Venture Finance in the MENA Region: Challenges and Opportunities Ahead
By: Zana Nesheiwat
I recently had the pleasure and honor of participating in the Digital Mashraq Forum (DMF) under the patronage of HRH Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Entrepreneurship in Jordan and the World Bank Group.
The high-level affair to discuss the future of digitalization in the region attracted upwards of 500 attendees from public and private organizations across 25 countries. The DMF hosted a VIP pre-reception and an immersive two-day program with 26 panels, 69 speakers, 40 startups and 22 investors on board. A commendable success to orchestrate such a powerful platform.
The caliber of men and women was unexpected, to say the least. It was most certainly a remarkable experience to be surrounded by so many educated, talented, sophisticated, pleasant, informed, ambitious, engaged and relentless humans for three days.
Although a regional event, it was without a doubt global. Entrepreneurs, companies, VCs and public officials from MENA, Europe, Asia, Africa and throughout the US all doing great things.
Back in Business: Ripe, Rich and Ready
It is no secret – The Kingdom of Jordan is on the brink of breaking through bureaucracy to bring in billions of dollars and it’s only a day away. The events taking place are defying the antiquated sentiments that postulate a lack of resources as an uncontended culprit preventing a rapid evolution to modern economic and social systems. The fact is there is abundant capital and it’s high-time this wealth is unlocked and effectively allocated to achieve its full impact-potential.
Once again, it is as much about the caliber of people and companies and the ambitious agenda the DMF sets to advance as what it symbolizes. The conference concluded with the release of “Amman Communique,” announcing Jordan’s plan to launch a regulatory reform process and digital transformation strategy by the end of 2019 to improve the Kingdom’s business environment. The communique also addressed the government’s commitment to open the National Broadband Network (7,000 kilometers of fiber) for public-private partnerships (PPP).
For Jordan, the meeting was one of many recent government-backed initiatives that emphasize its commitment to back and empower entrepreneurs, create a conducive business environment, and advance robust public-private cooperation.
The Role of the Central Bank
My partners at Blackhawk and I strongly believe the Central Bank of Jordan can serve a fundamental role in leading a PPP that will open up the flood gates of capital.
Consider Lebanon, a neighboring country in the Levant, that instituted an impactful PPP model. In 2014, The Banque du Liban (Central Bank of Lebanon) introduced Circular 331 to bolster the Lebanese ‘Knowledge Economy.’ It is proving effective despite the Central Bank’s massive debt and the country’s stormy geopolitical climate.
In fact, Circular 331 which encourages commercial banks to invest in startups is clearly one of the boldest and smartest initiatives undertaken so far by the Lebanese government. For the uninformed, the Central Bank now guarantees up to 75 percent of the value of a commercial bank’s investments into a startup. That move opened up a potential of $400 million that could be invested into venture capital funds or directly into startups. Circular 331 has clearly taken it up a notch by encouraging venture financing.
This model can be similarly emulated in Jordan to open up the flood gates of capital second to none; especially given the fact that Jordan has half the Debt/GDP ratio of Lebanon.
The Flood Gates of Capital
Purposing a public-private partnership of this magnitude to create professionally managed pools of capital in Jordan will create an octopus of opportunities:
- More Capital: The capital injection will increase the number and variety of VCs which would in turn fund and empower more entrepreneurs.
- Take Jordanian Companies Global: Such program would establish new VCs of the highest caliber with qualified experience that not only meet local-standards but have the aptitude to fair-well globally was well. More globally competitive VC’s mean more globally competitive companies.
- Larger Pools of Capital: It will serve to develop and expand the current VC system exponentially. Most VCs in Jordan today are basically restricted, for the large part, to seed-stage. This opportunity would allocate capital to equip new VCs to mature and develop seed to later-stage companies. Larger VC pools of capital will serve to accelerate the growth and scalability of the companies they fund, positioning them compete in global markets.
- Empowered Entrepreneurs: With new VCs and larger funds, a whole new spectrum of entrepreneurs will have access to capital. Consider the shift in dynamics that would follow – Consider companies or entrepreneurs that don’t conform to their capital providers but are forced to comply to secure their financial survival. This desperation leads to discouragement which in turn stifles individual potential and the evolution of their enterprise. A robust VC model will pierce this paralysis and protect innovation capital, a source of national wealth.
- Green Light for Foreign Investment: This government-backed initiative gives outsiders the greenlight – Jordan is open for business. The blessing and support of the Kingdom boosts investor confidence, garners respect from national leaders and will certainly serve in reaching their FDI targets, probably overnight.
Make no mistake about it. At the end of the day, it all boils down to access to professionally managed pools of capital that can make a real dent in the marketplace. You can have the smartest and most educated entrepreneurs on the planet but without “smart” capital backing them, their projects are nothing but a pie in the sky. Silicon Valley is a prime example in this regard. Without Sand Hill Road backing the entrepreneurial spirit and companies of the Valley back in the early 80s and 90s, the tech giants of today would have never existed.
Just as it has in the United States, the worldwide democratization of capital will democratize industrial assets and produce an explosion of job creation the world over. The MENA region needs this more than any region in the world. And the capital revolution, which so changed America in the last third of the 20th century, is only the prelude to the other two major revolutions of the 21st century — the worldwide democratization of venture financing and of knowledge. These three revolutions, each aided by emerging technology, provide hope that the 21st century will be able to avoid the terrible Middle East conflicts of the past hundred years and become a new Age of Enlightenment. Our children won’t have opportunities unless there are opportunities for everyone.
*Zana Nesheiwat is a Partner and wealth-curator at Blackhawk Partners, Inc. charged with building valuable brand assets, originating and optimizing strong partnerships, and advancing investment opportunities that benefit all stakeholders.
Blackhawk Partners Inc. is a New York based private “family office” that is in the business of originating, structuring and acting as equity investor in management-led buyouts, strategic minority equity investments, equity private placements, consolidations and buildups, and growth capital financings for both US and emerging market companies at all stages.