player that has been working over the past ten years to build this ecosystem,” Abi Abdallah said.
“We took a non-existing ecosystem and made it into what it is today: an ecosystem the World Bank ranks as advanced,” she continued.
And the world seems to be noticing.
A tale of perseverance
Wistful, Abi Abdallah told us the BDD started 6 years ago as a vision to build a hub for the digital creative community, around the same time the Circular 331 of the Central Bank of Lebanon was taking shape.
“This was a Circular from the Central Bank to guarantee 75% of investments from the banks in startups. So it was a way to actually incentivize the banks to invest in startups to try to help boom that ecosystem.”
The issue of slow internet speeds in the country was one of the greatest catalysts for the creation of the BDD.
“This is where the vision for BDD originated – to create this hub for the digital creative community… This way, Lebanon becomes a production hub, and you have sales offices across, and this helps to stop the brain drainage, to retain talent in Lebanon, etc. The way we support this vision is by providing the appropriate infrastructure – providing the access to fiber optics, for example,” she continued.
They had a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Telecommunication to help make this vision a reality.
The BDD offers support to startups in several ways, be it in terms of office spaces, to providing subsidized rates when these startups graduate from their accelerators, to taking care of all the bureaucratic paperwork. Their support ranges from the “administrative, to mentorship, to partnership, etc.”
Could the BDD be the path for startups to launch into the greater international market, and for them to make a name for themselves in the region? It is seeming more possible by the day. If the Beirut Digitial District continues to be further developed, and they continue supporting SMEs as rigorously, Beirut could see its startup scene flourish – enough to become a household name in the region.
In closing, Abi Abdallah said, “What we’re hoping to achieve is to put Lebanon on the global map, to show these companies that there are a lot of things happening here. The more success stories we bring, the more investors will trust what we’re doing and the greater the boom the ecosystem will enjoy.”