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UNICEF Hits the Ground in MENA to Seek Out Entrepreneurs Developing Open-Source Solutions

29 May, 2017
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Start-up scenes across the Middle East have continued to grow and inspire, and it doesn’t seem like they will be hitting the pause button anytime soon. That’s why a team from the UNICEF Innovation Fund recently took a tour of the region to seek out promising talent and ideas for their latest funding initiative.

The UNICEF Innovation Fund is investing $100,000 in start-ups looking to develop open-source solutions that will improve children’s lives. The fund is looking across the world for burgeoning technologies that hope to tackle problems with solutions.  

Christopher Fabian, the co-founder of UNICEF Innovation and head of UNICEF Ventures, visited the American University in Cairo on May 23 for an enthralling round table discussion that brought together some of Egypt’s top entrepreneurs, including representatives from several start-ups that focus on parenting and children, members of the AUC staff, as well as key components of the start-up field, such as Cairo Angels and Flat6Labs. 

“If you look around the world now, everything is dark,” Fabian said at the start of the discussion, explaining that new technologies are replacing people’s jobs with computers. His team wants to shed light on this by investing in people that want to build business models that create a promising change for everyone. “We’re trying to change the way UNICEF is solving problems.”

So far the UNICEF Innovation Fund has invested in a portfolio of start-ups in five countries, including Nicaragua, South Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The goal is to invest in 20-40 additional start-ups in 2017.

The Middle East comes with its own set of problems and its own set of solutions. In an exclusive interview with BECAUSE, Fabian explained that it is important for entrepreneurs in the region to think outside of the box. Egypt is a country of problem solvers, and UNICEF wants to tap into that market, but it’s not looking for carbon copies of old ideas.  

“If you are a country of problem solvers, which I think Egypt absolutely is, how can you take that motion of collaboration and use it as an advantage?” asked Fabian, who is also an alumni of AUC. 

“Like every country Egypt is a strange country, and every country has its own flavor and way of doing things and I think aspiring to be a copy of somebody else is a danger,” said Fabian, who warned against aspiring to reproduce ideas without looking for a unique twist. “I have seen a lot of things in the past two days, [including] companies that are just copies of something but with that local flavor. I think there is a mitigation to that risk. The worry is that you aspire to have a bunch of Mark Zuckerbergs, but that doesn’t really take into account the creative capacity of the system.”

Part of the challenge is also getting start-ups to understand the value of open-source technologies and not shy away from investing in such avenues for fear of not making a profit. 

“It is a misconception promoted by a set of media and things that we think we know about how companies work,” said Fabian. “There are stories that we tell about how companies become successful and then I think there are a set of business models that are emerging about how you can make a company be open-source and still make money. What we fail to do is link those two things together.”

To combat this, Fabian and his team are developing a six-week online course that delves into how an open-source business model can indeed make a profit. “If you can tell the story of profitability and openness then you don’t need to be defensive about it and we are still kind of playing defense.”

“UNICEF’s offices here work with the government to solve problems for the most vulnerable children in the country, which is what we do in all 135 countries that we work in,” Fabian told BECAUSE. “Our team specifically is looking at taking some new approaches to problem solving and particularly using emerging technology to bridge the gap between what we see as the biggest needs and the capacity of the private sector to solve problems in a creative way.” 

Fabian’s approach to expanding upon ways UNICEF works on solving problems is to dig deeper and combine old methods with new ones and forge new partnerships that leave a lasting impression. 

“UNICEF has traditionally partnered with big corporations, so we are known for having these big corporate partnerships, but our team looks for small start-ups and we think that they can provide provocations to the bigger corporate audiences about what is coming in the tech space,” said Fabian. “For example, the work that we are doing with data science can provoke Google or Facebook to change the way that they are developing. I think it’s about trying to bend the curve of some of the big multi-billion dollar companies by showing real active prototypes that they can be interested in and have an affinity towards.”

To learn more about the UNICEF Innovation Fund and the opportunities they offer visit their websiteIf you are looking to apply for an investment from the fund, click the “submit” page.

Tags UNICEF open-source Christopher Fabian children start-up Middle East Egypt