The Unique Opportunity for Syrian Entrepreneurs: A Conversation with the Syrian Economic Forum
As the Syrian conflict is nearing its sixth year, causing enormous loss of life and displacement, the humanitarian needs have been acute and urgent. With the country in disarray, including its previously vibrant urban business centers of Damascus and Aleppo, it may seem out of place to talk about entrepreneurship now. However, starting and growing businesses continues to be a part of Syrian life, as it has been for centuries, both at home and in the diaspora, as well as a critical part of the hopes and ambitions of Syrians in rebuilding their country in the future.
This week, as the Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) is celebrated around the world, promoting the concept of entrepreneurship and its role in advancing economies and societies around the world, we have spoken with the Syrian Economic Forum about the importance of entrepreneurship for Syria.
Founded in 2011 in Syria, followed by a head office in Gaziantep, Turkey in 2013, Syrian Economic Forum (SEF) describes itself as “an innovative think & do tank dedicated to building a free, pluralistic, and independent Syria that rests on a strong economy” and supports and advocates for the Syrian business community. Building Markets will soon be partnering with SEF on a study of Syrian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Turkey as we get ready to launch our Syria program.
SEF is representing Syria at the Global Entrepreneurship Week, for a second year, with a conference entitled Promoting Business Formality for Syrian Entrepreneurs in Gaziantep on Friday, November 18, in Gaziantep. The main focus of the conference, which will be attended by Syrian entrepreneurs as well as local and international stakeholders, is the ability of Syrian business owners in Turkey to secure the required authorizations to ensure the sustainability and expansion of their investments.
Here is my recent conversation with Rami Sharrack, Deputy Executive Director of the Syrian Economic Forum, about the potential of entrepreneurship for Syrians, their host communities, and the future of Syria.
Can you give us a sense of the entrepreneurial spirit of Syrians and the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Syria, before and since the war?
Syrians, since ancient times, have had a culture of entrepreneurship. 90% of all commercial activity in Syria before the war was undertaken by individuals and family businesses. Even without calling themselves “entrepreneurs,” Syrian business people, as a tradition, give their children a small capital to start their own businesses when they are old enough to do so. However, beyond this, there isn’t much of an “ecosystem” or support network to speak of, such as government incentives, educational opportunities, or civil society initiatives. Now, with the war, the situation has only gotten more difficult. There is a war economy in Syria today. Entrepreneurs are able to respond to the crisis through small, local businesses, but, for the moment, most entrepreneurial opportunities are abroad. For instance, Turkey, where nearly 3 million Syrian refugees live, has a well-developed entrepreneurship ecosystem, government incentives, and other support programs, and it is fairly easy to establish and fund your business. We, as Syrian entrepreneurs, should take advantage of this opportunity.
What are your observations about the environment for Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey?
Based on our research and preliminary assessments, it is clear that the Turkish context presents the greatest opportunity for Syrian refugee entrepreneurs in terms of employment generation, enterprise development, and economic growth. However, while the entrepreneurial environment in Turkey is strong, there are unique hurdles for Syrians, such as the language barrier and integration challenges; access to banking services; and difficulties in marketing our products and services.
While there are lot of businesses established by Syrians in Turkey, only about 10-30% are registered properly. After a recent market assessment we conducted in Gaziantep, we found that there were over 1,500 Syrian points of sales in the city. However, the majority of these Syrian-owned businesses are informal and lack the finance and procedural knowledge to formalize. A lack of a formal status leaves these businesses in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis the broader Turkish community and legal system.
What does SEF seek to accomplish? How do you support Syrian entrepreneurs?
SEF works to promote democratically-driven, sustainable development interventions based on objective research and data. Operating both inside Syria and in Syrian diaspora communities, we serve as an authentic, authoritative source of information and economic analysis. Through policy recommendations, advocacy, and economic and social development programs, we advance evidence-based solutions for Syria’s current unrest and eventual reconstruction.
To ensure the sustainability and growth of the businesses established by Syrians, SEF is visiting them in the field, collecting data on them, and encouraging and helping them to get registered. We would like to serve as a hub for Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey, especially in Gaziantep, sharing information, offering them mentorship, and connecting them to other available resources.
In addition, we are aiming to build a new generation of entrepreneurs with the right training and awareness of entrepreneurship concepts. We have already trained 2,500 youth entrepreneurs. We will soon be launching an online education platform, offering our presentations and videos to all aspiring entrepreneurs.
Is there a success story you can share with us about a Syrian business in Turkey?
There are many success stories to share! For example, a Syrian entrepreneur, who rented land from the local authorities in Kilis to grow “mulukhiyah,” a popular ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine, has managed to employ 30 refugees after only 6 months and is now exporting to a number of Gulf countries. He has succeeded in creating a business with a new product for the Turkish market, adding value to the local economy, generating jobs, and bringing in foreign currency to the Turkish economy as a growing export business.
Similarly, in Sanliurfa, another Syrian entrepreneur is following the same model of exporting to the Gulf region from Turkey with a successful dairy business. Here, in Gaziantep, a Syrian businessman, who used to own the largest carpet factory back in Syria, started out again with one machine after fleeing the war; in one year, he became one of the 100 best exporters in Turkey.
What will be the role of entrepreneurs and small businesses in rebuilding Syria?
When the war ends, small businesses will be at the center of the Syrian economy’s recovery. As multinational companies look to enter the Syrian market, they will be relying on local businesses for products and services. Until then, it is the right time to invest in Syrian entrepreneurs and to support, train, and mentor them. Transferring this entrepreneurial knowledge from the diaspora to Syria will be crucial to rebuilding the country.
How can the international community best support Syrian entrepreneurs?
We are trying to put the spotlight on the Syrian business community and the importance of entrepreneurship for Syria with our upcoming GEW event in Gaziantep. We need a lot of support to help us in our mission of building a new generation of entrepreneurs and raising awareness of these novel concepts within the Syrian community. Syrian entrepreneurs can actually benefit from this time of crisis and displacement if we can train them and develop their skills in new areas such as technology.
We would like the international community to look at Syrian entrepreneurs as an opportunity, not always as a burden for the host communities. For example, the unemployment rate has been decreasing in some of the communities with a high number of Syrian refugees, such as Gaziantep. As Syrians start and grow businesses, they can contribute to developing their local economies and creating jobs for everyone.
Let us remember: Syrian entrepreneurs will continue to be ambassadors for their host countries long after the war ends. In the meantime, they need our support.
At Building Markets, we hope our Syria program supporting local entrepreneurs, in partnership with local experts such as the Syrian Economic Forum, will address some of the gaps mentioned by Rami, and unlock the potential of Syrian SMEs in this unique context. As a first step, SEF will be working with us to survey 200 firms in Gaziantep and Istanbul to understand the opportunities and challenges posed by the economic and social environment in Turkey. This information will be used to inform programming that will enhance the visibility, capacity, and connections of Syrian businesses – helping them grow and create much needed economic dividends, including jobs for both refugee and host communities.
Stay tuned for the results of our study as well as the development of our Syria program in Turkey. Please join our Syria newsletter here, follow us on Twitter @BuildingMrkets, and support our work by donating here.