This Saudi entrepreneur wants more Arabic audiobooks available in the region

May El Habachi meets Manar Saud Alomayri, a Saudi entrepreneur who decided to leave the corporate world and begin a venture that promotes reading culture for the Arab world’s young and tech-savvy population

Diagnosed with dyslexia as a child, Manar Saud Alomayri didn’t enjoy reading. Instead, she used to listen to English books online. But when it came to Arabic material, there was hardly anything online. This spurred her on to create Dhad, a website that offers Arabic audiobooks online for the region’s young, mobile-first generation.

“Audiobooks are not a new concept, they date back to the 80s and 90s when we used to listen to [cassette] tapes for education, religious or entertainment purposes,” says Alomayri. “Today, everything is online, so I decided to introduce Arabic-language audiobooks online especially since there was very limited Arabic content available.”

By providing audiobooks, Alomayri hopes this will encourage Arab youth to appreciate and listen to more books, as well as promote book culture in the Arab region. According to the Arab Reading Index released in December 2016 in Dubai, the average Arab citizen reads about 35 hours and 17 books every year, placing reading levels in the region much higher than originally anticipated.

Still, there is room for improvement when it comes to comparing reading to other areas of knowledge, such as technology.

“In the Arab region, we have progressed and developed in many sectors including banking, infrastructure and technology to name a few, but not as much in reading,” said Alomayri. “We need to transfer this progress to books to further increase readership in the region.”

ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNEY

Alomayri began Dhad when she was still in university. It was part of an entrepreneurship project for graduation.

“Creating Arabic audiobooks online was the first idea that came to mind. When I researched about it, I realised that this could be a good business idea,” she says.

Although she launched Dhad on her own, she later joined the Badir Program for Technology Incubators and the non-profit 9/10ths accelerator for support.

“Joining incubators and accelerators has helped me progress rapidly and learn things that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned on my own.”

Being introduced to mentors, investors and understanding the dynamics of government legislation for start-ups has helped Alomayri take Dhad from strength to strength. In 2016, she was named the winner of the Creativity for a Cause Award for her idea of creating an online library for Arabic audiobooks.

CHALLENGES OF A YOUNG ECOSYSTEM

Despite her success, Alomayri has also experienced some challenges, her biggest being the relatively young entrepreneurship ecosystem in Saudi Arabia.

“The ecosystem is still in its infancy,” Alomayri states. “Investors are in their early stages and rules and regulations are constantly changing.”

For start-ups, this poses a threat to their new business, she elaborates. Not only do they have to deal with getting their start-up off the ground, but they have to constantly be tuned into the evolving rules and regulations.

“This takes a toll on the startup,” said Alomayri. “It takes time to understand the new rules and start-ups usually have small team that are already spread very thin. This can actually kill a start-up.”

Despite this, she’s determined to continue pursuing her passion, not to mention is grateful for everything that this entrepreneurial journey has taught her. The self-described shy and quiet person says she is now more confident and assertive.

“I have learned to express myself, go after what I want and work more efficiently. I am now an alpha woman,” she smiles. “I am happy where I am today and thankful where life has taken me.”

While the country’s entrepreneurship ecosystem may take some time to develop, having entrepreneurs who have successfully launched and grew their start-ups sends a clear message, change is coming. Combined with the support of the government via new initiatives, Saudi Arabia will soon see a new wave of talented young male and female businesswomen.