Turning Benghazi into a Startup Incubator

Turning Benghazi into a Startup Incubator

Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, was the cradle of the revolution and the home of the leading opposition organization, the National Transitional Council, during the liberation war that ousted Qaddafi’s regime. More recently, though, the city has earned a reputation as a playground of extremist groups, plagued by bombings and assassinations.

Yet violence has failed to deter the people of Benghazi from their efforts to move the city forward. Now a group of local entrepreneurs is launching an event called the Benghazi StartUp Cup. Over the next few months 25 selected candidates will compete for three opportunities to set up a business idea they are passionate about. The candidates will be mentored by the event’s sponsors, who will also teach them a variety of essential skills required to succeed in the business world.

StartUp Cup is a global network of local business competitions designed to encourage creativity and innovation in business. It plays a big role in Global Entrepreneurship Week, which will be celebrated in November 2013.

The Benghazi StartUp Cup is owned by the organization Think Creative, which was founded by young Libyans who believe creative thinking is what will move Libya ahead and ensure its successful transition to democracy. "Our aim is to have a positive impact on the local economy by helping people start their own businesses instead of waiting for the government," said Nader Mehdawi, co-founder of Think Creative.

Such initiatives are particularly important to the city of Benghazi as it struggles with a string of assassinations and car bombs targeting security and army personnel as well as activists. The sense of local ownership over issues that affect the lives of ordinary citizens is encouraging, given that the central authorities are struggling to establish their authority over many parts of the country.

People in Benghazi seem to be determined to have a positive impact on their city and the country as a whole. The city suffered a great deal under the Qaddafi regime through systematic neglect and corruption, which ultimately deprived the city of any form of efficient public services or infrastructure. Yet despite all the violence and turmoil, people are not willing to give up on the valuable opportunity that the revolution gave them. "We’ve gotten a lot of support from the community," said Mehdawi. "Everyone welcomes the idea."

Libya is planning to strengthen the private sector by opening the doors for investment in sectors that are controlled by the state, including the telecommunication and banking sectors. Small businesses are crucial to economic prosperity, and initiatives to support start-ups should be rolled out across the country. Libyans are known to be naturally entrepreneurial, but there’s still plenty of need for support in certain areas. "People in Libya have a lot of smart ideas for business, but they lack money, technical support, and market experience," said Ahmed Makhzoom from Think Creative. "Our mission is to help in those areas."

There’s no question that the security situation as well as continuing political uncertainty are undermining Benghazi’s (and Libya’s) economic ambitions. "We understand the implications of the security situation, but life doesn’t stop, and those things don’t mean that we should stop building our country," said Mehdawi. The government as well as Libya’s friends in the West ought to capitalize on this spirit by working to help move the country forward and break the cycle of violence. This would certainly seem preferable to giving up on places like Benghazi, in essence simply handing them over to extremists.

Perhaps most importantly, the Libyan government needs to start developing realistic plans for removing the state from most areas of economic activity (with the exception of the oil sector). This requires the development of other initiatives to support the private sector and the preparation of other plans to promote greater economic diversification while creating robust social safety nets.

Libya needs an integrated approach to its post-revolution problems. It is clear that economic development and the security situation are hugely interdependent. The country has to push ahead with feasible economic policies even as it pursues plans to establish security. Young people need realistic alternatives to being a member of a militia or a criminal gang. And Libyans as a whole need a safe environment that will allow them to develop their own potential.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.