One of the most pressing problems facing governments across the Middle East and north Africa (MENA) is how to ensure employment for its rapidly growing population of young people. According to a report citing UN figures, 30% of the population in MENA is aged between 15 and 29, representing more than 100 million people.

Given that governments in the region are still heavily reliant on the energy sector, they face a difficult challenge providing new avenues of employment. But increasingly they are using buzzwords such as knowledge management and innovation, and are looking for new ways to enhance employment opportunities for youths to make their economies more dynamic.

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Devoid of any natural resources, Jordan stands out as a country that has been forced to look for new ways to generate wealth. It fosters innovation and there are numerous academic institutions that place this and entrepreneurship at the core of their curriculum.

Some investment companies are also taking on this role. Oasis500, a private Jordanian investment company focused on technology start-ups, is one such example. Although it is a for-profit investment firm, it clearly has a social dimension. It has been so successful that it is now looking to raise $25m for its second fund – Oasis Ventures II – in the next few months, according to its executive chairman, Usama Fayyad.

Oasis500 was launched 18 months ago and has so far made 52 investments, well ahead its initial plan to complete 30 deals in two years. It has invested in companies including Masmou3 Audio Books, website translation service Dakwak, real estate specialist Aqar Estate, and Arabia Weddings, an online portal for wedding planning. All of the companies in which Oasis500 has invested have achieved high returns and Mr Fayyad thinks that most will be able to achieve an internal rate of return of 25% to 30% annually. 

In order to select the most suitable companies for investment and mentoring, Oasis employs an intense, five-week boot camp-type training programme to test an entrepreneur’s resolve and commitment. Mr Fayyad is surprised at its success. Although the model is based on the assumption that 50% of the candidates will drop out, thus far the dropout rate has been far lower, he says.

The programme’s success is such that other investment firms and government organisations across MENA could take up something similar.

Lucia Dore is the head of GCC and Middle East at mergermarket, part of The Financial Times Group. E-mail: lucia.dore@mergermarket.com