Social Enterprise Could Be The UAE's Next Big Venture -- If Government And Investors Step Up

Over the last few years, impact-driven enterprises are gaining traction in the UAE, where there is an appetite for start-up businesses and a focus on innovation. But greater support from the government and investors is needed to boost the work of entrepreneurs using business for social good, says experts.

While progress overcoming those obstacles is healthy and growing among young social entrepreneurs more could be done to support what is seen as a new way of doing business. Infusing social responsibility directly into the DNA of their business models, entrepreneurs in the UAE have been tackling chronic social problems, ranging from unemployment and education to providing nutritious meals and healthcare.

“Social entrepreneurship is still in its infancy in the Arab world. However, over the last decade it has gained a lot of momentum,” says Maytha Al Habsi, Deputy CEO of Emirates Foundation, an organization that mentors, trains and funds social entrepreneurs. “Today, if you ask young people whether they want be a bureaucrat or an entrepreneur, most would choose the latter. Millennials have a healthy risk appetite, excited about the opportunities that the 21st century and the digital revolution bring,” adds Al Habsi.

With youth development at the core of its mission, Emirates Foundation has been targeting younger UAE residents, aged between 15 and 35, to address social challenges. “Our business model takes a market-based approach to philanthropy. Our programmes are an effort to guide, empower and inspire youth and is run like a business with a core focus, measurable outcomes and a goal to become a financially viable social enterprise with scalable and sustainable impact,” says Al Habsi.

However, unlike the U.S., there are no laws to specifically regulate social enterprises in the UAE. In order to channel entrepreneurial spirit and aspirations, young entrepreneurs need a comprehensive ecosystem to support them. Just having a great idea is not enough, says Al Habsi.

“Although social entrepreneurship is growing in the region, the policies, laws and regulations are yet to accommodate the unique ways in which social enterprise models operate,” says Al Habsi.

The government plays a big role in fostering social entrepreneurship in terms of legislation, developing ecosystems and funding, says Medea Nocentini, founder of C3 which helps social entrepreneurs find mentors get business ideas off the ground. “Social businesses complement government and non-profit organizations when it comes to sustainable and long-term social change."

Apart from legislation, raising capital for a new social enterprise is a difficult task, even if investors are slowly warming up to the idea of social finance. Availability of skills and knowledge also hinder the growth of such businesses.

“Investors in UAE are sensitive to social enterprises' missions and goodwill. In every incubator, accelerator or VC portfolio you will find many social entrepreneurs but funding opportunities solely dedicated to social enterprises are still rare,” says Nocentini.

Despite odds, there is a growing interest in this sector. Examples include Slices, an organic food station started by Faisal Al Hammadi and Hamad Al Hammadi to provide over 1,000 healthy meals each day to schoolchildren in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain; Social Bandage that raises awareness via public campaigns and provides medical aid for people in need; and Dumyé, which handcrafts personalized cloth dolls for children, and donates a doll for every purchase.

“The Al Hammadi brothers not only brought healthy food to schools, but developed a whole educational programme through which our youth learn the benefits of a healthy lifestyle through a programme of nutritious meals, farm visits, cooking sessions and interactive seminars. It’s a 360-degree approach to health,” says Al Habsi. In the UAE, according to Global Burden of Disease Study, 66% of men and 60% of women are either obese or overweight.

Today, as problems have grown increasingly complex, the emergence of social entrepreneurship reflects a major new opportunity in the UAE. Although social entrepreneurship has come far, it's still a long way from providing the ideal ecosystem for potential change-makers.

“Since 2012, over 300 aspiring and emerging social entrepreneurs enrolled in our programmes. About 10-15% of them have established a social enterprise and improved their business,” says Nocentini, adding that the untapped opportunities for social entrepreneurs are vast, especially in education, healthcare and waste management sectors.