When most people think of Sudan, they often think of civil unrest and the crippling economic and political sanctions that the country faces. However, when twenty-year-old Sudanese Moneera Yassien looks at her country, she sees an endless source of untapped talent and business opportunity.
In addition to being a youth advocate and an economics student at the University of Khartoum, Moneera is also the PR and Communications Coordinator at the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Community (IEC) based in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.
According the organization’s website, the IEC “is a national youth-driven NGO initiated in 2013” with the mission of promoting a culture of entrepreneurship among Sudanese youth, by organizing events, holding workshops, partnering with leading global entrepreneurship communities and bringing new opportunities to support the growth of the startup ecosystem in Sudan.
Although the IEC has made great strides to establish itself as a hub of innovation in Sudan, it continues to face countless social, economic and political challenges. However, this has not dampened the spirits of young Sudanese people, who are trying to use these structural challenges as a motivation to produce home-grown solutions in their budding startup ecosystem.
In the following interview, Moneera gives us a glimpse into the IEC and all of the initiatives that it’s trying to implement to establish a culture of innovation, economic diversity and youth empowerment in Sudan.
1) What is Innovation and Entrepreneurship Community, who founded it and why?
The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Community (also known as IEC) is one of the first entrepreneurship communities in Sudan. It was founded by a group of talented and aspiring youth in Sudan, who wanted to increase the awareness of entrepreneurship and innovation among different segments within the country.
2) What kind of activities does IEC host?
Currently, the IEC works to promote entrepreneurship in Sudan in four distinct ways:
- We conduct research nationally and internationally to measure the impact of our entrepreneurial activities.
- We host various events to increase awareness and understanding of entrepreneurship among different segments in the Sudanese community.
- We host training and mentoring activities to support, guide and mentor Sudan’s budding entrepreneurs.
- We organize networking activities with the goal of building a community that unites all the aspects of a mature entrepreneurship ecosystem.
4) How big is the community?
The IEC has quite a big community. We work with a large network of volunteers and entrepreneurs, which includes more than 500 individuals. In addition to that, the IEC has more than 10 international partners and 25 local partners. In 2016, I’m proud to say that we had more than 4000 people participate in IEC activities.
5) What facilities and services does the IEC provide its community members?
At the moment, we are working on providing a co-working space for our community, which will be completed at the end of 2017.
6) What are the main challenges that entrepreneurs and startups face in Sudan?
- New entrepreneurial culture: The startup ecosystem is newly shaped in Sudan, so I believe that the first challenge that it has to face is the lack of previous successful (or unsucessful) startup experiences. We are hoping that the current generation of entrepreneurs and startups in Sudan will establish a strong base for our ecosystem.
- Reluctant entrepreneurs: Sudanese society is still not very open to the idea of “risky investments” or starting a business “from zero,” which is understandable with the nature of our unstable economy. This is why initiatives like IEC exist. To educate all the stakeholders of our community about the importance and the need for establishing the basis for an innovative business ecosystem.
- Internal conflict and economic obstacles: Unfortunately, Sudan has experienced two devastating civil wars, which cost the lives of 1.5 million people. There is also an ongoing conflict in the western region of Darfur that has resulted in restrictive political and economic sanctions on the country. Thus, resulting in the total isolation of Sudan from global markets, since banks in Sudan are not allowed to make international transfers and US-based companies have stopped working with the Sudanese government, businesses and individuals.
- Negative media attention: The global image of Sudan as country of war, conflict and poverty (as projected in the media) makes it difficult for youth to change this message. However, Sudanese youth are still eagerly trying to do so, by actively sharing all the innovation and resources available in the country, which the world knows little about.
- Internal structural challenges: Although Sudan is filled with talented and innovative young university graduates, Khartoum is living under an ongoing economic and political blockade, which has caused tremendous economic losses for factories, businesses and individuals. Moreover, the city also suffers from a devastated infrastructure, power shortages, and many other problems.
- Restricted mobility: Not only do entrepreneurs face the big dilemma of not being able to travel or meet investors and customers abroad, they also struggle with financial mobility, as entrepreneurs are unable to accept online payments for tech services rendered among other services.
7) How are IEC entrepreneurs and startups helping overcome these challenges?
The IEC does various things to empower entrepreneurs and startups in Sudan to overcome the formidable barriers that I mentioned in the previous section. The IEC….
- Works on providing the necessary “know how” and knowledge about entrepreneurship to aspiring entrepreneurs through the mentorship programs that we host and organize.
- Connects Sudanese entrepreneurs and startups with international networks (as we host many international events and competitions in Sudan annually) to give them the chance to compete in a larger scope.
- Shares Sudan’s budding ecosystem with the world by hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Week and representing Sudan at the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN).
8) How has the culture of entrepreneurship in Sudan evolved over the years?
Since 2013, the support for youth and entrepreneurship activities has been on the rise and Khartoum has witnessed a boom in the number of newly created startups, which aim to solve some of Sudan’s biggest problems by connecting the country’s local talent to the global entrepreneurship community. Thus, creating more opportunities for Sudanese entrepreneurs and startups in different stages (starting from the ideation stage to companies in the growth phase) to learn and attract investment.
Not only does the IEC see these entrepreneurs’ activities and growth as a unique opportunity to attract more participants to our community, we also see it as a valuable opportunity to educate the wider community about how entrepreneurship can be used as a tool to address Sudan’s various challenges and find solutions. Thus, allowing us to build a robust ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, innovators and job creators in the country.
9) What have been some of the IEC’s biggest achievements since its establishment in 2013?
In 2016, Sudan celebrated the third anniversary of Global Entrepreneurship Week Sudan (GEW) which has officially become the largest entrepreneurship summit in the country. The event, hosted by the IEC, had more than 4,000 participants, including government stakeholders, business leaders, successful entrepreneurs and foreign ambassadors.
Each year, the GEW Sudan provides support to entrepreneurs and startups in different stages the opportunity for growth by linking them to the global entrepreneurship community. The GEW Sudan event also included seminars and workshops in four different universities with over 600 attendees, which were all hosted by participants in previous IEC events.
In addition to introducing the GEW event to Sudan, the IEC has also introduced other internationally renowned entrepreneurial events such as Future Agro Challenge, Get in the Ring and the Startup Grind. We also provide custom-designed events for our local startup community, which have successfully sent over 15 startups to global mentorship and investments programs and sent over 20 entrepreneurs to more than 7 different countries around the world .
10) Which industries or sectors are growing in Sudan? Which ones are still under-served?
Sudan is definitely a promising emerging market in all fields, despite all of the logistical, regulatory and political issues it faces, because it provides a unique opportunity for visionary entrepreneurs to come up with home-grown solutions to fill in the various gaps that currently exist in the fields of technology, financial services, logistics, agro-business and other important economic sectors.
a) Sudan’s strategic advantages
Sudan is a country with huge potential when it comes to beta-testing products and services, because of its diverse population of more than 40 million, which is comprised of Africans, Arabs and expats. The country also has 853 kilometers of coastline and access to the Red Sea through Port Sudan- the country’s main port city.
Not only does Sudan share an African identity with its African neighbors (South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad and the Central African Republic) it also shares an Arab identity with its North African and Middle Eastern neighbors (Libya and Egypt).
b) Growing sectors
Many young Sudanese entrepreneurs are focusing on founding startups with easily scalable business models that don’t require a lot of capital or consume a lot of resources. Here are three sectors that have attracted a lot of interest from Sudanese entrepreneurs recently.
i) Tech: I believe that the technology industry, like in many places in the world, is a dominant sector in Sudan, because it offers customers affordable services and alternatives for traditional ways of doing things- such as online banking and transportation.
Example: Technologya, a multi-service tech startup based in Khartoum that provides premium websites, mobile applications, media production, graphic design and event organizing services to clients all over the Middle East and North Africa.
ii) Agriculture: Being an agricultural country, many Sudanese entrepreneurs and startups are also heavily invested in providing home-grown solutions to the problems that this sector faces.
Example: Students from the University of Khartoum are working on developing an automated machine to tap and harvest the gum from the Acacia Senegal, one of Sudan’s four important agricultural export commodities.
iii) Shared economy: In recent years, the concept of the “shared economy” has also become popular in Sudan, with many entrepreneurs and startups making this idea a core value of their businesses.
Example: Mishwar (journey in Arabic) is a car booking app that allows riders to set a pick-up and a drop-off point and to know their taxi’s estimated time of arrival and the quote for their journey.
c) Thriving entrepreneurial culture
The last few years have seen a significant boost in the number of startups, incubators, startup events and resources available in Sudan, which has created a wave that has changed the mindset of young Sudanese people about the idea of entrepreneurship.
Although the community has yet to produce a big Sudanese success story, there are various leading examples and inspiring stories of Sudanese entrepreneurs and startups that are trying “to make it” regionally.
the IEC sees a promising change in the country. It is notable in the way that Sudanese youth connect with each other, the way they create new ideas and the way that they produce products and services to meet their customers’ needs. We are very proud of how far our entrepreneurs, startups and youth have come in such a short time.
11) How can investors learn more about Sudanese startups?
Any investors interested in exploring the opportunity to connect and invest in Sudanese-based startups can communicate with the IEC through email (firstname.lastname@example.org ), phone (+249925416952 ) or our social media platforms- listed below.
12) How can people learn more about IEC and its events?
We invite anyone who is interested in learning more about what we do at the IEC to visit our website. We also to invite you to check out our Facebook page, where we actively share our latest news and our YouTube channel, where you can find videos recordings of all of IEC’s activities.
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