Libya plots tech start-up boom to revitalise economy

Tatweer Research aims to change the model for Libya’s economic development, enabling the private sector to lead the creation of a knowledge-based economy, writes Matt Smith.

Young Libyans are putting their entrepreneurial instincts into action with the help of an innovative scheme that aims to reduce dependence on public-sector employment and create a high-tech, knowledge economy that will transform Libyan society.

Such aims might seem far-fetched considering much of the country is beyond the control of the internationally-recognised government and income per capita is 37% below what it was before Libya’s civil war.

But state-owned Tatweer Research is undaunted by the task before it, taking inspiration from Estonia’s unlikely status as a tech leader and pioneer, which was achieved through canny government policies following independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

“We aim to change the model for Libya’s economic development and enable the private sector to lead the creation of a knowledge-based economy,” says Khaled Elmufti, Tatweer founder and chief executive. “Libya has two major economic challenges: an over-dependence on oil and gas and almost 90% of its workforce being employed by the government.”

Tatweer launched the Enjazi Start-up Competition, in partnership with the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in mid-2017. About 130 teams from across Libya entered, with women making up 40 percent of participants. The top 20 teams were given five weeks of intense training and coaching to develop their ideas.

The best 10 were then taken to Beirut for further training for two weeks. Of initial the top 20, eight are now fully operational companies, with the final top three spending a week in London to meet other startups, accelerators, and business people.

Success stories

Fatima Nasser, 20, was among the young entrepreneurs to participate as she and co-founder Aziza Adam launched their food delivery service Yummy with Tatweer’s support. Sinbad - an educational, digital board game - and Lisan, a high-tech bracelet that enables deaf people to communicate through sign language to non-sign language speakers – are two other fledgling businesses that went through Tatweer’s programme.

“At the time Yummy was just an idea on paper, so we decided enrol in the competition, got accepted and from that built a huge network with other Libyan entrepreneurs,” says Nasser. “It really helped because because we lacked the knowledge of how to start a business.”

Enjazi is part of the broader Tatweer Entrepreneurship Campus, which has several initiatives all framed around a target of creating 90 successful startups by 2020.

“What we’re missing in Libya are success stories – the role models that other would-be entrepreneurs can follow and take inspiration from,” explains Elmufti. “We hope Enjazi will put a spotlight on some of these startups – Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are great, but for Libyans they’re like people from another planet. They didn’t have issues with electricity, internet or war when they were trying to make it.

“When we start having success stories from Mahmoud, Fatima and other Enjazi winners, they’re people other Libyans can relate to.”

Tatweer’s Coding for children (C4C) pilot scheme launched in 2016, providing coding lessons for pupils aged 6-8 at eight schools in Benghazi. The company is now seeking commercial sponsorship to take the scheme nationwide and expects to roll out C4C to 100 more schools across Libya from September.

With Libya’s central government struggling to enforce its authority throughout the country, Tatweer has turned to NGOs to help implement its plans. These include United Nations Development Program, the European Union and USAID.

In the longer-term, Tatweer will focus its efforts on developing homegrown companies that specialise in renewable energy, climate change, healthcare, education and financial services.

“These areas will have a major impact on the world and the global economy. The initial Enjazi competition was more general to create a start-up ecosystem, but going forward we’re pushing towards these specific technologies,” says Elmufti. “We have teams within Tatweer doing hardcore technology research, so that we’ve a good understanding for where things are going. Then, when we link it with tech through the Campus we’ve a clearer direction on how to build this ecosystem.”

Tatweer is also assisting the government in creating the Elmriesa Free Zone near Benghazi, developing the master plan for the 1,200-hectare site. This is will be one of Libya’s largest specialised economic developments zones and will feature eight business clusters including a port, financial district, science and technology park and industrial areas.

DLA Piper is helping create the freezone’s legal structure to make it investor-friendly, while Mott McDonald is providing engineering advice.

“We're in talks with international investors and developers. Initial discussions have been really positive, with particular interest from Far East, China and South Korea, as well as some Middle Eastern investors,” adds Elmufti, predicting project tendering will begin in late 2018.