This article was published on The Huffington Post on April 10, 2016.
The notion of ‘First World Problems’ is one that many are familiar with, a rare occasion when those in the First World poke fun at themselves and their entitlement.
Whether it’s a flight being late, a particular kind of coffee being unavailable or broadband speeds being less than supersonic, the problems of the First World are relative difficulties that other countries would love to have.
Bandwidth issues are the most ridiculous of our complaints. As I write, I am able to watch UK horse-racing in one corner of my screen, as well as being able to do four or five things at the same time because of the speed of my internet connection.
For others, this is far from the case and it is only when travelling to emerging economies and sharing their experiences, how seemingly impossible it is for people, let only companies, to get anything done online.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the dichotomy between countries’ bandwidth capabilities are vast. While Israel, and particularly Tel Aviv, benefits from the faster internet in the world, neighbouring countries such as Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon struggle by on much slower technologies.
Even the differences between these territories are unthinkable. Hussam Hammo is the CEO of mobile games company Tamatem, which are based in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Recently, he invited over to the city some of the startups represented by Gaza Sky Geeks, an accelerator based in Gaza that encourages young entrepreneurs to set up companies where population density is of almost claustrophobic intensity and career opportunities limited.
“It was incredible. These guys were used to 1G speeds and although we still struggle in Jordan to get 3G, they were doing things they could not have dreamt of doing back in Gaza.
“Whenever I come back from Silicon Valley or London, I always get frustrated when I come back to Amman and the online limitations Tamatem has to face, but the Gaza Sky Geeks experience encouraged me to make the most out of every byte of bandwidth,” he says.
It certainly seems to be working for Hammo. The company publishes its own games in Arabic for the MENA region and localises into the language games from the world’s biggest publishers. It realised two years ago that the App stores were empty of Arabic-based content and have addressed that lucky lacuna.
The company is experiencing 40% month-on-month growth on downloads and revenue and in 2014-15 had 200% growth over those 12 months. It is also the only Arabic company to have been selected by 500 Startups, having graduated in London as part of the Dojo Distro program at the end of last year.
“I think the market in MENA is absolutely huge, but if you want proof from a third party, according to Arabnet, in 2020 this will be a market of 700 million people that will be worth $2.4 billion,” adds Hammo.
The mention of Arabnet is timely. It describes itself as the hub for Arab digital entrepreneurs to connect and learn. It runs a series of events across the region aimed at growing the web and mobile industry, and launching new digital startups.
Not least of these events is the conference in Beirut, now in its sixth year and the launching pad for the city’s tech culture. Last year, Lebanese startup accelerator Flat6Labs started its first tech programme in the city, which will see them invest seed money of up to $50,000 in more than 100 companies.
The city even has its ‘Digital District’ in the shadow of the Al-Omari mosque, a much more beautiful backdrop than anywhere in Palo Alto or London’s so-called Tech City in Shoreditch.
While the Arabnet conferences have made an extraordinary impact on confidence in the MENA reject, it is perhaps the influence of another up-and-coming conference that will provide a longer legacy.
The STEP conference took place this month (EDITOR NOTE: 4/5th April) in Dubai and not only did it focus on the MENA region, but was of such quality that it could have taken place anywhere in the world. Companies based in Europe were represented, but more importantly wealth management funds and VCs were out in force.
Dubai, not least its immigration visa policies and immigration queues that face those who do obtain travel documents, is as far from Jordan and Lebanon in capitalist and status terms as London and Berlin, but confidence was apparent around the 3,000 attendees. Dubai, itself, remains an acquired taste for visitors.
One particular innovation in the cuty was Startups On A Plane, not only for its networking opportunities, but also because meetings in Dubai were on a yacht, not a plane.
Berthed in the harbour adjacent to the STEP conference and five minutes’ walk away, it was an opportunity for investors and startups to talk in a more salubrious environment than a conference stand. When the conference was over, those involved moved on to Teheran to bring together in the Iranian tech ecosystem.
Naturally, in an oil-rich state such as Dubai, internet speeds were fast enough for any of those in the First World to have any Problem with it, but the confidence on show suggests that in the future, it will be companies in the MENA region that will be showing the First World how to do things.
Personally, and on the basis of the excellent things I saw at STEP, I have no (First World) Problem with that.