Dr Tarik Yousef, CEO, Silatech
23 Feb 09:17 AMSector : Economy & Int'l Relations Country : Qatar
Empowering Arab Youth, Women and Entrepreneurs
The year 2013 was a very eventful one for Silatech. What were the highlights?
For Silatech it was a year of consolidation, and by that I mean that 2012 was a year in which we laid down a lot of foundations in many areas of work, including areas where we did not think initially we were going to be making important investments in time and resources. We noted that access to financing for young people who want to become self-employed faces many bottlenecks, so in 2013 our programs focused more on providing or incentivizing the provision of financing for young people to start and grow businesses.
Another area that is very promising is the use of technology to reach young people, to work with institutions, and to connect markets. Technology for us is no longer simply an enabler, a facilitator, and in 2013 we designed and implemented a number of programs in which technology is in fact a core element.
A third area involved spending time trying to find the right balance between how much work we do internally, how much we do with partners, how much we do with governments in the policy sphere—how do you design policies that help young people, and how do you work with policy makers? The bad policies that we have in the region are becoming even more of a binding constraint, and the connectivity between policy makers and researchers and NGOs and the development community has become weaker and more fractured, so we were essentially trying to overcome a lot of new hurdles in wanting to have an impact on policy.
So a real period of transition?
If I were to sum up where we are as an organization today as opposed to two years ago, I would say we have now become undoubtedly an organization which is known for thinking innovatively, programming creatively and as a result able to do far more than its numbers or resources would suggest. The fact that we have regional ideas and we design programs in a very creative way is bringing partners from all over the world to work with us, and I think that is at the core of what the organization has become now. So you can think of 2012 as a year where we were maturing as an organization institutionally, to then emerging in 2013 as the ideas organization in this important space of empowering young people in the Arab world.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is demographically a young region, with around half of people under 30. But demographics will no doubt change. What impact will this have?
Demographically, the region now contains its largest proportion of youth to the overall population. Over time, as birth rates slow and this group grows older, this “youth bulge,” as we refer to it, will age and Arab countries will have older populations. What does this mean? Well, young, productively employed populations build societies and economies, while growth slows when a population becomes older, exits the workforce and is dependent on others for support. The “Asian tigers” managed to ride a demographic wave to achieve rapid growth and development, and large, youthful populations can be a major asset for our region IF we are able to get youth effectively engaged in productive work. In around a generation or so, the Arab world’s demographic window will be effectively closed, so we cannot miss the opportunity we now have.
What about support for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs)?
Throughout our region there are people with great ideas who cannot get financing to make them real. We work with businesses, financial institutions, policy makers and others to try and open up access to finance, markets and knowledge throughout a continuum, ranging from micro- up through small- and medium-sized enterprises.
In early 2013, Silatech teamed up with Saudi-based Glowork – a sustainable social enterprise that seeks to bolster women in the workforce through a web portal specifically for female recruitment in the GCC – to introduce the Tamheed program, which is a series of psychometric assessment tests designed to help users make objective and informed decisions on their future careers. Can you tell us more about your support for women entrepreneurs?
Although almost all of our programs are “gender-neutral”—meaning they are not tailored specifically for either men or women, we think that the use of technology and the emphasis on access to finance is going to be disproportionately beneficial to women. For instance, there are certain social norms in some places that constrain the ability of women to interact with males in public spaces. There are also a lot of restrictions on the ability of women to access financial products – loans, savings – and some of these restrictions are embedded in social norms that are difficult to overcome. So rather than think of changing the norms, which is a long-term process and might build resistance, we can also think of ways of accommodating these norms while addressing women’s needs to help them to be more economically productive.
Can you tell us about mobile learning services?
Recently we launched a mobile learning service in Tunisia, the Najja7ni platform. The service provides youth with career guidance, financial literacy, English language training, career search strategies, links to local training opportunities and tips on how to start a business. This free service requires only a phone with SMS, not necessarily a smartphone. When we launched the service together with Ooredoo affiliate Tunisiana and Edupartage, we expected maybe 50,000 young Tunisians to sign up in the first month. Instead, we got over 365,000. Obviously there is a demand for mobile learning, and we are working with partners to expand our offerings in that regard throughout the region.
Do you feel that Silatech has succeeded so far in meeting expectations and targets?
I believe that we have exceeded expectations relative to the age of the company, the initiative, the size of it and the resources we have deployed over the last couple of years. But we have not achieved the results relative to the magnitude of the challenges out there. That is the real benchmark.
I go to bed every night thinking about it. How can I get Silatech to work with other organizations to achieve triple the results? A couple of hundred thousand here and there is very little compared to the relative challenges that 100 million young people face. So for us to move forward, clearly we need to maximize what we achieve with our resources, work with partners to scale up the impact, and encourage other organizations to replicate our successes and learn from our failures.