Winner: Dalian Free Trade Zone, China

In a switch-around from last year’s ranking, Dalian Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) has won the best for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in fDi’s Global Free Zones of the Year 2022 awards, while the West of England has slipped to second place.


Boasting more SMEs than any other participating zone in fDi’s ranking, DFTZ has held events tailored to these businesses. This included running 31 ‘enterprise salons’ inviting experts to give advice to tenants; building industrial clusters to attract SMEs; and offering support policies to help lower the setup costs for SMEs.

The zone includes special customs supervision zones, two of which are ‘comprehensive bonded zones’, which it says have some of “the most simplified processes in China”. 

Last year, the zone established the Dalian International Energy Trading Centre, which provides specialised services such as spot trading, settlement, clearing and financing for its members. Since then, the number of energy trading companies has reached 1000, with about 10% of these being new entrants, and the trading volume has reached around Rmb200bn ($28.6bn).

DFTZ provides all newly registered enterprises with a free virtual registered address, free co-working space and generous subsidies for expenses, such as investment in equipment and the renting of unused commercial space.  

Highly Commended: The West of England, UK

The West of England enterprise zone, which comprises seven enterprise zones across the region, has been highly commended for small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) tenants. 


In its 2022/23 business plan, the West of England has targeted one-to-one bespoke support, access to finance, support programmes and expert guidance. In a vote of confidence in its fintech ecosystem, Brazilian banking and payments provider Pismo set up shop in Bristol last year. German tech company Codasip has also moved in.

With a rich talent pool and expertise in the aerospace sector, West of England enterprise zone also says that having the likes of Rolls-Royce, GKN and Airbus based in the region attracts more SMEs. 


Winner: Lusaka South Multi-Facility Economic Zone, Zambia

Lusaka South Multi-Facility Economic Zone in Zambia won the best free zone for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Africa. To attract smaller tenants, it has: created an SME park; had shell factories built to lease out to SMEs; reduced the cost of water and land; and created a resource centre for investors.

The sectors that it has attracted span agro-processing, cable manufacturing, mineral processing and logistics. 

Highly Commended: Mauritius Freeport, Mauritius

Mauritius Freeport was highly commended among free zones for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Africa. With a range of support schemes and packages offered to smaller businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, the freeport has helped around 142,000 of them benefit from government support. Some of its packages include: loans from the Development Bank of Mauritius (DBM); a technology and innovation scheme; an SME marketing support scheme; and an SME employment scheme for graduates.


Winner: Dalian Free Trade Zone, China

See above 

Highly Commended: Navoi Free Economic Zone, Uzbekistan

Navoi Free Economic Zone in Uzbekistan was highly commended for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) among zones in the Asia-Pacific region. Since Uzbekistan has shown some resilience during the pandemic, Chinese SME investors have set up business in the Navoi Free Economic Zone. Notably, the zone has attracted the China Medicine Techno Park, which produced vaccines, as well as the Weavers Dynasty project.


Winner: The West of England, UK

See above

Highly Commended: Katowice Special Economic Zone, Poland

Katowice Special Economic Zone was highly commended for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) among European zones. In 2021, it attracted 107 SME investment projects, tenants and start-ups – 82 of which were new companies. The zone has launched several projects that help support start-ups and smaller tenants, particularly in the digital and innovation sectors. It also organises regular ‘SME Booster’ conferences in the region, where it provides information on what it can do to help and offers support with partners such as banks or tax and legal consulting companies.


Winner: Cayman Enterprise City, Cayman Islands

Cayman Enterprise City (CEC) won best zone for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Americas. With an emphasis on connecting SMEs with talent, the zone has managed to attract small businesses with a support programme designed to assist them with growing their businesses through recruitment, marketing and networking. For SMEs, there is no minimum capital investment and the zone bundles permits, visas, trade certificates and turn-key office solutions into affordable packages.

Over the course of 2021, CEC welcomed biotech, aviation and energy SMEs. Last year was also the first year that CEC’s economic impact exceeded the $100m mark, while its overall economic impact over the 10 years since inception reached $662m in 2021.

Highly Commended: Zona Franca de Bogotá, Colombia

Zona Franca de Bogotá, which was highly commended among zones for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Americas, provides consulting services for SMEs. Smaller businesses comprise more than half of its tenants. In 2021, through its ZFB Foundation, the zone focused training on four fronts: human capital trends; employer brand management; leadership 4.0 and a LEGO co-creation workshop.

Middle East

Winner: DMCC, UAE

DMCC has won best zone for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Middle East. Through Astrolabs (the tech centre it set up with Google), a sports and wellness co-working space and its crypto centre, DMCC provides licensing support, accelerator and incubator programmes, co-working spaces and advice. It also offers fully furnished offices ranging between 100 and 500 square feet.

The zone has targeted key sectors to support SMEs: food and agriculture; precious metals and stones; technology and telecommunications; and sports and wellness. Thanks to Astrolabs, it counts the tech and telecom sector as one of its most popular, and numbers 2418 members.

Highly Commended: Sharjah Publishing City (SPC) Free Zone, UAE

Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone was highly commended for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Middle East due to its comprehensive support offering more than 40 support services for smaller businesses. 

SPC signed a memorandum of understanding with Mashreq Bank in order to offer faster bank approval to zone customers. It claims SMEs can get a trade licence within 45 minutes and visas within five working days.

The free zone is also in the process of implementing an ‘SPC Marketplace’ and introducing a loyalty programme in 2023, in which registered businesses can gain points to use for development and training.

This article first appeared in the October/November 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.