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We Cash Up aims to be the PayPal of Africa

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured

Cedric Atangana

With e-commerce on the continent poised for growth, We Cash Up develops an innovative platform to enable online purchases on phones.

Hoping to ride a wave of innovative online technology and mobile adoption in Africa, the startup We Cash Up has set its sights on becoming the Pay Pal of the continent.

Cedric Atangana, co-founder and CEO of the Marseille-based company Infinity Space, said its We Cash Up network will aim to provide online purchasing power for Africans who do not have bank accounts.

Atangana said as many as 800 million Africans are excluded from internet commerce because they do not have bank accounts. At the same time, most of them have mobile phones.

His solution? A mobile network that enables users to make secure payments via their phones.

A network of businesses and buyers

Small businesses and stores that participate in the network are both a point of deposit and a point of withdrawal so We Cash Up does not have to develop an expensive new infrastructure to manage cash transactions.

We Cash Up says one key feature of We Cash Up is that its developers found a way to communicate across mobile money systems in 54 African countries that enables transactions across borders.

Infinity Space also developed an artificial intelligence that tracks the behavior of mobile users in order to identify risky or fraudulent transactions, the company said.

Infinity Spaces is also developing a We Shop Up platform for participating merchants.

The company operates as a virtual team. Atangana is based in Marseille while other team members work from Kenya or Cameroon.

African e-commerce faces challenges

Atangana sees vast potential both for merchants and buyers and internet use grows in Africa.

Experts agree that the potential to expand e-commerce in Africa exists but it faces key challenges. For example, e-commerce giants including Kalahari and Mocality have invested in Africa and then retrenched after failing to achieve profitability.

Wealthier Africans have not embraced online shopping, for example, because of concerns about fraud. At the same time, many African cultures value their vibrant and plentiful physical marketplaces over online shopping.

Cross-border differences inhibit scaling efficiencies and require duplication of services. The logistics of delivery are complicated.

E-commerce expected to increase

At the same time, the continent appears poised for growth in e-commerce as spending power increases along with internet access. One study predicts e-commerce, now a tiny fraction of the economy, will grow by 40 percent annually during the next decade.

Atangana believes We Cash Up can tap into that growth and change attitudes about online shopping.

Atangana, who holds a degree in engineering from Polytech Marseille, founded Infinity Space in Cameroon in 2010. The company operated in Nairobi, Kenya before Atangana moved its current headquarters to France.

He and Infinity Space chief marketing officer Marcelle Ballow Bekono were named to Forbes list of top 30 African entrepreneurs under 30.

We Cash Up has received several awards in startup competitions, including $20,000 at the 2014 Google Pitch Night.

Friends lacked bank accounts

He said he got the idea for We Cash Up after he had to help friends who did not have credit cards make online purchases.

On separate occasions, he said, friends in Cameroon and Kenya were unable to participate in developer competitions because they could not provide banking details.

“Indeed, one of the conditions for registration was to provide bank details or the majority had no credit card. And it has been very frustrating for me,” he said. “The idea of this project is born from our desire to help these people.”

Atangana said very few similar services are currently available and they seldom cross borders.

Account Nickel offers prepaid cards to people who do not have bank accounts but operates only in France. MPesa is a leading mobile payment platform in East Africa while telecom operators offer prepaid services in other countries.

But Atangana has a bigger vision of mobile e-commerce across international borders.

“This is the Airbnb financial system,” Atangana said.

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Aïssa Dione: One woman’s fight for traditional Senegal textiles

Comments (1) Africa, Featured, Leaders

Aissa Dione

The lady behind internationally renowned textile company Aïssa Dione; artist, designer and entrepreneur.

Dating back to the 15th century, Senegal has a tradition of textile weaving and dyeing as rich as the fabrics themselves. However, with a shift towards mass-produced clothing and the ever changing fashions and trends, this time-honored practice has suffered a huge set back. The name Aïssa Dione has become synonymous with the ancient craft, as she has fought to revive what was a tradition on the brink of distinction. “Spinning and textile industries have nearly all closed and traditional weavers are slowly but surely disappearing,” said the designer, a woman who has dedicated her life to reviving Senegal’s tradition.

A bold autodidact

Born to a French mother and Senegalese father in 1952, the renowned painter and textile designer grew up in Nevers, France. She attended the school of Fine Arts in Chelles before leaving to Senegal at the age of 20, to pursue an international career as an artist. Fate was to slightly alter her career course, when a potential buyer of her work, Pierre Babacar Kama, head of Chemical Industries of Senegal (ICS), said he would like first for his offices to undergo a revamp. It was “a bluff,” she said, when the budding artist responded confidently that she could manage such an undertaking.

This event marked the beginning of the entrepreneur’s textile and business adventure. Dione began with a single weaver who had worked for her grandmother. They set up their make-shift studio in her garden and she went to work, combining her artistic flare with traditional Senegalese weaving methods, such as the Mandjaque technique. The result was so impressive that many commissions were to follow. Local media interest sparked intrigue and soon her work was reaching a global audience, with orders flying in from all across the globe.

Celebrating Senegal

Aïssa Dione Tissus

Aïssa Dione Tissus was officially launched in 1992. From its modest beginnings it rapidly grew from having a single weaver to 15 workers, prompting a move to a more suitable location. Still her place of work today, her now burgeoning artillery is situated in Rufisque, a small town outside Dakar in Senegal. The company employs 100 Senegalese artisans. Dione dreams of recruiting more and expanding her business further but in the meantime there are Senegal’s restrictive labor laws to contend with.

Passionate about her roots, what she has borrowed from the country’s tradition and methods, she has more than given back by celebrating all that is Senegalese through textile and showcasing it to the world. The company’s philosophy is one of slow industry; creating a refined, luxury brand from local raw materials. While the West African country exports 5,000 tons of cotton annually, none was previously leaving as finished pieces of textile; the entrepreneur is changing this trend. The products from Aïssa Dione Tissus are 100 percent made from Senegalese materials, created by a purely Senegalese workforce and traditional methods of dying and weaving that are still harnessed to this day. One example: the all-natural dyes they make out of local bark and mud collected from the lake during the dry season.

“I strongly believe in small-scale industries, as a way to bring development to West Africa. We grow a million tons of cotton in this region and we export 99% of that. If I can process that cotton here, at home, I can increase my revenue fifty or one hundred times,” said the elegant 62 year old.

The future for textile and art

What the statuesque designer has so masterfully achieved is introducing a social and economically aware business into the world of high fashion and design. She discovered how to elegantly blend the traditional with the modern and it is a roaring success. What had been slowly slipping into oblivion was rescued from the precipice and with just the right modern twist is made palatable for the current trends. Labels such as Hermès, Christian Lacroix and Fendi Casa have made orders from Aïssa Dione fabrics and designers such as Jacques Grange, Christian Liaigre and Peter Marino have all used her products.

Her passion, her drive and her determination to stick fast to her beliefs make the success of Aïssa Dione Tissus even more incredible. Many frustrations along the way could have tempted a less resolute person to take shortcuts here and there but that would have compromised too much of what this French-Senegalese artist and “Lioness of Africa” believes in.

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Keeping In Step: Competition for Anghami Music App in MENA

Comments (0) Business, Featured, Middle East


Anghami, a recently launched Lebanese music listening platform, is facing fierce competition from the French company Deezer, which recently announced an expansion into some Middle Eastern and North African countries.

Mobile music listening platforms have rapidly become the norm, and with an ever-expanding variety of services, competition is fierce between geographically isolated competitors. Anghami, a newly launched Lebanese mobile music platform, gained more than half a million users in its first three months on the market, leaping to the top of iOS app lists in 12 MENA countries. A reported 30% of Anghami subscribers use the app daily, indicating strong staying power, and the app has already been shortlisted for a variety of MENA technology start-up awards.

While Anghami has burst into the scene as a regional leader, it is now being threatened by French music platform Deezer. Deezer, which boasts more than 7 million active users, announced that it would be putting $130 million towards an expansion into the MENA region. Deezer will soon be available in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, UAE, and Yemen, encroaching very seriously on Anghami’s territory.

Not Missing A Beat

While Deezer may have more experience than Anghami, Anghami was specifically created for Arab users. Anghami’s founder, Elie Habib, was very conscious of his demographic’s needs: consumers in the MENA region prefer mobile music that can be easily shared with friends, and so Anghami is only available on smartphones. Anghami is widely available on most smartphone platforms to cater to its clients’ varied phone plans.

Unlike Anghami, Deezer is available both on smartphones and through the web, but is more limited in terms of platform compatibility because its current, mostly European users have a smaller variety of phones.

Anghami is also conscious of its users’ interest in learning about new music through the app. To meet this need, Anghami has a personal DJ function that enables users to discover new music. Deezer has no such function. While currently in English, Anghami is reportedly working on an Arabic version to drive home its local focus. Currently, 75% of Anghami’s users’ phones are set in English, and 25% are in Arabic. Creating an Arabic language version would create a better sense of inclusion for 25% of users and may increase appeal amongst Arabic speakers around the region. Anghami is very MENA focused, and is only available in 15 countries. Habib points to this as one of their strong points: they are focused on a very niche group, and can better tailor the app to meet their needs and changing demands, unlike Deezer, which is now expanding for a more global reach.

The Customer is Always Right

In keeping with its regional focus, Anghami not only provides its users with access to international music, but has specific sections for Arabic music as well. Users with premium access can download songs from Anghami to their phones and listen when there is limited or no internet available. This is especially important for a region that does not have 100% internet coverage. For users in, say, the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, being able to download music would be incredibly important.

Anghami’s premium service enables users to share downloaded music with friends on social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter, and is ad free.

While Anghami boasts many intriguing aspects, Deezer’s global reach and larger consumer network has made it much more globally attractive. Not only does Deezer provide a similar new-music service, but the app tracks listening trends and personalizes playlists. Users with the premium app can opt to see the lyrics of their favorite songs in real-time, thus preventing the age-old embarrassment of belting out nonsense. Since Deezer is available across language barriers, this may be a very interesting feature for people whose first (or second) language is not English. Anghami has not specifically addressed this feature, but it seems as though it would be a good opportunity to incorporate into their Arabic language platform.

Welcoming The Big Fish Into A Not-So-Small Pond

Co-founders Eddy Maroun and Elie Habib did their due diligence before launching Anghami, securing deals with key regional and international labels. Several Arab artists have released their albums only through Anghami, making the appeal of new music even greater. Deezer has similar contracts with one major exception: Anghami has an exclusive three-year contract with Rotana, one of MENA’s biggest labels, for streaming in Lebanon, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Not only is Anghami strategically linked with important labels, but it is also working on partnerships with telecom companies. For a platform solely available on mobile networks, this is the key.

The question is whether users will move from Anghami to Deezer once their playlists and preferences have been set. Deezer has a much larger catalog of music (more than 40 million titles), but, as Habib points out, “most people only listen to 100,000 songs. What you really care about is the core catalog…by May or June we’ll have 5 or 6 million songs.” As demonstrated by their soon-to-be dual language platform that caters specifically to smartphone users, Anghami is focused on regional appeal, rather than the number of songs available.

Entry Power VS Staying Power

Habib has a very positive outlook for the future of Anghami in MENA, even after the arrival of Deezer. “We’re pretty excited to have Deezer coming in. It validates that we are in the right place at the right time. We’re looking forward to having a healthy competition. At the end of the day, the user benefits from it,” says Habib.

Anghami is shiny, new, and specifically designed for an Arab clientele; Deezer is nearly a decade old and has millions of followers from most regions of the world. Anghami’s website features popular Arab artists as well as internationally known musicians, and has photos that are likely a more accurate representation of their users. Perhaps Deezer has plans to use some of its $130 million commitment to design an Arab-friendly website as it expands into MENA, but Anghami’s specific design will, hopefully, give it a boost.

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MIT in MENA: Bringing Arab Minds Together for Change

Comments (0) Business, Featured, Middle East

MIT brings MENA’s smartest minds together for a universally beneficial competition.

On April 14, the smartest technology-oriented minds from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will meet in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the third and final round of the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab competition. Organized by the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), this forum brings together innovative minds from 21 Arab countries to change the way we think, learn and access services.

In its 9th year, this competition brings together MENA’s smartest innovators in four tracks: ideas, social entrepreneurship, start-ups and The Silicon Valley Program. This year, more than 5,000 applications were received from 21 countries in French, English and Arabic. All finalist teams will receive top tier coaching from leaders in their respective fields; networking opportunities with budding and well-known specialists and the opportunity to learn from others in their category. The top three finalists will receive, in order, US$15,000, US$10,000 and US$5,000 to turn their ideas into tangible reality.

Ideas Track

20 teams are short-listed for the “ideas” track. In order to be eligible, candidates must form a team of at least two people including at least one Arab national; are not required to have a working prototype of their invention; are forbidden from having any current sales; and are not required to be registered or incorporated in any way, but are required to incorporate a company in one of the Arab countries in order to win prize money; applicants may not have received any previous funding for their idea; and the idea can be in any industry–technology, food security, health delivery or otherwise.

Since the goal of this competition is to bring fresh ideas into the global marketplace, much of the judging criteria for this track is based on the feasibility of an idea. Teams are judged on three criteria.

Experience: the value each member adds to the team and the relevance of each team member to the incubation and development of the idea

Innovation: the creativity of the idea and whether or not it improves upon an existing solution/business process or introduces a new solution to a current challenge in any field

Scalability: the relevance of the idea to the global marketplace is judged on whether markets outside of team’s community would find the product useful. At a minimum, teams are expected to be relevant on a national scale, and should be replicable on a global scale.

Social Entrepreneurship Track

The Social Entrepreneurship track is similarly judged for eligibility. Teams must have a minimum of two members with at least one Arab national, the team must have a registered social enterprise either for or non-profit, the core product/service must address a specific social challenge faced by marginalized/disadvantaged peoples, and the enterprise can be in any industry.

The 20 finalist teams are judged on similar criteria as above, but with different details.

Innovation: the product/service must provide a new way to tackle the specific social challenge the team is addressing

Scalability: the social enterprise should not be limited to a local market, but should be scalable to the national level at a minimum. Preferably, the model could be expanded and replicated as the enterprise grows, where relevant.

Social Impact: the team will be judged on the efficacy of the project, and the extent to which it benefits the targeted population

Financial Sustainability: the team must prove that their enterprise is financially sustainable in the long-term for both for-profit and non-profit enterprises

Startups Track

30 teams will be selected for the second and final round of the Startups Track competition. These teams must be comprised of a minimum of two members, one of whom must be Arab, must have a working prototype of their startup, must already generate more than $500,000 in revenue, must have been in operation for no more than 5 years, must be legally registered in any Arab country and the start-up may be in any industry.

The teams will be judged on the following:

Team: judges score teams based on their individual experience, the value added by each person and the relevance of each role

Innovation: the start-up will be assessed for creativity, and whether it replicates an existing product/service

Scalability: the start-up must be relevant outside of the local context and should be easily replicable in other relevant fields, regardless of location.

The Silicon Valley Program

Unlike the above tracks, the Silicon Valley Program competition will finish in September, when finalists receive a much more comprehensive and hands on package than the other finalists. The Silicon Valley Program brings entrepreneurs from 20 start-ups to Silicon Valley (in northern California, United States) for a week-long immersive program. Finalists will attend and participate in conferences and workshops with some of Silicon Valley’s most successful start-ups and learn how to successfully “pitch” ideas to funders. Mentors include current industry leaders as well as members of the Arab diaspora who are better able to speak to the specific challenges entrepreneurs from the MENA region face.

This program accepts a higher-level of start-up teams than the other tracks. Start-ups must have been in operation for more than two years, must have global or regional reach/presence, must have successfully completed one round of fundraising and must have more than $500,000 in revenue per annum.

The Rising Tide

Competitions like this provide an incredible opportunity for young, successful and intelligent people to gather and share ideas. Not only do they have the potential to receive funding to scale up their operations to the global level, but they receive invaluable exposure and mentorship opportunities. Previous winners include Visualizing Impact, a Lebanese social enterprise that operates a citizen data laboratory to share science, design and technology data for social justice outside of formal channels; Kotobna, an Egyptian team that provides alternate means for young Arab authors to publish and monetize their written work and Screen DY, a Moroccan team that created a platform for users to quickly build complex, culturally relevant apps for all mobile technology platforms.

This competition is an important hallmark for young Arab entrepreneurs. Benefitting from the experience of others while gaining exposure to other like-minded people can invaluably change the way people in the MENA region and beyond access knowledge, share information and obtain products.

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Peace Hyde: Entrepreneur, broadcaster, actress

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Leaders

peace hyde

The British-born personality promotes education, entrepreneurship in Ghana and Nigeria.

As a child growing up in the United Kingdom, Peace Hyde had two dreams: One day moving to Africa, home of her Ghanaian forbearers, and launching a career in television.

Today, Hyde is living that dream in high style as an award-winning broadcaster, internationally recognized entrepreneur, West Africa correspondent for Forbes, and founder of a nonprofit that promotes education in Ghana and Nigeria.

Two years after leaving a teaching career in England to move to Ghana, Hyde, 30, was recently named African Broadcaster of the year at the Nigerian Broadcasters Merit Awards 2016.

Awards for leadership, influence

Hyde also was one of five people in media and entertainment named to a prestigious list of 50 most influential young Ghanaians in 2015 and was recognized as a Young Chief Executive Officer leader by the young CEO Business Forum in London for her work with Aim Higher Africa, a nonprofit she founded to promote education in Ghana and Nigeria.

She is also currently nominated for International Business Woman of the Year at the Women 4 Africa awards in London in May.

As a teacher in England for seven years before relocating to Africa, Hyde learned two important lessons: the importance of education to motivate and empower young people and the ability to multi-task, which has served her well in her many roles.

Education is a critical tool in the fight to empower communities and lift them out of poverty, she said.

Encounters with young people who carried goods back and forth at the markets of Accra convinced her that education was their way out. Seeing young girls who had no future but laboring at the marketplace, she said she “felt a deep sense of injustice. Something needed to be done for these girls.”

Without funding initially, she began to teach the children at the marketplace. Later, she found support to start Aim Higher Africa, a nonprofit that focuses on education and entrepreneurship.

Project creates digital classrooms

Initially, working in Ghana, Aim Higher Africa focused on improving standards at rural schools, including providing teachers with guidelines on discipline, testing, evaluating and grading.

As the program has grown and expanded to also work in Nigeria, where Hyde is currently based, she said it has become more strategically focused on bringing digital education to rural classrooms.

Currently, the organization is working with 30 schools in Ghana and Nigeria, Hyde said.

Promoting African entrepreneurship

She wants to help build a generation of young African entrepreneurs to help improve employment opportunities on the continent.

She said discussions traditionally have focused on job creation. But her philosophy with Aim Higher Africa is that empowering the next generation entrepreneurs and leaders who can create new industries “the only way you can create sustainable and scalable opportunities.”

Aim Higher Africa organizes Ignite events where entrepreneurs share their expertise and encouragement with young people.

She also hopes to tell success stories in her role as a television host and Forbes West Africa correspondent. As more stories of successful entrepreneurs are told, the environment and opportunities for the next wave of entrepreneurship will improve.

She sees “a new Africa where we are proudly exporting our heritage to the world,” she said. “I believe it is time to highlight the move towards digital platforms and technological advances that were not present (in Africa) a couple of years ago.”

Started with a teaching career

Born to Ghanaian parents in the United Kingdom, she was raised in England and received a degree in psychology from Middlesex University. She went on to receive a master’s degree in journalism and communications as well as a teaching qualification.

Once she completed her studies, she taught in middle and high school for seven years.

She said her experience as a teacher gave her a lot of practice in multitasking, which has paid off as she juggles roles that include broadcasting, running a nonprofit and even some acting.

Her current broadcast projects include hosting a popular celebrity talk show, The EFGH Show (Entertainers from Ghana) and hosting Friday Night Live, a lifestyles show. She has occasional roles in television programs, including a role as a Yoruba mother on the MTV program “Shuga.”

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Sharjah launches Sheraa entrepreneurship center

Comments (0) Business, Featured, Middle East


2016 brings the launch of entrepreneurship centre “Sheraa” based in Sharjah, complete with royal inauguration.

In an increasingly competitive commercial world, most countries are recognizing that to ensure a successful economic future they must invest in companies and the people creating them. Hence, it was with pride that the emirate of Sharjah welcomed His Highness Shaikh Dr Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, to attend the official launch of the Sheraa, the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre.

On the 17th of January, 2016, an official ceremony took place inaugurating the opening of the center at the American University of Sharjah. An initiative of Sharjah Investment and Development Authority (Shurooq), it aims to encourage and support aspiring entrepreneurs. Simultaneously it hopes to boost the profile of the emirate, as an innovative and sought after place to start an enterprise.

“Here at Sharjah, we are witnessing the birth of a new initiative for the future of the nation,” explained HE Marwan bin Jassim Al Sarkal, CEO of Shurooq.

Why Sharjah?

A long standing hub for commerce, the emirate of Sharjah is the third largest in the United Arab Emirates, estimated to have a population of around one million. Its long history, dating back 6,000 years, is steeped in trading, fishing and pearling. Now Sharjah’s main trade is crude oil and gas, while the economy benefits from a variety of means such as tourism, education and logistics.



Nestling so close that it is regarded as a suburb of Dubai, this bustling country is one of the wealthiest in the UAE, and represents 48% of the UAE’s total Industrial Sector. Its geographical location is also ideal for trade and commerce with Europe, Africa and Asia.

Also known as the “rising sun,” the emirate is becoming well known for its emerging business talent and support of. Acknowledging the role enterprise has had on advancing many other countries, HE Marwan Bin Jassim Al Sarkal expressed his hopes for the UAE. “According to the Entrepreneurship and Development Institute, UAE occupied first place in supporting entrepreneurship and we strive to achieve first place internationally in this sector,” he said. It is in this spirit, to support and nurture, that Sheraa has been conceived.

About the University

Set up as a facility to not only educate but also as an investment in the future of Sharjah, the overall goal is to make a difference, to improve the prosperity of the economy and to develop its society. Highlighting this ambition during the opening ceremony Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qassimi, Chairperson of Shurooq, confided that the investment in Sheraa, “reflects our complete belief in the ability of our youth to make a difference and positively contribute in the enhancement of our economy and development of our society,” she said.

So what can a young student of Sheraa expect from the course to help lead them in this positive direction? With an emphasis on innovation, creativity and development, encouragement will be given to explore ideas. Meanwhile students are to be directed in how to apply their visionary concepts in the business world, practical knowledge of the working business climate will be taught as well as assistance given to find the right business path within the emirate. The hope is that students will be inclined to remain in Sharjah, with the incentive of possible help to jump-start their projects from established entrepreneurs within the UAE.


Recognizing the current trend of the business world and how to move forward positively into the future, Sheraa is clear in its aim: to produce creative and innovative business men and women. The university will run cutting edge programs, adapting to the ever changing business climate.

As fast as technology progresses so too does business and it is with this in mind that Sharjah wants to ensure they are forerunners in the field. Already renowned for trade, culture and fossil fuels, the emirate is looking to carve a new niche for itself. To enter onto the global market as a key player will not only ensure other countries are unable to monopolize on the sector but in addition, that foreign businesses will not move in and corner the market. Sheraa is just a step towards ensuring continuing prosperity for the Emirate of Sharjah and the young men and women of the future.

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WOMENA: Taking the (Middle) Men Out of Women’s Investment

Comments (0) Featured, Leaders, Middle East

elissa freiha

Named one of The 100 Most Powerful Businesswomen by Arabian Business, Elissa Freiha is bringing the western model of “angel investing” to the United Arab Emirates.

Barriers to entry are one of the most common challenges creative entrepreneurs face. When young business people have excellent ideas, they have few resources to make these ideas concrete: this is where angel investing comes in. Angel investing is a relatively new concept that began in the western world and is spreading to areas with high concentrations of wealthy people, such as the United Arab Emirates.

Women and Business

Elissa Freiha received a Bachelor’s in Communications from the University of Paris and has worked in publishing and entertainment, both fields where women have been relatively successful in challenging the patriarchal status quo. A native Emirati of Lebanese and American descent, Freiha knew first-hand the challenges women face getting ahead in the business world in both her home country and the European west.

Entering the business world is challenging for both founders of start-ups and for investors. Wealthy individuals need advice on where, how and when to invest, and often need a great deal of coaching and education when they are considering their first large investments. In the UAE, financially independent women are still viewed with apprehension, making it even more difficult for them to make informed business investments.

Freiha recognized the need for a platform that would connect wealthy individuals with determined young business people. Freiha saw an opportunity to combine her feminist ideals with her business acumen: women across the globe have been historically left out of business investment and development. While this is changing in the western world, with more women breaking through the glass ceiling to the top levels of Fortune 500 companies, women’s visibility and participation in top-level business is still stunted in the Middle East.

With the aim of creating a platform for wealthy female investors to meet and collaborate with un-funded start-ups, WOMENA was born. It is not only a bold rejection of the male-dominated business world (men are not allowed to have membership), but is also a play on words: MENA is the acronym used to refer to the Middle East and North Africa in international forums.


Women, Money and MENA

WOMENA is investor-focused, not entrepreneur focused. Members pay an annual fee for exclusive access to WOMENA’s extensive business connections, educational materials, hands-on advice and training workshops. The only institutional angel investment platform for women in the Middle East and Africa, it seeks to help women in the MENA region control their wealth intelligently. With a web of partners with varied business backgrounds and expertise, WOMENA offers members a unique approach to internationally and Middle Eastern focused investment. It does due diligence on all potential investment venues and, when a start-up is selected for presentation; the platform carefully goes through the risks with interested members.

According to the website, their mission is to make “investment more accessible and valuable” in that every new member and every new investment helps to redefine the role of women in business. WOMENA is a platform for progress, equality and education. We are bringing together inspiring and motivated women to make intelligent investments confidently. Development is our driving force: whether that is on an individual or collective level, we aim to push both social and economic boundaries.” Unlike other angel investing platforms, WOMENA does not aim to speed up or incubate start-ups, citing that “we have partners for that”, but are instead a platform for funding start-ups.

Ringing in the Future, Today

It is bold innovators like Freiha who will lead women in the MENA region into the business world. With money to invest and few platforms to do so, WOMENA is changing the way women handle money. A likely positive consequence of this platform will be the introduction of non-traditional start-ups to the MENA region. Women investors have different priorities than their male counterparts, and often look to promote women’s interests: several of the start-ups in WOMENA’s portfolio are apps that take out the time-consuming aspect of traditional “women’s work” so users, likely women with full-time jobs outside of the home, are able to spend more time on their careers and less time on gendered work. Other start-ups include online marketplace for used children’s clothing, an online database of e-books, an app that connects students, and more.

By inviting women into the investment seen with WOMENA, Freiha is changing the face of MENA investment. Financial independence and autonomy is an integral part of women’s empowerment, and Freiha has created a safe space for women to learn and grow as investors.

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South African entrepreneur is first black woman to launch an airline

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured

Siza Mzimela

Siza Mzimela, a longtime aviation executive, is CEO of Fly Blue Crane, which operates flights to several locations in South Africa.

South African entrepreneur Siza Mzimela is making an important mark on aviation as the first black woman in the world to start an airline.

Mzimela is founder and CEO of Fly Blue Crane, a fledgling airline that flies to several destinations within the country and hopes to expand to regional cities.

Mzimela said she is tapping her years of experience leading other airlines, including South African Airways, the country’s largest airline, to shape Fly Blue Crane to meet customer expectations for consistent, on-time travel. The CEO promised convenient, problem-free booking and travel with competitive fares.

New airline is based in Johannesburg

Blue Crane, based at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, launched in August offering several flights daily to Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Nelspruit.

Blue Crane later added flights between Kimberley and Cape Town and between Bloemfontein and Cape Town, but announced that flights to Nelspruit would be discontinued in January because of lack of capacity.

The airline hopes to find success serving provincial and regional capitals in southern Africa.

Mzimela said that airports in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town had more than enough air service. But Fly Blue Crane wants to fill gaps in the market in smaller cities such as Kimberley within South Africa and then expand to regional centers.

She wants to use the airline to open new routes that will help improve the economies of smaller markets, she said.

fly blue crane

Regional expansion is a goal

While service within South Africa is the immediate priority, the new airline wants to expand beyond those borders. Mzimela hopes to add destinations in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Fly Blue Crane operates a fleet of four fuel-efficient 50-seater Embraer Regional Jet 145 aircraft, which enables quick turnaround and efficient crews.

The new company is taking off at a time when the airline industry in Africa is poised to expand. According to the African Airlines Association, there is opportunity for African carriers to expand intra-African and domestic travel for a growing middle class while global carriers dominate intercontinental travel. More than 20 carriers are based in South Africa, the largest being South African Airways with a fleet of 65 planes.

Founder has headed two other airlines

Launching an airline isn’t the first “first” for Mzimela.

She was the first female CEO at both South African Express Airways and South African Airways. At South African Airways, she introduced non-stop flights to New York and Beijing  – a first in the history of the airline.

Mzimela also was the first woman in 67 years named to the board of directors of the International Air Transport Association. She serves on the South African Tourism Board and is a member of the board of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

In 2012, she was named one of the 10 Greatest Female Leaders in Africa Today by Ventures Africa.

Mzimela also founded Blue Crane Aviation, an aviation services company providing African airlines with consulting, and legal and aircraft management services. She serves as the company’s executive chairperson.

She graduated with a degree in economics and statistics and began her career in banking before moving into the airline industry as a researcher.

Few women rise to the top in the airline industry

Mzimela said being a woman executive in the aviation industry has posed challenges. Globally, only 12 of 248 airline CEOs are women, fewer than 5 percent. Sexism and lack of female mentors are cited as factors that hold women back from executive posts.

“I don’t know how many times I walked into meetings and people just assumed I probably was the one who was going to be taking notes,” she said.

Mzimela said her success managing established companies motivated her to want to “build something better from the ground up.”

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Kenzibox: Thinking Outside The Box

Comments (0) Featured, Leaders, Middle East

KenziBox is a Dubai-based company that makes shoe-box sized treasure troves of children’s activities, delivered to parent’s doors to promote creative and constructive play. UAE-based co-founders Leyla Lahsini and Shirin Benamadi started the business after facing the problems parenthood poses in the digital age.

Both women have Masters Degrees in Business Administration and impressive careers in finance. Lahsini holds an MBA from London Business School as well as a Masters in Strategy and Marketing and has experience in hedge funds in London, while Benamadi holds an MBA from the University of Maryland and has worked in private wealth management at Morgan Stanley.

21st Century Parenting

In the digital age, pulling children away from televisions and iPads and towards activities that promote healthy brain development can be a challenge for parents- especially those who work full time.

For many, after school programs are expensive or unrealistic to take advantage of on a daily basis. “Kids finish school early and you feel this need to keep them busy in the afternoon,” said Lahsini. “We don’t want to put them in activity classes every single afternoon, but you want to keep them busy in a nice way in the house.”

Like many parents of the 21th Century, Lahsini turned to the internet for solutions, downloading craft projects from Pinterest to take up with her four-year-old son. But it was more difficult than it seemed- having to go to many stores to find the right materials, complicated instructions, and the chaos that young children inevitably introduce to situations that involve glitter glue and dexterous finesse.

Taking Play Seriously

Despite the frustrations, Lahsini was determined to continue because she saw the value of exposing her son to such products. Not only do they take up the afternoon in creative play, but craft projects have been shown to develop higher thinking skills, enhance multicultural understandings, build self-esteem as well as positive emotional responses to learning- all benefits every parent would want for their child.

Lashini turned to her friend, now-business partner Benamadi, who always seemed to make the arts and crafts projects look simple and easy. This simple request for help and the master’s degrees they both carried in business administration paved the way for KenziBox.


When Moms have MBAs

“Can we bring that simplicity to everyone?” thought Lahsini. Together they researched themes and developed activities around those ideas. In November 2014, their first themed box, Circus in Town, was launched.

Little more than a year later and KenziBox stays true to their successful original fashion. Every month a new theme debuts in shoe-box form, where children can open the box and find everything they need, from materials to illustrated instructions, on how to craft everything from make-your-own clown outfits to volcanoes that actually erupt.

KenziBox: a Dubai’s Business (Role) Model

By creating a product that re-invents itself every week, KenziBox continuously provides opportunities for growth for both children and parents, with creative projects designed by early-age education professionals. Boasting stellar customer service for the busiest of parents, KenziBoxes are conveniently sold online, delivered to the door with all the necessary materials. The simplicity in meeting 21st century parenting problems makes KenziBox a role model in the UAE’s emerging e-commerce market, and is a learning lesson in itself for other businesses that aspire to create a positive impact in their client’s lives.

Their superb business model has won them several recognitions in their first year alone- Dubai Women’s Business Council awarded them First Place as well as the People’s Choice award, and KenziBox was a finalist for SME’s Start Up of the Year.

Emma Fisher, a Dubai-based schoolteacher who was one of KenziBox’s intial clients, can attest to the benefits the projects offer, both as a mother and an education professional.

One month of KenziBox starts at AED 185, with lower rates for long term subscriptions. The company also offers party favor sets and KenziBox travel bags.

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An Untapped Resource: Emerging Fields of Employment for Women in the Middle East

Comments (0) Business, Featured, Middle East

middle east women in tech

Echoing global trends, in the Middle East the number of women pursuing a university degree is equal to, or higher than the number of men. In Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan women constitute respectively 67%, 63%, 57%, and 51% of university graduates. Arab women outnumber men in even the hard sciences. Indeed, the number of female STEM graduates is higher in the Middle East than it is in Western Europe. But as of yet, these advances in education have not translated into jobs. The number of women in paid employment in the MENA region is the world’s lowest, at 32%. In Jordan that figure is 16%. And women are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as men in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Kuwait, nearly 80% of the unemployed are women.

Persistent social and economic barriers – both perceived and real – are standing in the way. How will women travel to work when they’re not allowed to drive? Who will escort them? Who will look after their children? And what happens if they become pregnant? Comprehensive female employment will require governments to enact new laws. And it will require companies to create separate offices, bathrooms, entrances, and more.

However, representing a highly educated talent pool and an untapped resource that could offer the region a competitive advantage, women are perfectly qualified to play a productive role in the workforce. And indeed, there are now some positive signs that fields of female employment are starting to emerge and that businesses are starting to capitalize on the potential of Middle Eastern women.

More female Internet entrepreneurs in the Middle East than in the West

Technology is playing a significant role. In a region where nearly a third of the 355 million population are aged 15 to 25, Internet and social media penetration is very high. Nearly 90% access the web from home (except in Jordan and Egypt where the figure is 44%-50%). And nearly nine in ten Internet users log in to social media every day. Nowhere in the world does Twitter have more active users in proportion to the population than in Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, the region is also the world’s fastest-growing e-commerce market.

The combination is creating opportunities for women, allowing them to set up small businesses from home where they can at once conform to traditional social norms and work. Indeed, where only 10% of Internet entrepreneurs across the world are women, in the MENA region that figure is 35%.

sheburgerJust a few examples: Emirati Shaikha Eissa has built a successful burger company, She Burger, on Instagram utilizing her 25,000 followers. Mona Ataya has launched a baby product retail site, Mumzworld, targeting female shoppers, which employs 40 people and sells more than 100,000 products. And prominent Palestinian Instagrammers Ruba Abdulhadi and Badea Jaber, have brought luxury western fashion to the Middle East with an e-shop, ElMuda.com, which leverages social content.

ElMuda.com was supported by Oasis500, the first early stage and seed investment company in Jordan and the MENA region. And there are many other bodies similarly investing in the region’s female entrepreneurs. The Gaza Sky Geeks accelerator is actively working to increase women’s leadership in the Gaza start-up sector. Girls in Tech is working to inform women in urban and rural communities around the world about the possibilities that tech can open up. And the US State Department has a TechWomen initiative which pairs MENA female tech entrepreneurs with American counterparts in Silicon Valley.

Fetchr is revolutionizing Middle Eastern delivery with a female workforce

E-commerce is also creating further employment opportunities for women. For example, GPS delivery app Fetchr has developed a female workforce to revolutionize delivery in the region. Currently, much of e-commerce is paid for cash on delivery (60%), but if a woman is home alone she won’t answer the door for a male driver. This results in returned products, lag times in payment, and repeat delivery trips. In solution, Fetchr, operating in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, and Bahrain, has employed women to make the deliveries.

Co-founders Joy Ajlouny and Idriss al-Rifai say: “In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive. Our deliverywomen will not be driving, they’ll just be knocking on doors. And because Saudi law dictates that all women must be accompanied in public spaces by a mahram, a male-relative or in-law escort, Fetchr employs family teams. Father-daughter, brother-sister, uncle-niece.” The company is also actively hiring female drivers in the UAE where women are allowed to drive.

Creating new business spaces for women

Fetchr is not the only company capitalizing on the business benefits of a female workforce. In Saudi Arabia, the Olayan Group, a 30-company conglomerate led by Lubna Olayan, is similarly committed to female employment. The Group, which deals in investing, real estate, manufacturing and distribution for foreign brands including Coca-Cola, Ritz Crackers, and Oreos, currently employs some 400 women (3% of its 12,000 Saudi-based employees). It has set a target to have 1,000 female employees in roles at all levels, from the factory floor to sales and management, by 2016.

Lubna Olayan

Lubna Olayan

The Group’s first female employees, mostly disadvantaged women, made history when they became Saudi Arabia’s first ever female factory workers, sewing surgical gowns at Enayah. Coca-Cola bottling now has an all-female bottling line. And Nabisco Arabia has a woman-only production line. Olayan companies have installed female prayer rooms and created partitions in offices, canteens, and factory floors to give their women workers privacy in line with regulations. There are also women-only buses to and from work.

Because yes, in the short term female employment in the MENA region will take some investment. But in the long term, capitalizing on the potential of a whole sector of society will also come with benefits.

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