Islam Analysis: Reviving a culture of entrepreneurship

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The Muslim world and donors should use nongovernmental networks to nurture the dormant seeds of entrepreneurship, says Athar Osama.

Entrepreneurship and innovation may look like inherently Western ideas in the twenty-first century. Yet they have been part and parcel of Muslim societies even before the heyday of the earliest Islamic Empire.

Mecca, the birthplace of Islam, was long known as being on a major trade route in ancient Arabia. In later years, frontier cities of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire became centres of commerce and learning, and it was at these meeting points of civilisations that scientific knowledge flourished for centuries.

The works of Muslim astronomers contributed significantly to the development of Copernican and Galilean theories; the Persian scholar Ibn-e-Sina (Avicenna) laid the foundations of modern medicine; Al-Haytham (Alhazen) made fundamental contributions to the scientific method and optics; and Al-Khwarizimi made significant contributions to algebra.  

Then came the political decline of the Islamic Empire and as centuries passed, institutional decay and colonial dependency eroded the foundations of modern-day innovation and entrepreneurship.

But there has never been a more opportune time to reinvigorate these age-old values of knowledge and innovation with a new set of interactions between East and the West.

Global innovations

One particular initiative with a gradually increasing reach is Global Innovations through Science and Technology (GIST), a US-based entiry seeking to promote technology and entrepreneurship across the Islamic world. It was created by the US State Department and managed by the Civilian Research and Development Fund.

Starting from scratch and with a bootstrapped budget, GIST launched a business pitching competition titled GISTech-I in October last year. The participants were asked to upload short You Tube videos of their business ideas, and winners were announced based on the number of times the videos were viewed and 'liked'.

The finalists presented their ideas at an entrepreneurship summit in Turkey in December 2011 — among them a 24-hour cardiovascular monitoring device, a cost-effective brain-controlled arm prosthesis and a technology for disinfecting drinking water.

In January of this year, GIST partnered with the MIT Enterprise Forum (MITEF) of the Pan Arabic Region — one of 28 MITEF chapters around the globe — to launch a business plan competition. It has also signed an agreement with MITEF Turkey to promote technology entrepreneurship in the country.

Convening power

These relationships give GIST a reach that would otherwise be difficult to develop, legitimacy through a local 'face', and a sense of ownership that could be a crucial factor in its success.

Thanks to this local ownership, a number of MITEF chapters have developed a reputation for tenaciously supporting the communities they operate in. In Pakistan, for instance, the local chapter has run the Business Acceleration Programme for five years in collaboration with the Organisation of Pakistani Entrepreneurs in North America (OPEN).  

However, these efforts are still rudimentary and a lot more needs to be done to produce tangible results for scientific innovation. In particular, while entrepreneurship has received a lot of attention, science has received short shrift.

Funding by the US State Department has been one limiting factor — the US$2–5 million committed so far cannot really lead to serious change on the ground. But there are signs that USAID funds may be added to the pot to support scientific problem-solving behind the entrepreneurship.

One avenue that needs to be fully explored is the use of nongovernmental funding, from donors or US corporations doing business in the regions, for example. And the United States could use its 'convening power' to bring together regional leaders and stakeholders to invest in and take ownership of initiatives in their own countries.

Perhaps there is a need for re-packaging the basic ideas that GIST is seeking to promote — a more decentralised model presented in a compelling manner could catch people's imaginations and create a virtuous cycle.

Take TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences as an example: getting people to organise more than 750 TEDx events and view millions of TED talks did not require the financial muscle or political backing of the world's only super-power.

A compelling idea

Another novel idea, founded at the Harvard Business School, just a few blocks away from MIT, is the AllWorld Ranking — a listing service that identifies and seeks to build value in fast-growing companies based in emerging economies. The idea has evolved to include special lists dedicated to parts of the Muslim world.

In 2010, AllWorld published the Arabia Fast Growth 500 and a new listing (Arabia 500 + Turkey) was launched last year. And just last week, the release of the Pakistan 100 seems to have brought relatively unknown companies into the limelight.

The founders of the AllWorld Network call this 'Visibility Economics'™ — a nifty term for the fact that visibility is critical to success in the marketplace by attracting customers, investors and partners. The idea has caught on, but it remains to be seen what, if any, benefits it might bring.

Regardless of the outcome, initiatives like GIST, the MIT Enterprise Forum and the AllWorld Network are important missing pieces in the entrepreneurship toolkit of the Islamic world.

The seeds of entrepreneurship and innovation to solve local problems have always been present in these societies. But they have been informal, lacked visibility, and lacked a supportive ecosystem to flourish. This needs to change.

Engaging nongovernmental partners and diaspora networks — traditionally underused — is important. Often, a passionate champion can deliver where a government cannot.

Athar Osama is a London-based science and innovation policy consultant. He is the founder and CEO of Technomics International Ltd, a UK-based international technology policy consulting firm, and founder of Muslim-Science.com.