THE ALLY

Kuwait 2016 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Dr. Mohammad M. Al-Zuhair, Executive Chairman of the Kuwait National Fund for Small and Medium Enterprise Development, on helping startups succeed and expand their reach beyond Kuwait.

HE Dr. Mohammad M. Al-Zuhair
BIOGRAPHY
Dr. Al-Zuhair is currently the Executive Chairman—Head of the Kuwait National Fund for Small and Medium Enterprise Development. During his tenure in Washington, DC, he worked with George Washington University, held positions as the Vice President for Private Equity at a DC-based boutique investment firm; and served as the Executive Director for Arab Countries at the World Bank. He holds both a PhD in Finance & International Business and an MBA in Finance and Investments from George Washington University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Petroleum Engineering from the University of Tulsa.

What are the main barriers for SMEs in Kuwait?

We are collecting data about SMEs and will eventually establish an information center that will serve as the central point for all information related to SMEs. In the meantime, we undertook a survey as part of formulating our strategy and five-year plan where we worked with the World Bank, independent international experts, government institutions, and more than 70 entrepreneurs and stakeholders from Kuwait. Most participants highlighted that acquiring commercial licenses is the number-one obstacle, as well as acquiring the relevant permission to operate their businesses here. Therefore, we are reviewing all the legislation, regulations, and policies that govern the market to see which of them need to be revised. One of the positive outcomes was the reduction of the minimum capital requirements in April 2015. According to our survey, the second obstacle for SMEs is labor, while access to financing came in at number three.

What services does the National Fund provide to entrepreneurs in Kuwait?

Based on gaps we see in the market, we divide our services between financial and non-financial support. The financial support comes in the form of either debt or equity, ranging from seed capital to later-stage growth financing. Ideally we should not provide venture capital, but the private sector is not doing this, so we must address this gap. Debt support comes either directly from us or in collaboration with local banks. These conditions are different, however, because banks are traditionally hesitant to finance a company in its initial years of operation. Banks want financial evidence proving that a company has low risk. Seed capital comes in smaller amounts, so it is an easier form of finance. In terms of non-financial help, this ranges from someone coming to us without an idea to take general or specific training about how to develop an idea, to a more-advanced idea in a specific sector or industry that needs support to develop, test, pilot, and launch. Entrepreneurs have to look at the immediate GCC as their primary market, and then beyond that—regionally and globally—for their wider market. And with this comes the importance of greater competitiveness.

How does the National Fund collaborate with regional and international organizations?

We have already signed agreements with various countries that are well known for implementing successful policies and programs to develop SMEs. Our regional partner is the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development (KFED) in Abu Dhabi, which is leading efforts towards a possible federal law for the UAE, adopted from Kuwait's National Fund law in terms of the requirements and structure. We are also working with KFED at the institutional level. We are similar to the Emiratis in our culture and demographics, and we face many common issues in economic development. We have done the same at the global level with the Small and Medium Business Administration (SMBA) from South Korea. Part of that involves exchanging data, information, and learning at the institutional level as well as by individual entrepreneurs. This relationship is also about opening doors for businesses. The SMBA can help our businesses access South Korean markets, and vice-versa. At the invitation of the United Kingdom government, I gave a keynote speech in 4Q2015 at the Commonwealth Business Forum in Malta on entrepreneurship development, SME growth, common challenges, and the Kuwait experience. This forum included 73 countries. Regionally and internationally, other countries are recognizing what we are doing in Kuwait. They recognize that it is a tough job, but it has to be done, and they commend Kuwait for doing it.