By Adele Waugaman, Guest Columnist
In Jordan a revolution is brewing, but unlike in neighboring countries being reshaped by the Arab Spring, this revolution has the support of the King.
A culture of entrepreneurship, fueled by a boom in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector, is quietly transforming the country by creating new businesses and jobs.
Since 2007, the ICT sector in Jordan has grown a yearly average of 25%, and currently makes up 14% of the country’s overall GDP, according to INT@J, a research and advocacy organization.
This, in turn, is opening growth opportunities across sectors, from manufacturing to health and financial services—a potential boom for the national economy, and for people with irregular access to information and services.
As with other revolutions that have swept through countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, this movement is being fueled in large part by Jordan’s youth.
Nearly one in five people in the Arab world is between the ages of 15 to 24. In Jordan, over half of the population are under the age of 25. This demographic bulge contributes to Jordan’s high youth unemployment rate, which is nearly 30%.
For many of the young people throughout the region, the hope is that rising access to technology will lead not just to increased democracy, but to economic opportunity as well.
“The reality today is different not only from 50 years ago, but from two years ago—because of social media, youth who were called the ‘silent majority,’ aren’t silent now,” says Soraya Salti, regional director of INJAZ al Arab, a youth empowerment organization active in 15 countries in the MENA region.
“Young people want to turn entrepreneurship into pop culture and contribute to economic development,” Salti says.
Incubators and Accelerators
Young entrepreneurs in Jordan’s start-up community meet regularly to network and share ideas through events like Amman’s Tech Tuesdays, which this month hosted a group of American entrepreneurs for an event entitled “Amman meets Silicon Valley.” The speakers were part of two U.S. technology delegations to Jordan: the DC-based Aspen Institute’s Partners for a New Beginning program, and the California-based Geeks on a Plane.
Entrepreneurs in Jordan are increasingly able to access capacity-building and funding support through a growing number of incubators and accelerators, such as Endeavor, Wamda, the Ruwwad Micro-Venture Fund, and the Queen Rania Center for Entrepreneurship.
One of the most visible incubators is Oasis500, which provides seed capital, early stage funding and mentoring support to 500 new technology start-ups—a number CEO Usama Fayyad believes will be enough to make a substantial “shock” to the start-up ecosystem. Last week Jordan’s King Abdullah II joined the former Yahoo! Executive in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new office, which features an open floor plan and a curved slide connecting the first and second floors.
Even with this grassroots, government and private sector support, significant obstacles to the successful operationalization of innovation business ideas remain.
Take the case of Jamalon, a tech start-up that sells books online through a business model similar to Amazon.com. While the young company has demonstrated early success by offering over 9 million English and Arabic language publications for sale online, it has had to do so in the absence of an ISBN product indexing system, and largely through a cash-on-delivery payment system as the region still lacks widely scaled electronic payments systems.
Yet as Jamalon indexes the MENA region’s publications, it is helping to transform the publishing industry and creating space for adjacent businesses to thrive.
From a policy perspective, taskforces are being established with private sector support to help bridge the gap between innovation and enabling regulatory environments. One example is Jordan’s Healthcare ICT Taskforce, a public-private partnership created by the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, INTAJ, and Cisco, which seeks to increase the capacity of healthcare ICT companies, improving access to health information and services.
The Road Ahead
There is no question that Jordan’s entrepreneurship revolution has begun.
For a country that comprises just 2% of the population of the MENA region, Jordan produces 75% of region’s online Arabic content. Bloomberg recently ranked the capital Amman as the 10th best city in the world for a tech start-up, considering factors such as the policy environment, and available talent, infrastructure and capital.
But to truly revolutionize critical sectors like financial services, health and manufacturing, Jordan’s ICT sector will require sustained engagement and support. This will include unequivocal backing from the King for a free and open internet, a continued culture of mentoring and guidance from established private sector players, and the willingness of outside investors to support entrepreneurs working in a turbulent region.
If recent events are any indication, however, this revolution is here to stay.
Adele Waugaman is a Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Fellow and independent consultant specialized in the intersection of mobile ICT and global development. She recently participated in a technology delegation to Jordan with the Aspen Institute’s Partners for a New Beginning program. Find her on Twitter at @Tech4Dev and online at http://www.adelewaugaman.net.
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