As climate change worsens and its effects become more and more visible, smallholder farmers in the Middle East and North Africa face impacts on the amount of food they can produce, the scarce water resources they can access, and the current energy systems on which they rely for power. To help scale water-energy-food solutions in the region, there is a growing push to support start-ups and invest in businesses. For instance, the WE4F MENA Regional Innovation Hub supports companies by bringing them into the program and providing grants, technical assistance, and investment facilitation. The MENA RIH also works with them and other regional partners to improve the enabling environment for businesses.
Investors, incubators, and accelerators new to the MENA region might be a little lost on how to proceed. For those looking to break into the business ecosystem and contribute to the building of sustainable, successful local economies and markets, WE4F is here to help.
Dr. Ahmad Huzayyin, Technical Assistance Specialist for the MENA Regional Innovation Hub, walks readers how WE4F successfully recruited and onboarded 17 entrepreneurial water-energy-food companies, while sharing what incubators, accelerators, and investors should expect and do when looking to build their regional presence.
What to Expect: Diverse Geographical Interest and High Interest
As interest in the region and its water-energy-food sector increases, so does the potential for new stakeholders to engage with businesses and scale innovations.
When launching the first WE4F Call for Innovations, the MENA RIH expected interest from the entire region. The call was open to companies in ten countries and the eligibility requirements covered water-food, energy-food, and water-energy-food innovations. At the end of the first phase of the CFI, 139 applications poured in not only from countries covered by the MENA RIH, but also India, USA, UK, and the UAE, among others.
This reflects the need for more business-scaling programming in the MENA region, as many companies demonstrate interest in the kind of support that expands their businesses and improves the environments in which they work. It also highlights the growing potential of water-energy-food companies and their market space.
Countries Eligible for the MENA Call for Innovations
What to Expect: The Need for a Thorough and Multi-level Expert Assessment
At the next stage of the application process, after the concept notes had been narrowed down during a strict full proposal application phase, it was crucial to bring in fresh eyes to review the applications.
To guarantee neutrality and objectivity, the prospective innovators who moved on to the full proposal application stage were reviewed by an independent Regional Advisory Board (RAB). The MENA RIH’s Regional Advisory Board is made up of 11 regional experts who support the MENA RIH on various aspects like the innovator selection process, advisory on improving business model and setting the firm for transformation, as well as linkages and networking facilitation.
By using a multi-level approach that thoroughly examines and engages companies, WE4F can go one step further beyond merely an offline review and superficial interviews to truly understand each full proposal application. This allows the selection committee to see and hear the motivation and drive behind each written application first-hand, and thus assess the candidates’ dedication to the WE4F mission and impact creation.
What to Do: Build a Complementary Cohort
The MENA RIH cohort serves a broad range of markets, including solar PV, agritech, food production, post-harvest cooling, compost production, bio-fungicides, nurseries, water treatment and water irrigation systems. Despite the broad range of business models and types of innovation, the innovators have a lot in common: they are leaders in their markets, uphold inclusiveness and social consciousness, demonstrate growth ambitions, and have a strong passion for sustainably developing the economies they work. This shared passion is what brings the innovators together and closer to the hub.
The portfolio’s diversity also was intentional as it provides complimentary innovators with the chance to learn from each other while MENA RIH provides personalized technical assistance crafted to each innovator’s needs.Together, WE4F and the innovators can grow their business to impact thousands of farmers and their families.
How to: Onboard Innovators
When bringing new team members into an organization, most companies host intensive onboarding sessions where they share expectations, processes, and help the new individual adjust to the structure. The MENA RIH uses a similar “bootcamp” model that focuses on developing detailed and individualized content. Throughout these sessions, the Hub and the innovators will draw the roadmap that guides the innovators in their 2-year journey to reach the hub’s total target of 750,000 end-users (farmers and/or food consumers).
How to Get Started: Take the First Step
Apply: If you are inspired by the MENA innovators and would like to join their ranks, keep an eye on WE4F’s social media channels. A second Call for Innovations will launch towards the end of the year and we will offer plenty of engaging activities in the lead-up!
Learn: Looking to run your own Call for Innovations in the MENA region or another? WE4F is happy to share its lessons learned with you.
Connect: The MENA RIH is also always happy to discuss new opportunities for collaboration and partnerships, or simply hear your ideas and inputs about the program and the MENA region’s needs at firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by: Dr. Ahmed Huzayyin
Ahmed oversees technical assistance to our innovators at the MENA RIH. He is an assistant professor at the Electrical Power and Machines Department, Faculty of Engineering, Cairo University and an assistant professor (status only) at the Energy Systems Group, University of Toronto. Ahmed is a co-founder of Cleantech Arabia and is currently the manager of the Eco-Industrial Unit, which he co-founded within Chemonics Egypt Consultants (CEC).