Mapping the Data Economy Landscape in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

BZU Big Data Reasearch

Executive Summary

Data sharing economy is at the center of the fourth industrial revolution and the MENA region is no exception. Data economy generates social or economic value from the data (and big data) value chain like data acquisition, processing, analysis, management and sharing. Artificial intelligence (including machine learning and deep learning) and other emerging technologies are helping enterprises and the public sector improve operational efficiencies and customer service offering in addition to automating repetitive processes. Young entrepreneurs and startups are leading the disruptive economy where data is an asset and a supportive ecosystem is available.

Arab MENA countries are embracing the fourth industrial revolution at various levels and extents with some countries in leading positions and others lagging behind.

This study explores the data economy landscape, looking at key players and enablers (entrepreneurs, startups, incubators, accelerators, investors and other programs, initiatives and events) in 12 relatively stable countries. The main objective is to inform stakeholders and plan interventions.

While the region has produced a few successful and bright examples, and despite efforts from various stakeholders and players in the data startup scene, most of the countries in the region are not ready as active actors in the data economy. Local or regional datasets (especially open data) are missing, research and development in data analytics is scarce and weak, market is fragmented with repetition of ideas, hard regulations, lack of supportive policies, and inadequate infrastructure. The educational systems are not data enabled or entrepreneurship friendly and there is lack of talent in most countries due to lack of capacity building programs with regional context (both technical and entrepreneurship skills). The region also has a specific cultural legacy preferring secure work in the public sector with lack of trust, integrity and freedom of thought. Startups and entrepreneurs find themselves struggling against traditional enterprises and international companies with better access, and more influence, in the business and regulatory frameworks. Furthermore, data ethics and inclusion are not introduced or discussed in most countries.

The stakeholders in the data economy are decision and policy makers, academic and training institutions, entrepreneurs and startups, investors and funding providers, local and international organizations, and the media. They should all work together to realize the benefits of the data economy as actors rather than passive consumers. In addition to regional collaboration to provide a healthy and competitive ecosystem, localized training programs need to be designed and implemented for various stakeholders including technical, business and ethical aspects. Success and failure stories should be disseminated to learn from best practices and avoid repeating mistakes. The region has a great potential and synergies (high penetration of smart devices, internet connectivity and social media use among youth who form a large percentage and share common culture) but challenges are so serious and the speed of sweeping changes of the fourth industrial revolutions require an immediate action at all levels and by all players including civil society. There are various resources to tap into and learn from best practices if learning is cast within local context.

The region can lead by focusing on solving local or regional problems in several sectors including digital content creation, data collection and analytics (including social media and IoT), data visualization, data journalism, data security and integrity (including blockchain), capacity building, green energy, fintech, digital health, transportation and logistics with social good in mind. Islamic or Shari’a compliant products and services like fashion, fintech and tourism is a promising area of entrepreneurship activity (there are markets for such activities outside MENA).