Somalia’s young entrepreneurs using technological innovation to tackle socio-economic challenges

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Mogadishu – Ilyas Omar (22) engages in animated discussion with colleagues at the lounge of iRise, a technological innovation hub in Mogadishu’s Hodan district. Ilyas is representing his company ‘Maan Ifiye’ which is one of 20 start-up groups participating in a workshop organised by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under its growth, enterprise, employment and livelihoods (GEEL) programme.

Ilyas is happy to be one of the participants of the GEEL programme which promotes inclusive economic growth throughout Somalia by addressing challenges and opportunities that are common in multiple sectors, among them agriculture, fisheries and renewable energy.

“I am here to learn how to draft contract agreements, employee contracts, business plan writing, marketing/brand strategy among other strategic ideas which will help my graphic design company to grow,” says the Mogadishu-born young entrepreneur.

After years of conflict, Somalia’s youthful population, which was one of the most affected groups by the decades-long war, is slowly but steadily reclaiming its space in the country’s development agenda by establishing start-ups to address some of the economic challenges facing the horn of Africa country.

Since 2007, Somalia has been on a trajectory towards peace and security thanks to efforts made by the African Union Mission and Somalia (AMISOM) and the federal and state governments in stabilising the country. The achievements, coupled with the high-speed fibre optic internet, connected in 2013, are encouraging the youthful population to come out of isolationism by using technology to improve their lives.

Learning design work was not easy for the 22-year-old, given the fact that there are no specialised institutions teaching contemporary design, let alone skilled tutors capable of imparting the necessary skills. As a result, Ilyas had to rely on online tutorials uploaded on YouTube to learn basic design.

“There are very few skilled designers in Somalia. Furthermore, there are no colleges or institutions to help you train as well. I had to learn the hard way that is through online tutorials,” Ilyas reminisces.

After grasping the basics of design and working for various employers for five years, Ilyas established his design company in 2017 before joining iRise the following year, whose objective is to promote collaboration between innovators and investors, while offering resources needed by budding entrepreneurs and start-ups.

Some of the support offered by the Mogadishu-based technological hub to upcoming entrepreneurs are business training, mentorship, project evaluation and support during incubation stages of their projects.

According to Naima Gurey, the lead trainer and community manager at iRise Hub, innovation hubs have the potential of contributing to the development and technological transformation of the country if well implemented.

“The start-up industry in Somalia is very new. There are a lot of opportunities when it comes to technology and innovation in the country which we can all take advantage of, especially as the young generation,” said Naima.

She urges youths with innovative ideas to seek support from innovation hubs, saying that despite the challenges currently faced, the industry is set to grow into a major economic contributor and source of employment in the next three to five years.

“We have a lot of partnerships. When it comes to youth trainings, we are coordinating with universities such as Simad University, Jamhuriya University and other educational institutions to train youths on entrepreneurship,” Naima adds.

iRise has also partnered with financial institutions, such as Premium Bank and International Bank of Somalia, to help youths to access funding for their business projects.

Despite the progress made, bringing more youths on board has not been easy. Access to finance, for example, still remains one of the main challenges hindering the growth of youth entrepreneurship in the country.

To ensure Somalia keeps pace with its neighbours in technology, Ilyas urges development partners to provide more funding for youth start-ups to enable them to successfully go from the incubation phase to maturity stage.

Though ‘Maan Ifiye’, loosely translated as Brand Nourisher in English, makes enough money which can be used to employ a few young people, the 22-year-old says getting skilled youths with knowledge in modern design has been a challenge, which has hindered the company’s expansion.

“Clients in Somalia also don’t understand much about graphic design work and the effort it takes to come up with the designs. We need to educate them about the importance of design in the production of goods and services and as a source of employment,” observes Ilyas.

Despite the challenges, the young entrepreneur is optimistic about the future of technological start-ups in Somalia.

“Start-ups will play a significant role in creating employment for the youth and will contribute immensely in the economic development of the country, hence we need to exploit the opportunity to our advantage,” he adds.

As Somalia celebrates the World Youth Skills Day, Ilyas urges his fellow youths who want to venture into technological entrepreneurship to first seek education and training to open up their world view about entrepreneurship.

“After acquiring the necessary education and skills, they (youths) should not be afraid to start with the resources available and also make sure to seek help from innovation hubs like iRise. Hard work will eventually pay,” he adds.

“I have designed some work for Hormuud Telecom Company. My company was behind the full brand for Mogadishu Tech Summit. I have also provided design work for individuals,” says Ilyas, explaining why patience and hard work pays.

Amisom

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