Wes Sine reports on his recent trip to North Africa on behalf of Johnson and EII
12/6/2011 12:00:00 AM
Says Sine, the region is looking to the US for guidance in two main areas, "democracy and entrepreneurship & innovation"
Wesley Sine, faculty director for the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute (EII) and associate professor of management and organizations, provides the following commentary about his recent trip to North Africa:
Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria are countries filled with possibilities. It is a fertile place for finding opportunities to create real value for local and international markets. While current obstacles are also significant, entrepreneurs who can adroitly operate in these environments will create sustainable ventures that provide both economic and social value.
I view the many entrepreneurs I met who are dedicating their lives and livelihood to solving real social needs in the face of enormous challenges and daunting odds as genuine heroes, regardless of the outcome of their ventures.
The number and quality of entrepreneurial ideas in the region was astounding and these entrepreneurs are pushing ahead in difficult environments, where the supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurship is still in its infancy. While many entrepreneurs I met with were looking for mentors - entrepreneurs from other countries who could partner with them and provide guidance - I met so many examples of great entrepreneurs-in-action.
In Tunis, a professor at a local university had started a company that provides medical testing services to local hospitals and veterinary clinics. Because of the availability of highly qualified lab technicians and both regional and global demand for such services and comparatively lower wages, the venture was profitable the in the first few months and demand far exceeds supply. She said that she started the business to solve a local problem, create jobs, and show that women in North Africa can be successful.
In another case, a local inventor noticed that a significant percentage of dates (a very important agricultural product in this region) never make it to market and are either burned or composted. He and his son created processes to turn this waste into high value consumer goods.
Many young entrepreneurs were creating new social networking tools adapted to local culture, others were focussed on software for cloud computing, apps for smart phones, and technology for increasing agricultural production, in one case by 300%.
On the social entrepreneurship side, a blogger in Tunisia started an organization in which hundreds of volunteers throughout the country monitor the transitional government and regularly tweet about any improprieties such as graft or abuse. He says that if the democratization of the country goes astray the youth will take back the streets and demand democracy and justice.
Another blogger has created an organization that teaches would be politicians how to run a successful yet honest campaign, regardless of political party.
In Algeria, a country not known for having a entrepreneurial culture, young would be entrepreneurs, believe that building a new venture is their path to freedom and social mobility. They are facing enormous obstacles, yet they push forward.
In Morocco, I met with 2 brothers who were betting their inheritance on a venture that would create hundreds and perhaps thousands of jobs and revolutionize their industry. They knew that such a venture would require systematic change in the industry, making the likelihood of success difficult. Yet because the social and economic possibilities were significant, they pushed forward.
The government officials at the highest level in all three countries believe that entrepreneurship is vital to their national interest and are trying to create more entrepreneur friendly environments. They all look to the United States as a global leader in entrepreneurship and innovation and hope to learn from our experiences. I talked to many powerful business leaders (owners and managers) of locally dominant companies, who surprisingly also were very very supportive of building a stronger entrepreneurial environment in the region.
The Arab spring is alive an well in its birthplace, Tunisia. Post-revolution Tunisia is full of energy and hope as citizens voted for the first time in their life, days before we arrived. They proudly showed their ink stained fingers to demonstrate that they voted. It seems that the spirit and culture of democracy and entrepreneurship in this company are intricately connected, as citizens take control of their government and work to create political institutions that are representative. This is a historic moment for the Tunisians, it's their 1776, and the excitement in the country was contagious.
This same feeling of empowerment linked to the revolution spilled over to the private and public sector, everyone I met was involved in building a better society, through entrepreneurial ventures, socially focussed organizations, and often a mixture of the two. Though unemployment is high, many people dedicate their time volunteering. The economy is doing better than expected post revolution and there are many reasons to be optimistic about this country and the region as a whole.