MENA startups, Turkey tech scene and JETRO

JETRO is the short form for the Japan External Trade Organization, an independent government agency with the mandate to promote trade between Japan and other countries in the world.

I received an email introducing the study tour in the middle of October. They had a quota of around 20 people for the study tour.

MENA startups, Turkey tech scene and JETRO: These are three topics that I have never had the opportunity to get involved with. I also had no prior knowledge on the startups and tech scene in Turkey, and wasn't ware there were exciting developments happening in the tech scene for Turkey.

I was intrigued so I signed up.

You'll need to pay for your own flights and hotels, but everything else including transportation, meetings and venues are managed and prepared by JETRO free of charge.

RISEUP Summit

As part of the tour, JETRO offered us a booth at the RISEUP Summit. Even though our product doesn't support the MENA region, we decided to get a booth so that we get to know the Summit attendees better when they stop by our booth.

Xoxzo booth in RISEUP

A big difference between the crowd that we saw in RISEUP and other conferences we've been to in South East Asia (SEA) or and Japan is the level of curiosity shown by the attendees.

They were very young and very curious about what we were doing, and was asking questions on how our product work, and what problems does it solve. It was unfortunate that Xoxzo doesn't support the MENA region and when I explained this, most of the people that came to talk to us looked disappointed and told me to quickly release for MENA too. So that's something we need to think about in the future.

Pitch By The Pyramids

The climax of the RISEUP conference was a pitching contest called Pitch By The Pyramids which was done, well, next to the Pyramids of Giza.

Pitch By The Pyraminds 2019

The Pitch By The Pyramids is a startup pitch competition for finalists chosen from 8000 applicants from startups across the MENA region. 14 finalists were chosen to pitch tonight.

The winners of Pitch By The Pyramids 2019 was

  • TextYanzo, a startup from Dubai to help you get cleaning, flight tickets and many other stuff done through their personal assistant app. (winner by most votes from the audience)
  • PayNas, a HR startup from Cairo (judges winner)

and two companies were chosen for second place:

  • CloudSale, a startup from Beirut offering a non-food supplies platform for the hotel industry.
  • Receet, a startup from Palestine, which is doing an app to manage receipts.

I have been to a few pitching events myself, but I have to say that a pitching event next to the famous pyramids at night was something else.

And oh, the wind was very cold at night (it was winter anyway), so if you're going to spend time in the windy desert, bring along some winter clothing!

Egypt startups

During the Summit, JETRO arranged for our meetings with a few incubators and also startups.

All the startups was basically a pitch to the Japanese delegation for investment. There were many participants within the Japanese delegation from big multi corporation companies which were aiming to partner with startups in the MENA region and leveraging their technology or customer base to expand their businesses.

Halan, a startup that represents the biggest in MENA, which core business is a ride-hailing app similar to Grab in South East Asia was the biggest startup that we had a meeting with. Other than their core app, they also do deliveries for B2B. From hearing their presentation, I understand that Egypt and the MENA region as a whole still have big opportunities in infrastructure types of services.

Another interesting startup we had a meeting with was Nafham, an education startup aiming to open up opportunities for the 50 million Egyptian and the general Arab countries schoolchildren. The public schools in Egypt are packed to around 80 pupils per classroom, and Nafham thinks that the environment is not conducive for the children and wants to allow the students access to educational material beyond what their schools can provide.

Most of the startups that we listened to were looking for pre-Series A or Series A type of funding, but with smaller valuations than what we usually hear in San Francisco.

Incubators

From the incubators, we received briefings on how they incubate startups, and what kind of startups they were looking for.

All of the incubators are focused on high growth models, but how they guide the startups slightly differ.

MINT

One of the incubators that we listened to was MINT. MINT is an incubator supported by EG Bank, one of the largest banks in Egypt. MINT incubation program is carried out by its non-financial arm, and does not invest in the startup itself, but instead provides other infrastructure like offices and networking for possible startups that applied and chosen to join their 3-month program. Startups that apply need to already have an MVP, and the founders need to be between 16 to 35 of age. At the end of the program, they will have a demo day and present their product.

One of their success stories is a startup which they incubated called Odiggo MINT does not get directly get any monetary incentive because they don't invest in their own incubated startups, but MINT ties up with them by doing researching on the customers and passes the data to their parent bank to develop new financial products which they can then offer back to the customers of the startups, while also allowing those startups to get a cut out of the deal.

The Greek Campus

The other incubator that we visited was the Greek Campus. They are home to 300 over startups within the MENA region. Other than incubating startups, The Greek Campus also by itself runs co-working spaces and event spaces, with 5 locations in 4 cities currently in operation, with more in the pipeline. Notably, Uber and Trend Micro has offices in The Greek Campus.

Group photo in the Greek Campus

Briefing by JICA

On the second day in Cairo, we visited the Japan International Corporation Agency (JICA) office in Cairo, an agency that promotes and coordinates G2G level development assistance between the government of Japan and foreign governments.

JETRO and JICA often work together to carry out their mandates. The JICA office in Cairo was just a few levels up of the JETRO's office in the same building.

JICA's briefing was not really specific to startups, funding or the tech sector, but basically a macro level overview of the Egyptian economy, and where opportunities can be found for Japanese industries.

There were short presentations on education, energy, tourism, farming and healthcare sectors.

The general impression that I had after the presentations was that the current Egyptian government is business-friendly, and are trying hard to push for more foreign investments in the sectors above.

On to Istanbul

In the morning of the third day, we checked out of our hotel and took the 9:35AM flight out of Cairo heading to Istanbul for then second leg of our study tour.

Continue reading about the trip on our second part of the series: Part 2: Learning about startups with JETRO in Cairo and Istanbul

Iqbal Abdullah

Iqbal Abdullah

CEO

Iqbal came to Japan in 1997, and graduated from the Engineering faculty of Saga University. After working through companies like Yahoo! Japan and Amazon, Iqbal founded MARIMORE Inc. in 2007 which was the previous version of Xoxzo Inc.