2021: A year of responding, innovating and building
Throughout 2021, we responded quickly to outbreaks of conflict and the ongoing effects of COVID-19.
Gaza's entrepreneurs rebuild
As intense fighting again erupted across the Israeli/Gaza border in May, we were informed that several businesses previously supported by SPARK were destroyed. AbdelRahman Awad, founder of Clever Toys, said at the time, “This is not the first obstacle in my life. I will return much stronger.” With our partner, Sheikh Abdullah Al Nouri Charity Society, we quickly supported affected entrepreneurs with funds to rebuild their businesses.
Afghan newcomers in the Netherlands
The country-wide takeover by the Taliban was closely watched by the world. After almost 20 years supporting higher education and entrepreneurship development in Afghanistan, SPARK was invited to support the Afghan former employees of the Dutch embassy arriving in the Netherlands. Our team quickly mobilised and is now matching Afghan refugees to relevant jobs in the Netherlands.
Syria's healthcare workers trained
In Syria, many young people, without qualifications or training, are dedicating their lives to help ease the suffering of the people around them. Alonside the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association, we’ve supported frontline healthcare workers to professionalise their experience, gain modern, scientific knowledge, and receive recognised qualifications to formalise their employment.
Tech skills in Lebanon
The economic situation in Lebanon has quickly deteriorated throughout the year causing hyperinflation, fuel, electricity and food shortages. Despite the daily challenges, SPARK and local partners like FabricAid, Codi, Kiron and New Horizons have supported hundreds of Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian youth to gain new skills, such as coding. Digital skills enable refugees especially to circumvent local labour laws that prevent them from accessing jobs. This year, 80% of the youth trained have been placed in internships or full-time jobs.
Co-working to defy COVID-19
COVID-19 led Tunisia’s co-working incubators to a watershed moment. Reaching underprivileged communities has always been a challenge in Tunisia, so this business model has offered an alternative solution to high startup costs for young entrepreneurs in vulnerable areas with limited transportation, infrastructure and broadband links. Throughout 2021, SPARK has been partnering with co-working and business incubators across the country and they are proving that they can be collective economic engines against the challenges of the pandemic.
Globally, over 1,500 entrepreneurs received business services and over 500 young people were matched to internships and jobs.
Rwandan farmers became banked
Innovative new partnerships enabled Rwandan agri-preneurs and cooperatives to access bank accounts and loans for the first time. These business owners have been previously denied vital financial services because of a lack of bankable data. By working with Equity Bank, MoneyPhone and Access to Finance Rwanda, over 300 Rwandan smallholder farmers have accessed digital loans, lower interest rates and adjusted collateral requirements. Rwandan banking is becoming more inclusive and the farming sector is formalising.
Youth campaign for inclusion in Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Struggling with violent extremism and online radicalisation among youth, the Networks of Change programme in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq brought together a group of 22 young campaigners. Over 9 months, the 18-25 year olds worked tirelessly to launch the online 22+You campaign, which advocates for the inclusion of youth in policy and decision-making. The campaign reached 1 million people across social media and the campaign films were viewed 2.3 million times. A new campaign group was recently selected and will begin their campaign training in the new year.
1,600 new jobs in Burundi
The Akazi Keza programme in Burundi has created around 1,600 jobs (permanent and part-time) by training young men and women in business and employability skills, by individually coaching 150 entrepreneurs, facilitating access to finance for 85 of these entrepreneurs and providing internships to 200 youth (50% women). Internships are a relatively new phenomenon in Burundi, but the success of the Akazi Keza programme and our five local partners – CEMAC, AFORGER, Kazozah, CREOP and Infinity – highlights the importance of providing young people with their first step on the career ladder.
Gender-sensitive entrepreneurship curricula
Alongside feminist economist Professor Sara Cantillon, SPARK built its first gender-sensitive curriculum with UN Women. Women-led businesses and cooperatives in Turkey received technical assistance on digital transformation and registered themselves to a major e-commerce website, Hebsiburada, enabling them to access new markets and increase their revenue.
SPARK’s focus for 2022 is on boosting youth skills that are relevant to the ever-changing labour markets and creating jobs.
New higher education system in Iraq
During the Bologna Process conference in Baghdad, we initiated the start of a new higher education system in Iraq. Alongside our partners from the Ministry of Higher Education of Iraq and the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KR-I), representatives from over 40 Iraqi universities, the Dutch embassy, the EU Commission and UN, the new system will raise standards of education for all young people across Iraq.
This year, we celebrated reaching 10,000 scholarships for Syrians in the Middle East. A joint celebration on World Refugee Day saw Her Majesty Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, founder of Education Above All, and His Excellency Dr. Bandar M. H. Hajjar, president of the Islamic Development Bank, among other distinguished guests, join an online celebration with students and graduates from across the region. Reaching this milestone has pushed SPARK and its partners to invest even more in the future of these graduates by supporting digital and employability training, internships and entrepreneurship training.
Fruitful, new partnerships
SPARK’s first grant from Google.org, the philanthropic arm of tech giant, Alphabet, will lead to increased support for digital skills among youth in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian territories in 2022. Other new partnerships, such as the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Rwanda, and scaling our existing partnerships with the Islamic Development Bank, Qatar Fund for Development and others will help us to grow our job creation programmes for youth in fragile states in 2022.
This year, over three days, the 8th edition of the IGNITE conference took place online, welcoming almost 400 attendees from across 50 countries. The event’s successful EdTech startup competition saw entrepreneurs pitch before judges with 5 finalists awarded with prizes. SPARK is looking forward to inviting IGNITE’s 2022 attendees back to an in-person event in Amsterdam in June, after a two-year hiatus.
Thank you to our partners for continuing to invest in opening pathways for young people to study, work and grow in fragile states.