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Our world is on the move, as more and more people are qualified as migrants by statistical organizations. And it’s growing fast. In 1990, there were 154 million migrants, versus 232 millions in 2004.
How does this impact or serve the development of tech ecosystems in the emerging markets? Well, quite well, and stories from Iran, Lebanon and Nigeria will make it a bit more real.
Iran: when top engineers look back to the home country
The story of engineering in Iran is both an amazing and sad one. The country has historically been the home for a lot of scientific improvements, when it was still named Persia. Their contribution in medicine and mathematics are the best known, and they can be credited with the inventions of the wind-power machine as well as the first distillation of alcohol.
Today again, after the war with Iraq and a long insulation from the world community forced them to design their own defence industry, they boast a very high enrollment of students in university, and are reknowned engineers. Last year, the PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford accepted 18 candidates from Iran… on a total of 21!
And, closer to the startup world, Iran has provided amazing founders, from eBay’s Pierre Omidyar to Dropbox CTO Arash Ferdowsi or both founders of dating app Zoosk. The rest of the Iranian diaspora has many, many influencers and top ranking employees in the banking and finance industry in English-speaking countries.
With the new government of Hassan Rouhani, elected as a reformist president in 2013, comes a relative softening of the regime, and the diaspora begins to consider going back, while local smart talent is not thinking only of fleeing the country.
Lebanon: digitizing a long-term tradition of bridge between the West and the East
The case of Lebanon is slightly different. For so many centuries, Lebanese have been reputed traders, merchants and travellers, with a legendary set of soft skills, kindness and openness to other people. Today, if the homeland has 4.5 million inhabitants, the diaspora size is about 12 million, including for the most notable alumni pop singer Shakira and Mexican telecom tycoon Carlos Slim.
Historically, Lebanon has been under the successive domination of the British then the French. The context of the Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by turmoil with Israel, and more recently with neighbouring Syria, accelerates the pace of mobility among entrepreneurs.
The dual culture, one step in the West, and one in the East, can be felt strongly when you take a look at the top hits of the local startup scene. Anghami, for instance, is dubbed the “Spotify of the Middle-East”. They signed major deals with local music labels, and they can know have a user base both within the Middle-East and among the strong diaspora of Arabic people in Europe. They are on their way to reach 10 million users in 2014.
Another one, Cedar Books, makes it easier for top marketplaces to list books in Arabic, tagging their meta-data, and working with Amazon as a source of listings. Their turnover in 2013 was US$20-million, mostly done in the United States.
Nigeria, Bangladesh: the come-back kids rule the startup scene
As in so many developing countries, the role of diaspora can also be seen when looking as the local “Who’s Who”. Students who made it to going abroad – the US and Europe being two top destinations – often get exposed to older startup scene and a broader culture supportive of entrepreneurship.
In Nigeria, for instance, the Co-Creation Hub, a building reputed to be one of the local tech ecosystem’s blender, with both a coworking space, an accelerator and a user experience lab, has been founded by two returnees from the UK. In Bangladesh as well, the startup scene, of which you can have an overview in free to view YouTube documentary Startup Dhaka, has been powered by a bunch of entrepreneurs coming back from the US.
The two countries really show how, seeing and being part of the startup process abroad, returnees come back home with a wealth of knowledge, connections, and the will to conquer huge dormant markets. Nigeria is home to 170 million people, and Bangladesh 160 million, and still, it’s hard to name a local success yet. But don’t mistake yourself, it’s only a matter of months or years, not decades, before something big comes from these countries.
All in all, the role of diasporas in the building of tech ecosystems is fascinating. It’s never easy for people to move countries. The culture shock may not “work”. Remoteness from the family and friends is not easy for everyone. Coming back is no straight road as well, and the whole cost of it can be a huge burden. But opportunities seem to burgeon along the road.