UNDP-4YFN Women Innovators Programme returns to the Mobile World Congress

March 14, 2023
Photo: Roxani Roushas

The majority of STEM graduates in the Arab States, on average, are women. But while they may be smashing ceilings when it comes to education, women in the region are half as likely as men to be entrepreneurs, and have the world’s lowest labour force participation rates. Add to that digital divides: half of women continue to lack access to the internet or a mobile phone, preventing them from unlocking technology’s full potential. And yet, examples abound of how the digital age is bringing unprecedented opportunities to eliminate disparity and inequality.

By joining forces in 2021 with Four Years From Now (4YFN), GSMA’s start-up platform, UNDP created the Women Innovators Programme (WIP). Based on a mutual recognition of the need to invest - on a human level - in women who are leading the way in digital and social enterprise in the Arab States, the Programme connects entrepreneurs from the region with experienced mentors from 4YFN’s global networks. In its first two rounds, WIP has provided more than 500 hours of one-to-one mentorship to women from 16 countries. Learn more about the programme, and apply to take part in WIP 2023 (as a mentor or mentee).

Participating start-ups offer digital-based solutions in areas including education, health, finance, cultural heritage, agriculture, disability inclusion, and more. With UNDP’s support, a number of them attend the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona each year. At the event, startups, investors and companies connect and discuss how entrepreneurs and their ecosystems can build a more humane technological playing field to solve society’s current and upcoming challenges.

Building on the success of our all-women delegation to the Congress in 2022, 11 entrepreneurs participated in MWC23, from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. They were accompanied by UNDP teams from the Arab States who are supporting entrepreneurship and digital transformation programmes, often in partnership with telecommunications operators and other private sector partners on the ground.

With over 88,500 attendees from 202 countries and territories, MWC23 offered an overwhelming opportunity to seed new partnerships with individual changemakers, technology giants, and the mobile industry. The group dove right in, navigating the event with excitement, energy, and with fingers always on the pulse.

“Your network is your net worth”

Meeting with mentors and supporters of the Women Innovators Programme

Photo: GSMA

Experienced mentors are a backbone of the Women Innovators Programme, bringing fresh motivation, confidence, and ideas to their conversations with the innovators. But mentorship is a two-way street: mentees are equally a source of inspiration for their mentors. A highlight of the week was the opportunity to meet with mentors and other supporters of the Women Innovators Programme. Visionaries like Cecilia MoSze Tham, a future synthesist who moderated the first “interspecies panel” at MWC - meaning a conversation with Herbie Aureum, an autonomous plant that is one of her artefacts from the future! Or Thais Glod, a leader in driving women’s entrepreneurship. Or Daniele Tricarico, a tech for development specialist working at GSMA. And many more!

The group also connected with like-minded entrepreneurs based in Barcelona, with the kind support of the Princess of Girona Foundation and the Digital Policy Directorate of the Government of Catalonia.

Meeting with like-minded entrepreneurs from Barcelona

Photo: Generalitat de Catalunya

The most priceless connections, of course, were the new memories, friendships and alliances formed between the innovators themselves - between women with a common passion, but also similar challenges in growing their businesses, whether linked to social norms, digital divides, lack of access to finance, or other factors.

Taking the pitching stage by storm

Najla Almissalati, Libya, pitching her start-up She Codes

Photo: Yasmin Gamal

MWC was also an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to pitch their start-ups on an international scale. In the words of Doreen Toutikian from Lebanon, founder of omgyno, an online platform dedicated to revolutionising women’s gynecological experience:

“Having the chance to pitch on stage to a very relevant audience in one of the world’s largest tech conferences, while accessing some world-class mentors who believe in my project, and all in the company of rare like-minded women entrepreneurs is no small feat. This was the opportunity of a lifetime and I am very grateful for it!”

Doreen Toutikian, Lebanon, pitching her start-up omgyno

Photo: GSMA

Highlighting opportunities for inclusive entrepreneurship in the Arab States

Women, youth, persons with disabilities and other previously “missing” entrepreneurs are breaking barriers in the Arab States. UNDP colleagues from Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria shared their experiences supporting inclusive entrepreneurship and social innovation ecosystems in their countries in a dedicated fireside chat. For instance, UNDP Egypt is supporting micro-entreprises, which comprise 94% of Egypt’s 3.7 million enterprises, by bringing support services, including e-services, to rural areas through mobile units. In Lebanon and Syria, UNDP has experimented with new approaches, including digital tools, to enhance women entrepreneurs’ confidence in their financial literacy and engage persons with disabilities in entrepreneurship programmes. 

Panel session on inclusive entrepreneurship in the Arab States

Photo: GSMA

As noted by Rob Opp, UNDP’s Chief Digital Officer, in his keynote presentation at the Mobile World Congress, “It's important to point out that ‘connectivity’ shouldn’t stop with internet infrastructure. We need to also look at affordability and meaningful access. This means that we need to ensure that people actually have access to the internet, are able to use it, as well as have access to relevant, and safe digital content and services. All of these elements combined are what allows connectivity to play such an important role in enabling people to take an active role in economic, social, cultural, and political life.”

Learning about the latest industry trends

Photo: Samsung

MWC is the place to be for the latest industry trends from giants like Samsung, a key UNDP partner. The Samsung Global Goals application, developed with UNDP, is installed on over 300 million Galaxy devices globally, including smartphones, tablets and smartwatches. The application defines each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, showing users how they can take small actions towards achieving the SDGs.

Samsung and UNDP have also established Generation17, a flagship initiative that supports young leaders aged 18 to 32 dedicated to innovating for humanity and mobilizing global communities. As part of Generation17, 14 global young leaders are getting communication, speaking, mentorship and networking opportunities to amplify their impact and work across their regions. From the Arab States, Nadine Khaouli is representing Lebanon since 2021.

Based on this growing partnership, that has recently announced a new contribution, the Women Innovators Programme participants, and the entire UNDP delegation, joined a VIP tour of Samsung’s booth at MWC.


Touring Samsung’s presence at MWC

Photo: Yasmin Gamal

Visiting innovation centres in Barcelona

We wrapped up the week by visiting key innovation and digital transformation hubs in Barcelona. We learned about the Ateneus de Fabricació, a network of public fabrication labs freely accessible to communities as spaces for learning and prototyping through digital manufacturing. With i2Cat, an Internet Research Centre thinking at the intersections of technology and anthropology, we discussed the need to localize definitions and priorities for what future digital societies should look like. And with the Barcelona FabLab, we exchanged experiences supporting innovators and entrepreneurs at local level.

Photo: Ateneus de Fabricació
Photo: Roxani Roushas

UNDP wishes to thank 4YFN and all those who graciously hosted us during the Mobile World Congress and looks forward to further collaborations in support of digital inclusion.

This post was co-authored by UNDP staff from the Regional Innovation Team in the Arab States, and Country Offices in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

The 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women is ongoing until the 17th March 2023 under the theme “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”. UNDP is proud to support women leaders in innovation and technological change through initiatives like the Women Innovators Programme. To learn more about UNDP’s work on bridging the gaps, see https://stories.undp.org/bridging-the-gaps/.