A THREE-YEAR ODYSSEY

Kuwait 2019 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

Rather than change the rules of the market, the National Fund for SME Development is teaching smaller entrants how best to play them.

Ebrahim M. Alkandari
BIOGRAPHY
Previously a managing partner at Dotslink Consultants, a leading consulting in Kuwait that specializes in strategic marketing and planning, product development, and e-business, Ebrahim M. Alkandari spent much of his earlier career establishing, launching, and managing different marketing and sales strategies across a wide range of industries. He worked at M. H. Al-Shaya Co. as a retail buyer and at the Housing Finance Co. and Global Investment House as a marketing manager. At ourgulf.com, he developed the first e-shopping concept in the Middle East and helped launch Kuwait Telecommunication Co.’s operator in Kuwait. In addition to being a poet and writer, he is also a human rights activist focusing on inclusion for the disabled.

How is the National Fund creating an inclusive ecosystem for SMEs and diversifying Kuwait's economy?

It takes time to build an ecosystem, which is why we are taking this process seriously and cautiously and paying close attention to every step we take. Initially, the National Fund was created to loan funds to entrepreneurs. We eventually decided to restructure the entire fund to have more flexibility. Today, our activities are more diversified, with several departments in charge of building the ecosystem, We have a sector headed by an assistant general manager with the objective of building ties with property owners in order to provide SMEs with better prices. We also have a division that takes care of education, incubation, and project acceleration. We also work closely with local and global training organizations that help entrepreneurs get the necessary knowledge to start and grow a company. We currently have five incubators owned and managed by the private sector that help us provide specialized training to entrepreneurs. The role of universities is also worth highlighting, since we are about to establish special curricula for entrepreneurs where we introduce scientific incubators. The Kuwaiti market is definitely growing in terms of SMEs; however, it is still challenging for organizations to identify real needs and provide adequate solutions. VCs are progressively showing up in light of highly successful SME ventures that encouraged a number of investors to partner with technical people. The market is growing, but needs our input in order for SMEs to be a significant actor in Kuwait's economy. We do not want to change the rules of the market, but need to incorporate SMEs within the rules.

How eager are Kuwaitis to create their own business?

It is challenging, as government jobs are extremely appealing for Kuwaitis. Public sector employment provides higher wages and shorter hours, while the SME market involves a higher degree of risk and uncertainty, making it challenging to attract good people. Nevertheless, Kuwaitis traditionally have a highly entrepreneurial mindset. However, many do not realize how complex and challenging this journey is. Through the law and our operations, we seek to ease that transition. We have a program for government employees who want to try their luck starting a business. If they apply with a viable idea, they can get a three-year paid leave to start their business with us or come back to their initial job if the adventure does not succeed. We encourage them to get out of their comfort zone. Our current portfolio has about 25% government employees, meaning this initiative is taking root—the number of applications has doubled in the past year alone.

What steps need to be taken to help a company emerge from the seed stage?

We are trying to provide guidance and different routes for businesses to flourish. The advice and services we provide depend on the type of business and knowledge people have about business creation. The first option is to directly apply through our website by completing a form that eventually provides the applicant with a business plan. The second solution we provide is through Kuwait University and Sabah Al-Ahmad Creative Center, which help students working on science projects patent their ideas. These ideas are then referred back to us, where we help them develop the commercialization of the patented idea by funding it. We also collaborate with incubation centers that help businesses grow until they can be released into the market by helping finance them.