April 3, 2023

IGNITE at DIHAD: Here’s what you missed

“What percentage of green companies are SME businesses?” asked quiz-master, Omar Christidis, gazing out with friendly but piercing eyes at the audience. “79%! Yes, that’s right.” The audience erupted in applause during the IGNITE at DIHAD session in Dubai on Green Entrepreneurship Rising. 

During the 19th DIHAD conference, one of the largest events on aid and development in the Middle East, SPARK’s special session brought together green entrepreneurs, impact investors, NGOs and representatives from the EU to discuss the growth potential of green entrepreneurship in fragile and conflict-affected regions.

Keynote: Omar Itani, Cofounder of FabricAID, Lebanon

Omar Itani, Cofounder of FabricAID at the IGNITE at DIHAD conference © 2023, SPARK

On the grand stage stood Omar Itani, the Lebanese Cofounder and CEO of FabricAID, the largest second-hand clothing collector and distributor in the MENA region. Speaking to the audience about the impact of his social enterprise on job creation, he paused and passionately declared: “I strongly believe that green and social enterprises have a huge untapped potential in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Itani knows what he is talking about. Since the launch of his brand in 2018, FabricAid has collected 700,000 items of second-hand clothing, sold over 400,000 items, raised over 2.1 million US dollars, created 100+ jobs and has grown revenues five times in 2021! However, Itani warned, “we don’t have many impact funds for green and social enterprises in our region, and development agencies still resist investing in limited liability companies. That’s why these companies will never grow and remain barely local players.”

Potential is great, Itani argued, but something has to change in the sector. While continuously searching for new investments and growing his company, Itani also advocated for better support of green and social enterprises in developing markets. In order for these entrepreneurs to fully benefit from the opportunities of ‘going green,’ he explained, support is required for them to catch up with global green trends in terms of knowledge, skills and access to finance.

“What percentage of global GDP do green entrepreneurs contribute to?” The quizmaster has an engaging crowd, most hands go up for 4-5%. “Yes, you are so right. This audience knows what it’s talking about!”

Panel: Green Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets

Alessandro Villa, Aline Bussmann and Murat Sungur Bursa at the IGNITE at DIHAD conference © 2023, SPARK

Hosted by Omar Christidis, founder and CEO of Arabnet, the panelists discussed how green startups and SMEs, particularly in developing markets, are solving seemingly insurmountable challenges in financing their startups or acquiring the necessary skills in order to grow and create new, sustainable jobs.

Aline Bussmann, Co-Director of CEWAS, and Alessandro Villa, Deputy Head of Unit for Middle East, Central Asia (Directorate General for International Partnership) at the EU, both emphasised that green businesses are essential in tackling environmental challenges and that governments, investors and other stakeholders should prioritise supporting these entrepreneurs. They also highlighted the need for a supportive ecosystem that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship.

Murat Busra, President of the Sustainability Academy in Türkiye, expressed the importance of guiding entrepreneurs in ‘going green’, suggesting that the criteria to receive a ‘green label’ should not be too high, otherwise this will frustrate and discourage business-owners.

Bussman, Busra and Itani as well, all echo the International Labor Organization’s publication, ‘A Business Case for Sustainability’, which suggests that companies that do good by the environment, their labour force and communities, also do well financially.

With great enthusiasm Christidis fired the next question at the audience: “Based on SPARK’s research, what percentage of SMEs in developing markets is involved in or transitioning towards green entrepreneurship?” Most hands went up for 49%. “No, it’s 72%!

Keynote: H.E. Salma Al Qubaisi, President of Salma Al Qubaisi Holding and a leading tech investor

Salma Al Qubaisi, President of Salma Al Qubaisi Holding, at the IGNITE at DIHAD conference © 2023, SPARK

In her keynote speech H.E. Salma Al Qubaisi, a high profile investor from the UAE, with investments in various sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, education and engineering, stated the importance of promoting and supporting green entrepreneurship. 

One more question: What country ranks among the highest in greening its economy?” The crowd hesitated. Germany? Japan? One more chance. Iceland? “Yes, Iceland, partly because around 85% of its total primary energy supply comes from renewable sources.

Panel: A Green Challenge: Access to Finance

Yannick du Pont, Lola Fernandez Flores and Tariq Sanad at IGNITE at DIHAD conference © 2023, SPARK

Green startups and SMEs often face challenges accessing the finance they need to start or grow their businesses. The panelists discussed the different financing options available and how entrepreneurs can best position themselves to secure funding.

Sharing some strong advice for green entrpereneurs, Tariq Sanad, Chief Financial Officer at Pure Harvest Smart Farms, a world-leading, sustainable agri-business, said: “Start small, prove it and replicate it.” Sanad tells the audience that “this industry we’re in [agri-business] is predominantly traditional, so changing the narrative towards green and finding talent is a big challenge.”

In order to face the challenges of funding, regulatory barriers, lack of awareness among consumers and obstacles in exporting, Yannick du Pont, CEO of SPARK, suggested the need for new, innovative and cross-sectoral partnerships. “We have to create better partnerships between the private sector, government and local NGOs to be able to provide better financial and technical support. But that requires more divergent thinking and more creative approaches.”

Aline Bussmann added: “And it means that we start realising that green entrepreneurs can contribute much more than currently understood.” She explains how government is often the largest market actor when it come to environmental services such as water supply or waste collection, but often struggles in terms efficiency or maintenance. “For these purposes green enterprises can be relevant partners as they are more agile than government and more contextualised than foreign businesses and INGOs.”

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