Encouraging refugee entrepreneurship in the Middle East

Today, there are more than five million refugees living in neighbouring countries, mostly in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, according to a UNHCR report. Uprooted from their home and fleeing conflict, many are working hard to rebuild better lives for themselves and their families.

To help generate employment and support the creation of small businesses, organisations such as Re:Coded– a coding boot camp and a startup accelerator in Erbil, Iraq – and Gaza Sky Geeks, a tech hub in Gaza, Palestine, have developed programmes to help refugees become economic assets in their host communities.

The programmes focus on teaching refugees future skills like coding and entrepreneurship as well as online freelancing to help them join the digital economy.

Filling a market gap

Integrating refugees may very well be the solution to transforming their future. By joining the digital economy, young men and women can have better access to jobs and avoid working in the informal sector, where pay is low and exploitation is high. At the same time, they can fill software engineering jobs, which are in high demand not only in MENA, but across the world.

“Nearly 40% of employers in the MENA region indicate that skills gaps are a major impediment to business growth, and hiring technical talent is cited as one of the key challenge for businesses to adapt and scale,” says Alexandra Clare, co-founder of Re:Coded.

By learning to code, refugees will also be able to overcome geographical boundaries and barriers in the labour market with their laptops.

“This is the beauty of our solution – not only are we enabling our fellows to tap into the digital economy but we’re also able to help fill the global technical skills shortage, which is estimated to cost the global economy $8.5 trillion per annum in unrealised revenues,” says Clare.

Dalia Shurrab, social media coordinator at Gaza Sky Geeks, also agrees.

“The only thing open for us is the internet. The market needs programmers and developers, and refugees can fill this market gap. There is huge opportunity for us in this area.”

Solving unique problems

With technical skills in hand, refugees can go on to work as programmers – remotely or in-house – and even launch their own tech start-ups.

Gaza Sky Geeks offers aspiring entrepreneurs incubation and acceleration programmes to learn everything from managing a business to selecting the right team and attracting investors for their start-ups. To date, the programme has graduated 40 start-ups in Gaza

“Throughout the programme, we travel to neighbouring Arab countries and Europe to meet other start-ups and understand the market better,” says Shurrab. “This year we went to Tech Crunch in Berlin and Gitex in Dubai among other destinations.”

Meanwhile, Re:Coded also offers a pre-accelerator programme. While some of the start-ups focus on solving business, environmental and social problems, others focus on solving problems specifically related to refugees.

One of Re:Coded’s successful startups, Shiffer, a peer-to-peer, online logistics platform for express shipping, was founded by a Syrian entrepreneur in Iraq. Having difficulty getting a birth certificate for his new daughter in Erbil, he was keen on finding an economic and efficient shipping solution. To date, Shiffer has won two start-up competitions in Europe and MENA.

“They [refugees] have a unique problem set that they alone are best placed to solve,” says Clare.

Overcoming challenges

Although it is now easier than ever to work remotely, refugees still face significant challenges transitioning into the digital economy.

“In Gaza, internet is weak and unreliable,” explains Shurrab. “Electricity also cuts regularly. There was a time when we had electricity for only three hours a day.”

While Gaza Sky Geeks was able to secure high-speed internet and buy a generator through a crowdfunding campaign, many Gazans still suffer from unreliable internet and regular electricity cuts, further hampering their progress online.

Online payment is another common problem for refugees. Because of their unofficial status, many refugees are unbanked. To overcome this problem, the organisations partner with banks and telecommunication agencies to secure a payment portal for their fellows.

“Because of our living conditions, it is difficult for us to work and find jobs. Even those who are employed do not make sufficient wages. The internet and technology is our only opportunity,” concludes Shurrab.