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Fostering climate innovation and activism through youth entrepreneurship in the MENA

Facing complex political and economic instabilities, young people in the MENA region struggle to devote attention to climate resilience or adaptation. Toka Mahmoud and Mostafa Saleh, water engineers and entrepreneurs from Egypt, argue that the EU could increase climate resilience by fostering entrepreneurship and supporting small and micro enterprises.

Blog Post

Published on 9 November 2022

Author(s): Toka Mahmoud , Mostafa Saleh

Toka Mahmoud and Mostafa Saleh are water engineers and entrepreneurs from Egypt. Contact Toka and Mostafa

This piece is one of the three winning entries in our Youth Ideas for Europe-MENA Cooperation on Climate Resilience competition

Although we often read about the worsening impacts of climate change in the MENA in the international media, there is little domestic coverage of how these affect citizens of the region, nor how they can engage to help mitigate or adapt to the risks. An Ipsos poll from 2020 found that only 41% of MENA respondents and 26% of Egyptian respondents understood climate change to be mostly caused by human activity. This feeds into a widespread feeling of a lack of agency in addressing climate-related risks. As young people living in Egypt, we rarely heard people outside the research community linking events such as heatwaves and flooding to climate change.

An increasingly deadly situation

Heatwaves across the MENA are becoming more severe, disrupting businesses with higher costs and cancelling workdays. Sand and dust storms are becoming more frequent and the health impacts more acute. In Iraq, 5,000 people were hospitalized and one died as the country suffered nine sand storms between April and May 2022.

Flash floods are also occurring with increasing intensity and without the proper infrastructure to mitigate the impacts, roads are blocked, electricity, internet and telephone lines are cut, and homes are seriously damaged. Egyptian winters used to be mild with light rainfall, but people have now grown accustomed to blocked roads and traffic jams due to flooding. Friends of ours once struggled for four hours to reach their son who had been trapped with his friends in a school bus that was stranded by heavy rains. Overflowing sewers and toilet pose a serious health risk and the authorities usually cut off household water to ease pressure on the sewage networks.

Injuries and death tolls from storms and heavy rains are on the rise in Egypt. As ecosystems degrade and change, they introduce novel dangers. In Aswan governorate, three people were killed and over five hundred stung by scorpions after floods in 2021. In neighbouring Sudan, disease and snakebites follow heavy flooding.

Security and economic issues dominate

Despite these dramatic impacts, people have little headspace to be concerned with or proactive in adapting to climate-related risks. The region faces a plethora of problems, such as the brutal war in Yemen, internal conflict in Iraq, and economic crisis in Lebanon, dominating peoples’ perception of what is important. As such, climate and environmental action is seldom high on the agenda of MENA governments.

Life in the MENA is economically demanding for most, especially for youth (15 – 29 year-olds) who make up about 30% of its population. In low to middle-income MENA countries, young people find themselves in a crazy race to fulfill basic needs. Money is required to get married, start a business or pursue higher education; at the same time, unemployment rates are high, and most salaries are barely sufficient for bills and food. We know people who have spent six years saving up just to get married. While there are more scholarships in environmental engineering and climate change , many young people will not qualify for these, having had to give up education and work to support their family. Many young people in the region sadly end up abandoning their dreams. Knowledge about climate change remains limited to research communities while other communities either feel distant from, or unwilling to participate in, climate and environmental action.

Consequently, people do not fully recognize the severity of climate change, while their governments are not sufficiently supportive of action to mitigate and adapt to it. To quote several of our friends:

“What impacts of climate change are you talking about? Isn’t that something we need to worry about in 50 years?!”

Harnessing youth entrepreneurship to drive change

Our idea is to use the immense youth capacity in the region to promote climate action. Young people can promote ideas and drive change; supporting youth entrepreneurship could simultaneously create jobs and increase climate resilience. A well-resourced programme could support youth start-ups that address climate vulnerability and environmental sustainability, as well as start-ups that promote climate awareness and action in their products.

Having created our own business, we fully recognize the potential of start-ups in promoting ideas among local communities and young people. We established a t-shirt printing company seven years ago. Our designs drew on our national culture and used the Arabic language, quoting prominent Arabic people, in a modern, appealing way. Most t-shirts at the time carried western slogans which did not resonate with young people, so this received a great response. This approach could easily be adapted to promote awareness of climate change and climate and environmental action.

To effectively support youth entrepreneurship, it is important to identify local needs, map existing start-ups, and determine specific areas of focus. This level of cooperation will benefit the longevity and sustainability of any entrepreneurial endeavour. By identifying and working closely with local entrepreneurs who are already embedded in local communities and engaged with young people, the programme can benefit from existing initiative and talent. In turn, the programme can learn from successful start-ups to develop tailor-made products or training courses that meet people’s needs.

The programme could support in two ways. The first would target existing start-ups by investing in their products (both climate linked and non-climate linked products). The second would be through providing funds and training for aspiring entrepreneurs. Training could cover leadership and management, environmental and climate awareness and opportunities for action, and financial literacy. Both existing and emerging start-ups should provide a vision and plan of how their products would promote climate action. Additionally, training should cover social and environmental sustainability in the production or services being developed such as training on efficient water and energy use and waste disposal and reuse. Integrating sustainability into production should be rewarded by the programme.

Many businesses in the region start with great plans to tackle social and environmental sustainability. Yet these ambitions are usually the first to fall by the wayside when funding is tight. A committee of local and European experts should help to review and strengthen these plans. To contribute to the sustainability of this initiative, a percentage of the start-up revenues should be invested back into the programme fund.

A powerful force for change – if economically empowered

The world witnessed the ability of young people in MENA to promote ideas during the Arab Spring. As young people from the region, we understand the struggle to gain enough economic independence to engage with societal concerns like environmental degradation and climate change. We believe that youth engagement in climate action should have proper incentives. Investing in youth entrepreneurship in the MENA could simultaneously strengthen climate action and climate resilience while addressing immediate economic concerns.