Sunday December 10th, 2023
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Can Startups Solve the Problems Lebanon’s Government Can’t?

With their newly launched scale-up accelerator for social enterprises impacting migrants, refugees, and the Lebanese community, Changelabs believes that local empowerment can solve local problems.

Haisam Awad

Without any sense of pleasure, one can’t help but feel that Lebanon, right now, represents the very many problems that exist in the majority of MENA nations today. Political, social and financial problems that are all too familiar to Arab populations continue to shape the life and times of Lebanon’s most underserved and most marginalised - not least refugees.

As recently as April, 2021, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that there are 865,530 registered Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, and estimates that the country is home to 1.5 million Syrians overall. The strife of Syria’s refugees across the world is well-documented - a great crisis of our time, a problem, seemingly, without a solution.

For one of the Middle East’s most prolific accelerators, however, there’s opportunity in this gravest of challenges.

Lebanon in Limbo

One could argue that offering opportunities and solutions to the region’s most underserved has become a pillar of Changelabs’ approach as an accelerator, programme curator and all-round concerned stakeholder. With its Lebanon-based scale-up accelerator for social enterprises, however, it arguably has its toughest challenge yet ahead.

Having scoured Lebanon for startups and SMEs that impact refugees, migrants and the Lebanese community at large, Changelabs is now looking to provide support for 30 scale-ups across two cohorts. The ambitious programme is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, and is being implemented  by Changelabs in collaboration with GFA consulting group and ENDEVA, with additional support from Beyond Group.

The programme is being run in partnership with FMO, Al Asfari Foundation, Amazon and a selection of Lebanese corporations and NGOs and fits within the framework of the Social Entrepreneurship for Migration and Development implemented in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan - three ecosystems that have been high on Changelabs’ priorities, three ecosystems that are ripe for an a programme like this.

“Lebanon is at the epicentre of the Middle East’s myriad struggles, and this has been a tremendous handicap for economic stability and growth - we’ve designed a one-of-a-kind program that takes a novel perspective, looking at the country’s challenges as potential opportunities,” co-founder and CEO of Changelabs, Karim Samra, commented, adding that “though accelerators and VCs are relatively common in Lebanon, there’s a huge gap in the scale-up and operating segments of the start-up support menu - we aim to bring together the right stakeholders to fill that gap.”

Where Others See an Economic Drain, Changelabs Sees Hope

There’s an important factor that sits at the heart of the programme and at the heart of Changelabs’ intentions. This is not a programme motivated by a sense of  philanthropy or altruism. In fact, it looks to harness what Samra believes is one of the region’s richest resources: people.

“Where others see refugees and migrants draining the economy, we choose to see tremendous human capital and a growing target consumer,” he explains, driving home the multifaceted goal of the programme."

Subsequently, the targets of the programme are impact-centred scale-ups developing products and/or services that serve migrant workers, refugees and the local communities, as well as scale-ups founded by migrants or that contribute to the gig economy, which can offer migrant workers flexible temp jobs.

In the landscape of the very many accelerators and incubators that exist region-wide, this stands as one of the most ambitious and arguably riskiest - this is unchartered territory, a space that has rarely been explored in this way, but territory that needs to be traversed all the same.

“Changelabs decided to step into this untapped area to make a difference via empowerment and creating opportunities for growth and employment - this is at the core of our mission,” Changelabs’ Head of Programs and Lebanon Lead, Hasan Youness, asserts. “We seek to establish synergetic impact through close partnerships with the key stakeholders and major players in this ecosystem.”

This sense of synergy circles back to a growing sentiment around the region...

Only Local Innovation Can Solve Local Problems

The same has often been said of a booming African ecosystem, for example - that all the innovation happening in a place like Silicon Valley, or anywhere else for that matter, cannot simply be imported into an emerging market and be expected to work. In short, there is no plug-and-play solution.

The solution, Changelabs argues, sits adjacent to the problem. The sufferers are the solvers - all they need is the opportunity. The programme affords all of its participants funding, tech and product build-out support and a day-to-day operating partner that will help each one scale, providing hands-on support.

Changelabs is under no illusions - they know that this is one step of a much longer, more arduous journey. With all the players and collaborators involved, however, this is the chance to trigger something that will not only serve migrants and refugees, but serve Lebanon as a country and an ecosystem that holds unbound potential.