In the shadow of a brutal civil war, some Libyan businesses are focusing on the future and, in the process, injecting working practices that may be common elsewhere but are still a novelty in the North African country.
A case in point is the growing network of co-working spaces that have opened their doors in the capital Tripoli over the past few years, offering entrepreneurs a secure place to start and build up a business.
Internationally, the concept of co-working has had a bad press over the past year, largely as a result of the turmoil at WeWork, which saw its valuation collapse and hopes for a stock market listing vanish. In Libya, though, the issues for the sector are rather more prosaic.
“The entrepreneurship scene is very young in Libya,” says Tariq Benarwin, founder of First Centre, which claims to be the first co-working space to open in Libya. “People had no clue what co-working was. We had to show them it is ok to share a working space. It’s ok to receive customers in a building where there are other businesses. It took a while for people to open up to sharing the same business environment.”
Libyans gather on a beach in the capital Tripoli on July 5, 2019. (Photo: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
One thing such spaces have in their favor is reliable services. The most basic building blocks of modern life such as electricity and wi-fi are not a given in an economy riven by conflict. So a generator and a decent internet connection are highly prized.
“They really like our services: no power cuts and high-speed internet,” says Ahmed Albibas, a member of the board at Hive Coworking.
There are some other advantages. It is a relatively low-cost option for a young business, in a city where office rents can be high. And these spaces are also designed to be safe.
“When we started, we marketed it as a cost efficient place of work,” says Benarwin . “We installed a generator and high-speed internet. Without these two, nobody would show up. The other thing they look for is somewhere safe. Our environment is quite positive compared to what you hear about. It’s like a getaway for some people within the city.”
The sort of companies attracted to these spaces will be familiar to observers of the start-up scene in other cities around the world. Sohaib Sbeta, project manager at Space340, says its tenants range from graphic designers to developers of education apps and people working in the food sector, medical services and the creative industries.
Entrepreneurs in Libya don’t just have to battle against poor services, a sketchy security situation and limited access to finance though. They also need to deal with strongly-held ideas about working life.
The decades of rule under former dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – whose rule came to a brutal end in 2011 – were characterized by an economy dominated by the state. Some reforms were introduced in the early years of this century and the system broke down with the revolution that ousted him from power, but there is still much to be done.
“During the Gadaffi period, we just had a communist system, with everything owned by the government,” says Albibas. “Starting from 2001 / 2002 it started moving a bit. But many of the companies in Libya are focused on the government. One of the things we need to focus more on is how to move the economy to be a diverse economy focusing on customers, on the people, to have more services.”
It will take time for this to happen and social attitudes also need to change. “The image of entrepreneurs is very bad,” says Elsa Berry, spokeswoman for Expertise France, a French government agency which has been supporting the development of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Libya. “It can be very difficult for them to get married, because the parents of the bride don’t trust the guy will become rich.”
Attitudes are changing though. Sarah Belamin, communications officer for the Stream incubator in Tripoli, which opened last year, says the image of entrepreneurs is getting better. “Now the mother of the bride will brag that ‘my son-in-law has a business’,” she says.
Even so, it can be difficult for entrepreneurs to maintain confidence and commitment at a time when the country is bedeviled by fighting and instability. Those running coworking centres sometimes find that they are called on to be mentors as much as providers of office space.
“There was a business we hosted and they thought about closing down because of what’s going on,” Benarwin. “We said to them: ‘This is a good time. Maybe you won’t be making much money now, but it’s a good time to prepare for when everything is over’.
“Us civilians should continue to be positive and look forward to a better future,” he adds. “We have the time for development, and time to train and time to spend more on thinking about what we’ll do as soon as things settle down. We can’t wait and waste time later when things are quieter.”
Entrepreneurs listen to a presentation at the Stream incubator in Tripoli, Libya, which opened in … [+]