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SWS, Fostering Yemeni Entrepeneurship

On the second day of Startup Weekend Sanaa groups composed of essentially developers, designers and business people, team up to transform startup ideas into realities.

By Jihan Anwar

Startup Weekend Sanaa (SWS) has been held for the first time in Yemen, lasting from the 29th to the 31st of May, 2013.

On the first day of the three-day event, among the crowd of attendees, a female voice summarized the purpose of Startup Weekend, shouting “No talk, All Action!”

The whole objective of Startup Weekend is to encourage people with business ideas to step forward and work with a motivated team to transform ideas into actual, marketable products.

The core idea lays in finding a current problem and solving it through an originally designed product.

SWS was an opportunity as much as it was a competitive challenge. Participants had only 54 hours to be able to work on the idea, develop a business plan, present a finished product and market it in order to convince the judges their team deserved to win.

Dena Othman, Co-organizer of Startup Weekend Sanaa, pointed out the need to help Yemeni youth shift their mentality from a passive attitude to an active and proactive one. “In the long term, I believe events such as Startup Weekend help promoting and encouraging a culture of entrepreneurship and initiative-taking in society,” Ms. Othman stated.

Sam Moon, founder & CEO of Appsyemen, a mobile business company that does consulting, application development and training in Yemen, was one of the mentors at SWS, giving feedback and advice on the startup ideas.

Mr. Moon, a Korean national who has resided in Yemen for seven years, attributes the absence of an entrepreneurship culture in Yemen to two main reasons. “Firstly, Yemeni youth have not been sufficiently exposed to examples of great role models and entrepreneurs; they haven’t seen enough people that dared to start something new and successfully made it in Yemen.”

“The other cause,” Moon continues, “has to do with education. To draw a parallel with South Korea, there are at least 280 incubators, hosted by each university in the country – not counting incubators provided by the government; while in the whole Yemen, probably only Aden has something of the sort.”

By ‘incubators’, Mr. Moon refers to an environment in which youths that come up with new creative business solutions receive the support and mentorship of either their educational institute or the government to develop and market their breakthrough ideas.

Head organizer of Startup Weekend Sana’a, Mohammed Hareth, observed the importance of SWS in bridging the gap between people with technical skills and groundbreaking ideas and venture capitalists ready to invest in technology and support entrepreneurship.

David Mosbi, Professor of International Business at International University of Technology Twintech and also a mentor at SWS, noted the dual dimension of the concept of the event: simple yet high tech. “This [Startup Weekend Sanaa] is the first step but hopefully not the last one,” he says. He stressed the need for Yemen to foster startup’s ideas and not rely as heavily on oil revenues and imports. “Yemen needs to start exporting more, and to develop the export sector it should focus on its strengths.” Prof. Mosby remarked that the spirit of entrepreneurship was already present in Yemenis as there are many successful self-made Yemenis abroad. Should the right environment be provided, they might be able to prosper within Yemen as well.

The ideas presented in the event spanned different fields and ranged from simple but ingenious, to ambitious yet challenging to implement in Yemen. The majority of the startups were web and/or mobile apps based.

The diverse crowd participating at the event was composed of an assortment of programmers, graphic designers,computer engineers, developers and entrepreneurs in business and marketing, but the ideas were not restricted to these fields. 

For instance, a telephone shop owner, Juneid Ahmed Saleh, teamed up with developers and designers to bring to light an application that would help telephone shop owners simplify the process of direct recharge of mobile units as well as help them keep track of their account.

In the pharmaceutical field, the “My Drug” project was to help customers, pharmacist and pharmaceutical companies to deal directly with each other through a website. Customers and pharmacist could place direct orders and find alternative medicines on the website, cutting back on cost and time by dealing directly with the drug providers.

“We are working on an application that will help people find their way through Old Sana’a city and provide them with useful information across the route,” explains Naif Najm, a team member for “The Guider” project. 

Another type of common problem was tackled by the ‘IFoundA’ website. “In Yemen we have no official way in which lost items can be returned to their owners,” says Ibraheem Hidwan, an information system student at Sana’a University. “We are developing a website in which people who found or lost an item can post it on the web and the object can be returned to their possessors, taking care of various security issues.”

 The idea that won the first place at SWS, though, was based on a basic concept: delivery. Ibraheem AlMoayed explained that the core of the idea for “Dabab” was a website that accepted delivery orders for items. “It will initially start for restaurants and food items but there is no reason why it can’t be applied to other sectors such as electronics and house furnishings,” AlMoyaed stated. 

Farwa alAreeqi and Najla AlAreeqi, working as designer and developer on a website project for Islamic teaching, added that besides the adrenalin from the competition, what contributed to making the transformation of ideas into realities more enjoyable for them, was the presence of a great team spirit not only within group members but among SWS participants in general.