Sudan's entrepreneurs face their dragons in TV show
- 20 November 2013
- From the section Business
The lights are up, the camera is on and the stage is set. Twelve young contestants are preparing to battle it out on TV for a cash prize and the chance to pitch their ideas to investors.
It is a new show called Mashrouy, which has been labelled as a cross between Dragons' Den and The Apprentice. But it's not in Britain, it's in Sudan.
With almost 50% of the population living below the poverty line and sky-high youth unemployment, Sudan is a difficult place for young people with big dreams.
Mashrouy, which means "My Project", is a collaboration between local businessmen, the British Council, the British embassy in Khartoum and Sudanese sponsors.
The aim is to prove that despite the challenges facing Sudan's young entrepreneurs, if you have the right skills, steadfast determination and a generous dollop of luck, big dreams can translate into big money.
"I want to do something for myself and for my country," says Samah, one of the contestants, who plans to use the unruly weeds of the River Nile for biofuels and medical research.
"I want to show that anyone can be an entrepreneur. If you have a good idea, you are determined to do it and you stick to it, you can do it."
Their ideas are as varied as they are promising, including everything from manufacturing Sudan's first French fries, in a nation increasingly hooked on Western tastes, to making fashion jewellery in the style of that worn by ancient Sudanese empresses using recycled rubbish from Khartoum's streets.
These 12 men and women have had a lucky break, but in a nation such as Sudan, setting up a business from scratch remains an exceptionally bumpy ride.
'Don't waste your time'
To many people in this vast country, "entrepreneurship" is just a fancy French word ill-fitted to the realities of a tough labour market. Getting a profession is seen as the only way to get ahead.
"Nobody wants their son to be an entrepreneur," says Ahmed Latif, chairman of the Sudanese young businessmen's association (SYBMA) and one of the judges on the TV show.
"He should be a doctor or an engineer - maybe a lawyer. But an entrepreneur? Don't waste your time."
Contestant Isam Eldine Iaaeldine knows exactly what that disapproval feels like. Although his family and friends now support his project, they proved a tough crowd to convince.
"I faced many challenges but the main thing was the people around me. You feel alone, you know?" he says.
"My family, my colleagues, my friends were always saying, 'How are you going to start your project? It's such a long path.' This was the main challenge."
His family can hardly be blamed for having reservations about their son's choice of career.
Sudan's gross domestic product (GDP) makes it one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, second only to Yemen, and the independence of South Sudan in 2011 has led to plummeting oil revenues.
Fuel subsidies were completely removed in September 2013, leading to vicious riots breaking out across Khartoum. The government now admits that 87 people were killed, while activists and rights groups say the number was at least 200.
In such a climate, banks are unwilling to lend money to many would-be entrepreneurs who come knocking at their doors. Only those with a property to risk have access to the much-needed funds to start a business.
"If you're starting out fresh and you don't come from old money, your options are extremely limited," says Mr Latif.
"If you own a building you can mortgage, no problem. But otherwise there is really no hope to find even limited financing to help these ideas see the light of day."
'The economy is unstable'
Even education, so often marketed as an express ticket out of poverty, is no longer a guarantee of success in Sudan.
There are not enough jobs for the increasing number of graduates coming through the country's 19 universities.
"Many Sudanese young people are well educated," says Maisson Hassan, another young contestant and the proud holder of a degree in nuclear physics.
"But the economy is unstable, so everyone is affected, educated and not educated.
"You find the drivers of tuk-tuk [taxis] are engineers, accountants, very educated people - but they cannot find jobs and they need to boost their income any way they can."
Education and entertainment
All the contestants accept that Sudan's poverty makes it a hostile territory for innovators like themselves.
But in the true spirit of entrepreneurship, they refuse to sit back and lick their wounds.
Rather than see poverty as a stumbling block for their ambitious business ventures, they see entrepreneurship itself as a stepping-stone towards greater national prosperity.
Mashrouy, which is set to be broadcast next month, is therefore about education as much, if not more, than entertainment.
"We want to reach millions of Sudanese homes, to put a spotlight on entrepreneurship, to shed light on what is possible and to help move people towards giving life to their ideas," says Mr Latif.
"Being an entrepreneur is hard. You always have to be swimming against the current, and Sudan is going through difficult times.
"But entrepreneurship itself is one way to work towards getting the economy back on its feet."
This goal does not mean the contestants in Mashrouy will get an easy ride. Just as in the Dragons' Den on British television, the contestants will have to prove they have the ability to turn their abstract ideas into concrete cash.
Will the "dragons" on the Sudanese show be as harsh as their British counterparts?
Mr Latif giggles mischievously at the question. "Knowing the character of the judges I think they may be even harsher," he says.