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Saudi women tycoons encouraged to transform national economy

The Council of Economic and Development Affairs launched the National Transformation Strategy last month to diversify the economy and reduce oil dependence

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Aisha Al-Muthaffar, a young Saudi entrepreneur, is the founder of a new enterprise called Edanah, a factory specialized in producing natural pressed coal from recycled palm tree fronds creating firewood.

“By taking the fronds of palm trees, we ground the stack, then dry it, and finally press it until it turns into firewood,” says Aisha, who lives in the Eastern Province.

The Saudi market consumes SR30 million in coal annually, with 70 percent of it being imported while only 30 percent consumed locally.

Each year, Aisha adds, the palm tree fronds are destroyed during harvest season. “In the fields, most of the fronds are gotten rid of by burning them, causing pollution in the environment. Our goal is to save the environment, produce local manufacturing that is useful and in demand in the market.”

“We need to make use of it because it’s a source of wealth,” she further says. “We want to turn it into industrial capital.”

Aisha is one of 30 finalists participating at the annual Jeddah Entrepreneurs Meet (JEM) and Competition, with startups in various sectors and a passion to grow into bigger enterprises.

As the Council of Economic and Development Affairs launched the National Transformation Strategy last month to diversify the economy and reduce oil dependence, experts and entrepreneurs discussed the importance of increasing SMEs for a prosperous economy by 2020 at the 2-day forum held in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) that concluded on Wednesday.

“75 percent of a healthy economy is built on SMEs,” said Sarah Al Ayed, chairperson of the JEM. “Why not open doors for entrepreneurial ventures to succeed that are part of the development of the infrastructure industry and not just in commercial services?” Al Ayed asks.

Al Ayed, who is cofounder of TRACCS, led the forum that concluded on Wednesday with the announcement of the winners of this year’s competition for young female entrepreneurs and prizes worth SR375,000 in funding in addition to an 18-month mentorship program.

Hundreds of entrepreneurs applied to the competition where 30 were selected after a nationwide tour to universities, businesswomen centers, chambers of commerce, and even homes.

“We were adamant this year to examine all these areas, and find the common grounds and see what are the areas of need,” Al Ayed told Saudi Gazette.

“I found in Al-Hasa, Unaiza and Buraidah, they’re ahead of us in production and manufacturing while projects in other areas are more traditional. Is it based on need? That’s one of the things we do look at.”

She further said, “the entrepreneurs themselves have to be a focal point and they have to be a part of working on amending these challenges. They have to develop and find what works for them. So we all work together on this front.”

First-place winner for social entrepreneurship is Hanabi who aspire to be a Saudi organization for local cartoonists and animators “to produce original cartoons in Arabic narrating stories about Arab civilization”.

After noticing a lack of attention to local artists and an excess of Western cartoons and comic books, three young Saudis launched Hanabi to promote artists and create animation productions.

Captain Mama won first place in entrepreneurship in development in education and health. Founder and CEO Eman Othman said their Jeddah-based enterprise offers instruction for new mothers in dealing with maternity and infant care.

Board members of the JCCI and well-established entrepreneurs also offered an opportunity for participants to discuss challenges and obstacles they faced, namely in patent licensing, bureaucratic obstacles, and funding, among others.

Panelists stressed on the need for venture capitalists to play a big role in fostering SMEs in the private sector and further emphasizing on creating and owning local resources to effectively transform the national economy instead of managing and importing them.

When asked about challenges women entrepreneurs face, Sarah Al Ayed said, “they don’t get the same opportunities as male counterparts in a lot of times.”

“It’s difficult for them to get funding, get support, or apply for certain bids, etc. So we highlight the challenges and work together for a solution,” she explains.

King Khalid Foundation, Effat University, and JCCI and the Young Business Women’s Committee sponsored the Jeddah Entrepreneurs Meet and Competition.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Jan. 30, 2016.