How to Build a Business from a War Zone

Catherine Collins
Aug 4, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

The Global Entrepreneurship Congress, held in Bahrain this year, is a conference that by its very nature attracts accomplished participants. The Congress recognises the work of global organisations that support entrepreneurs and that contribute to the development of societies that can successfully foster and nurture entrepreneurship, underneath the name of the Global Entrepreneurship Network.

The guest list includes established entrepreneurs, successful business angels, and all-round ecosystem builders who work behind the scenes to make sure innovative companies get the best start in life.

Naturally, it attracts energetic, inspiring individuals to its doors. The big names at this year’s event included Jonas Kjellberg, the co-founder of Skype, and the former president of Estonia.

But the most inspirational person that I met at this Congress — a conference that counts venture capitalists, impact investors, government ministers and business angels amongst its participants — was a young woman from Yemen called Sumaya AbdulSattar that I sat next to on the bus one day.

“Where are you from?” I asked her as we shuttled from the hotel to the conference centre. “Yemen,” she replied and I did a double take.

Yemen, a country still in the grip of a civil war. Yemen, where 11,000 people have already lost their lives (according to the BBC) and which has been referred to as one of the worst man-made humanitarian crises ever. Yemen, which was virtually inaccessible, and where aid organisations were struggling to keep up with the demand for food, water, resources.

“Sorry?” I said, thinking I must have misheard her. “Did you say Yemen?”

“Yes,” she said, and she went on to tell me about her world, one so far removed from my own it might as well have been on another planet.

She told me how to get to the congress in Bahrain, she had to travel by bus to to Aden, a notoriously dangerous trip 18 hours from the capital Sana’a, which had a lot of check points that do not allow passengers to move easily between the internal cities of Yemen. Aden was the only place that she could get a flight to Cairo, turning what should have been a short flight into a two-day expedition. She described how, for a year, her friends and family had remained indoors, afraid to move outside for fear of bombs and landmines, and snipers who targeted civilians. She spoke about the entrepreneurs that her organisation helps, and how many of them are young people, war widows and widowers, their husbands or wives killed on the streets, people who need to start their own businesses to support their families.

In spite of the chaos all around them, Sumaya’s organisation started to dedicate their time to training the entrepreneurial talent that Yemen has to offer.

“The traditional jobs no longer exist in Yemen,” she told me. “Once the war started, a lot of businesses died. We try to empower our entrepreneurs to take a chance on themselves, on building a new enterprise, relying on the internet to find customers for their products and services.”

Global Entrepreneurship Week in Yemen

What kinds of businesses do they set up in Yemen, I wondered. “All sorts,” she told me. “Of course, we have the people who have access to computers, they’re developing apps and online businesses. We’ve a lot of technical talent in Yemen. Then we have the handicrafts trade, people making items for the house, clothing, in some cases food. Many entrepreneurs act to solve an existing problem. Once the war started, we lost power in many towns in Yemen. Some entrepreneurs started to work with solar energy as a potential solution, so we have solar energy enterprises now.”

In Yemen, the ROWAD foundation provides training and support to these entrepreneurs, some of whom have never received formal business education. That support includes classes on business models, writing business plans, basic budgeting and finance skills, and more.

There are yearly competitions and pitching events where Yemeni entrepreneurs have the chance to secure investment, and as a result of their very first contest, six start-ups were formed. The foundation has also established an incubator, complete with mentorship and training programmes run by ROWAD, which are open to all start-ups.

Most of the entrepreneurs working with ROWAD have stories. Some are war widows, others are students that never had the chance to finish their studies. Still others are grandparents left to look after their grandchildren as their children have died. Ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down by the fighting.

Since the Yemen crisis started in 2015, more than 7,000 people have died and 11,000 injured in what some have called the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world. Landmines explode throughout the cities, snipers shoot at innocent people and food and water supplies in a country that is already water-stressed have been badly affected. Cholera and starvation are rampant in the country. When the war first broke out, Saudi officials predicted it would last just a couple of weeks. Years later, it remains unresolved.

About 80% of the population — 24 million — struggle to access food. The famine is not due to lack of food, but rising prices and poor distribution, a lack of adequate infrastructure across a fractured landscape. Finding decent jobs in Yemen is nigh-on impossible, yet food prices are doubling. People need to turn to entrepreneurship as a way out, a means of supporting themselves.

When I ask about the international aid organisations in Yemen, however, she says that they do provide some assistance, but much more is needed.

“The international NGOs, they focus mainly on relief, on immediate aid,” she says. “And we need that, of course we do. But it’s like the old saying: give a person a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them how to fish, and they’ll eat for the rest of their lives. The aid organisations are providing fish, but we need to teach our people how to fish. Or in this case, how to set up their own businesses so that they can feed and support themselves.”

As bombs explode and gunfire patters across the sky, perhaps initiatives like ROWAD’s are the beacon of light that Yemen needs to escape the darkness. The foundation shows that even in the harsh depths of war, the spirit of the true entrepreneur cannot be quashed. Innovative, enterprising problem-solvers will continue to have ideas, and with support from the right organisation, those ideas can become reality. In the hopefully not-too-distant future, as society begins to rebuild itself and peace appears on the horizon, Yemen may mark itself on the map as a global entrepreneurial hub. Until then, its entrepreneurs continue their efforts, against a backdrop of bullets.

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Catherine Collins

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Writing, science, marine biology, ecology, entrepreneurship.

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