By: Ingy ElSafy & Moslem Ali
Mubasher: Startup Bahrain is a national initiative launched in 2016 for the purpose of facilitating all tools required for small business to build and establish themselves while growing into international and regional markets from Bahrain.
This national movement has the aim of empowering and building a collaborative and thriving ecosystem for startups and scale-ups, Pakiza Abdulrahman, Manager of Business Development for Startups at Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB), told Mubasher during the RiseUp Summit 2019, held on 5-7 December 2019 at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
“I encourage startups and ecosystem builders in Egypt to visit Bahrain,” Pakiza Abdulrahman stated to Mubasher while talking in detail about how non-local startups can get grants in Bahrain.
(Pakiza Abdulrahman, Manager of Business Development for Startups at EDB)
Would you tell us about your role with Startup Bahrain?
I head the startup sector at Bahrain EDB which is a dynamic public agency chaired by the Crown Prince to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) into the kingdom, empower the local ecosystem and domestic companies, and help with job creation in line with the economic vision, knowledge economy, and the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0).
Startup Bahrain is fueled by the whole ecosystem and different stakeholders from corporate, academics, incubator accelerators, funding agencies, and government entities that provide grants and support programs.
Do you help startups at early stage and until they grow?
Yes, until growth and export stage, and also till listing. The Bahrain Investment Market (BIM) is a private market for SMEs and for listing smaller organizations to provide them a way of an exit and linear regulations for listing, creating some sort of a faster process.
We build collaborative relationships with regional and international ecosystems to give our local startups a glimpse of what is happening.
Was Startup Bahrain initiative launched only by the government?
No, it is a collaboration between the public and private sectors, spearheaded by the EDB, where we supported in building a platform to provide a single point of contact for startups, likeminded people and organizations.
How can investors access this platform?
We created a website with information about different community meet-ups. There is a section for individuals or entrepreneurs to easily do a meet-up with other startups to discuss a specific topic.
Another section is for events hosted in Bahrain, such as the Global Entrepreneurship Week, AWS annual summit, AWS Startup Day, Fintastic Week and others.
Moreover, there is a part for exhibits where Bahrain-based companies have an opportunity to grow and exhibit [their products and services].
How do you contribute to boosting knowledge economy in Bahrain?
Pillars and stakeholders get together to discuss the ecosystem strategy; this process includes academics, university professors, faculty teachers, and also teachers from high school and middle school.
We want that movement to start early on, and the entrepreneurship of tech skills to be established at early stages because this is “how you build a sustainable workforce and a sustainable cultural mindset” that takes Bahrain into the future. Building a culture and entrepreneurship does not happen overnight, it takes years.
In collaboration with the labor fund of Bahrain (Tamkeen), the University of Bahrain, and Bahrain Polytechnic, AWS has launched Cloud Innovation Centers (CICs) at the reinvent conference in Las Vegas. They are innovation campuses at universities to empower the skills of the graduates.
Do you reach after “baby” startups or you wait for them to come to you?
There are both ways. The Startup Bahrain stakeholders do that collectively, as they do roadshows to schools. For example, INJAZ Al-Arab, they run an annual competition.
We encourage the accelerators and incubators that are listed in Bahrain and some of the later-stage startups to join as mentors and share part of their practical experience with students. This creates a role model for students to look up to and give them hope for a new way of thinking and job creation.
What are the incubators and accelerators?
There are few, where some of them are home-grown, while others chose Bahrain to be their Middle East hub to serve the whole region from Bahrain.
We have Brinc, an IoT-focused accelerator out of Hong Kong that invests in hardware startups and gives them market access and expansion into mass production in China, and also the knowledge and know-how connections in the Middle East.
In Bahrain, what do you offer for foreign startups?
We allow 100% foreign ownership, not restricted to a free zone, no taxes, no need for a local [Bahraini] partner, in addition to getting government grants from Tamkeen.
The GCC has been going for the nationalization, Bahrainization for example. How doesn’t this intercept with the vision of attracting talent from outside Bahrain?
Let me give you an overview of what is happening in Bahrain. We do not have Bahrainization quota in the country, yet we have incentives for when you hire locals.
We tackle this [concept] from a creative way and different angle because we believe in the human capital development of Bahrain for a sustainable growth plan and their involvement in the economic vision.
Whenever an international or a local company sets up and hires Bahrainis, Tamkeen provides it with wage subsidies; 50% of their salary over the first year and then 30% off in the second year. It is a complete grant.
How many Bahraini people work in foreign companies?
In the private sector, the contribution of local Bahrainis is 45%, which is a high number compared to the region as it usually ranges from 8% to 12% among Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.
Usually, this happens in governmental jobs, but in Bahrain, the private and public sectors have a lot of locals while growing into international markets out of Bahrain.
How do you support other startups focusing on sustainability, renewable energy, and social entrepreneurship?
Startups create solutions that can go global and affect other markets and regions. There is an example of a business owner doing smart sensors to be plugged into palm trees for early detection of the movement of red weevils that infect the trees, helping farmers prevent the loss of their trees.
Bahrain is a signatory on the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). There are a lot of hackathons happening to create renewable energy and startups solutions creating sustainability in water and food, also women inclusion and empowerment programs.
A $100-million fund of funds that was created and announced in 2018, had 50% of its investments deployed and invested in funds investing in the Middle East and creating startups with impact.
There is an angel network called Tenmou, which runs an annual MENA summit attracting regional startups to come to Bahrain and pitch in front of family offices and angel investors to build their business.
There is also Flat6 Labs is in Bahrain. Others are focused on fashion, like a lady who created “Abaya” using nanotechnology to reduce body heat by ten degrees. She built connections in Milan, France, and Thailand to accelerate and grow [her business].
How do you see your collaboration with the banking sector in the region?
The banking sector has been spearheading Bahrain’s economy for the past 40 years where we saw the adoption of technologies among banks. The Central Bank of Bahrain (CBB) has launched an innovation unit, FinTech & Innovation, for regulations.
Kuwait Finance House (KFH) built collaborations with Brilliant Lab, an accelerator from Kuwait that is established in Bahrain and investing in seeds stage startups.
Regulations for open banking have been announced where Bahrain is the first in the MENA region to have open banking. Another example is the adoption of the National Bank of Bahrain (NBB) to the regulations and signing-up with a startup called Tarabut Gateway.
We are anticipating more collaborations. There are many digital wallets set up in Bahrain providing inclusion and opportunities for digital currency to float around.
Jumping to another point, how far is Bahrain from digitization?
In 2017, we launched the Cloud First Policy which mandates all ministries and government entities to migrate to the cloud to build and innovate. This is a huge step into modernization and digitization services for the citizens.
Do you get a lot of engagement and interaction with that initiative?
Of course. It was announced during the tech week in 2019 where around 34% of government data has been shifted to the cloud, which created a push to the private sector to follow suit. However, the banking sector was very hesitant to be on the cloud, due to the cybersecurity issues.
Moving to the cloud proved two points; the government of Bahrain is fast-forward looking, serious, and committed, while the other point is that “we are leading and the private sector is following.”