Mapping Edtech Startups in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

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Education is a powerful tool. Those of us privileged enough to get a good education often forget that for the majority of people around the world education is about hope; a promise that tomorrow will be better than today. And that promise is just as important in the Arab region as anywhere else in the world.

Recognizing the importance of education, governments across the region have been sanctioning almost 19% of their countries’ government expenditure to education--well above average allotments globally and among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (OECD). Nevertheless, the returns on these investments have been mixed at best for Arab employers, governments, and society. Worryingly, it will become even more difficult to maintain the current “quality” of education as populations continue to grow. Between 2010 and 2015, the region is expected to absorb approximately 300,000 new pupils per year--bringing the region to a total of 53.6 million students. So far, the supply of formal education across the region has not been able to keep up with the demand.

A further challenge is that people who have gone through the system are still sometimes ill equipped to compete for jobs in and out of the region. The regional unemployment rate is at 10%, and almost 80% of Middle Eastern and North African youth work in the informal sector, a clear indicator that a significant amount of re-skilling initiatives are needed.

As the Arab states try to redefine themselves in the wake of the “Arab spring,” another sort of revolutionary change is needed: an education that embraces diversity and provides opportunity. This change will need to come from education technology startups across the region. It’s very important that the entrepreneurial ecosystem give special focus to startups that are tackling the crux of the matter.

The Wamda Research Lab’s newest report (PDF), “Lesson One: Mapping Education Technology Startups in MENA” (Middle East and North Africa) is the first effort to try and better understand the education technology entrepreneurship in the Arab world. Our survey of over 50 entrepreneurs shows that edtech startups are concentrated in Jordan and Egypt, generally focus on the K-12 market. Many founders are responding to shortcomings in the public education sector, such as Arabic language education and preparing students for end-of-high school exams.

Despite the fact that Arabic was the 7th most-used language on the Internet in 2011, Arabic digital content, which will reach an estimated value of $112 billion in 2015, only represents a fraction of the media available online.

The challenges facing these entrepreneurs will be familiar to their U.S. and Western counterparts: a lack of funding, and notable difficulty in marketing their products to new customers and convincing them to purchase products.

On a more optimistic note, regional attitudes towards the use of technology in education, such as online, are certainly encouraging and have improved over time. When the Queen Rania Foundation launched edraak.org (a non-profit online education platform of which I am the founding manager) in May of this year we were positively surprised to see over 100,000 learners sign up in under five months; almost 10% of these have already earned certificates of completion.

The Arab edtech sector is still in its infancy and startups in this space will need a lot of support. Lesson One is only the first chapter of what we hope will be a long and wide-ranging discussion on supporting the development of a sector that will ensure tomorrow is better than today for millions of Arabs across the region.

Nafez is a visiting fellow with New America and the manager of Edraak.org. He worked with the Wamda Research Lab as a guest scholar to conduct the research for the report, "Lesson One: Mapping Education Technology Startups in MENA."

Editor's Note: An earlier version incorrectly reported the percentage of government expenditure on education. This has since been edited.

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