When May Habib attended her first ArabNet Digital Summit last year, the former investment banker from Manhattan was looking for people and funding to make her startup a reality. At this year's conference, her newly minted translation startup Qordoba won the demo competition. "We're here to find customers and to pitch [while] last year my mission here was about finding talent and investors," she says. "So it's nice to see the evolution."
Habib was among the over 1,000 young regional entrepreneurs and early stage investors gathered in Beirut, Lebanon, for the third year of ArabNet. Its founder is Omar Christidis, a Lebanese born Yale graduate. Christidis sees plenty of opportunities for the Middle East's tech community, and says ArabNet is a way to unite players from across the region.
Habib's startup happened to represent one of the strongest themes at this year's ArabNet, the need for more Arabic content on the Internet. It was a mantra for conference speakers, including Barry Newstead, chief global development officer at Wikipedia.
The fifth most visited site on the Internet, 2 percent of Wikipedia's 480 million unique visitors each month come from the MENA region, Newstead told the audience. He added that of the 21 million articles in 280 languages on Wikipedia today, only 100,000 articles are in Arabic, while there are 384 million Arabic speakers worldwide.
At its current pace, Internet penetration in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is expected to match if not exceed that of the United States with nearly 300 million people online by 2015.
More Arabic Apps
While social media and other Internet platforms have been credited for helping to unite youth during the Arab Spring, it's also developed into a source of creativity and entertainment. One example at the conference was Jordanian agency Prodigi Corp, which won the prize for Best Digital Campaign for building a custom app on the Facebook page of the radio station Beat FM. The Facebook campaign gained popularity collecting over 125 successful entries of celebrity lookalike photos where fans voted for their favorite. As a result, Beat FM's Facebook fans grew from 23,000 to 40,000 by the end of the campaign.
Facebook's head of marketing for the region Amina Belghiti encouraged more Arabic apps in her talk, "The Power of the Graph," in which she spoke of the data mining potential of Facebook's Timeline. Born and raised in Morocco, Belghiti received her MBA from Harvard Business School and worked in business development roles for eBay and PayPal before joining Facebook less than a year ago. At Facebook, she looks after new markets in Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa.
Speaking about the MENA region, Belghiti said what she finds exciting is the sheer size and the number of people that speak Arabic in the common market. She also included Turkey, where there are over 30 million Facebook users and there has been a lot happening in the gaming space. "A lot of the gaming guys in Turkey are seeing the success of Peak Games and are starting to extend into the MENA region as well," she says.
Christidis gave attendees a number of statistics to consider: 77 percent of Arabic users have liked a brand on Facebook, 50 percent have received customer service via Twitter, 100 million YouTube videos are played every day and 85 percent of mobile Internet users have downloaded an app. Of the 100 million daily YouTube plays in the region, he said, the majority are from Saudi Arabia.
Sebastien Marteau, vice president of mobile at Integral, gave further insight into the Saudi Arabia's growing Internet and mobile phone market. On average each person has two SIM cards, he said, and added that 47 percent of people in Saudi Arabia use apps provided they are in Arabic. Smartphone penetration in the kingdom, he added, is growing at 26 percent, one percentage point higher than in the U.K.
Ziad Matar, Qualcomm vice president of the MENA region, pointed out during his presentation that there are five billion mobile subscribers worldwide, a number much larger than that of people who have access to water. Ahmad Hamzawi, Google's head of new business development for the region, added that of the one billion people who will go online for the first time this year on a mobile device, many will be in the MENA region.
Advising Young Techies
ArabNet also drew tech talent from outside the region, such as Kevin Gormand, co-founder of Mubawab, a start-up that aspires to be the Craigslist of the MENA region. Initially piloting across the region, Gormand said after testing the market, his team is narrowing focus on countries that have had the best traffic. With over 10,000 postings per days, Gormand added that cars and housing remain some of the most popular classified listings.
Originally from France, Gormand was working for a tech company in Spain before deciding to make a shift towards the MENA region. Putting all of his savings into his startup, he said while he loves Barcelona, the market in the MENA region is booming. Last year, Gormand attended ArabNet and was offered funding from the Lebanese based firm MEVP. Gormand said that MEVP offered regional expertise but in the end his team chose to go for an offer from angel investors based in Europe. With the company being at an early stage the founding team thought it was important to maintain control.
Offering advice to young tech companies, Walid Mansour of Middle East Venture Partners (MEVP) said they look for start-ups that have market potential across the region or globally. Although many start-ups in the MENA region are copies of successful Western models, Mansour said they still are viable, "because they're inspired by models that came from somewhere else but they require homegrown solutions and adaptation."
One example is a Turkish company that has copied the Netflix model called FilmClub. Göze Sencer, previously head of marketing and business development at Nokta, the owner numerous popular Turkish websites, now consults for the firm as well as for other companies. She wanted to attend ArabNet to see how companies she's involved with such as FilmClub can widen their reach from Turkey to elsewhere in the Middle East. The potential for regional e-commerce remains huge, she said, as it's currently only a US$4 billion industry and quickly expanding.
Some have found opportunities just by striking out on their own after attending ArabNet. Bayan Bibi, a freelance graphic designer and cartoon animator founded Makhaditi (meaning 'my pillow') a web platform facilitating individual charitable donations. A Palestinian woman who was born and raised in Lebanon, she was inspired to continue on with her start-up after attending Startup Weekend in Amman and receiving much encouragement.
Bibi quit her job at a Palestinian TV station because she said she earns five times more freelancing. Attending ArabNet has helped her think of ways to improve her business strategy, she noted. "It's a place that brings startups and experts together," she said. "When I came here today I had 100 business cards, now I have none left."
This piece was originally published in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton.