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June 28, 2023

Empowerment through Entrepreneurship - Interviewing SPARK Founder Yannick Du Pont

Discovering Entrepreneurship's transformative power

In the face of global challenges and humanitarian crises, some organizations shine as beacons of hope, dedicated to uplifting the most vulnerable. One such is SPARK, an NGO which has made remarkable strides in empowering communities in war-torn and disadvantaged countries. SPARK enables people to establish businesses by providing essential resources and support. We sit down with Yannick Du Pont, SPARK's visionary founder and CEO, who embodies a deep passion for creating positive social impact. He shares invaluable insights into the organization's transformative initiatives and sheds light on the remarkable work being done.

Entrepreneurship and technology, among others, lie at the core of SPARK's approach. Recognizing the immense potential for economic empowerment through innovative ideas, the organization equips people with the skills, tools, and resources necessary to embark on their entrepreneurial journeys. By leveraging the force of technology, SPARK acts as a bridge, connecting refugees to essential resources and opportunities while guiding them through the challenges they face. We delve into the array of initiatives spearheaded by SPARK, including mentorship programs, access to financing, and comprehensive technical training.

Neil: Can you provide an overview of your NGO's mission and approach to supporting those in certain countries by building their enterprises?

Yannick: SPARK is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to create jobs for youth, including women and refugees, living in fragile and conflict-affected regions. We work in 14 countries, mostly throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Sub-Saharan Africa. Most recently, we have begun economic recovery programmes in Ukraine and Afghanistan as well, responding to the dire need to support youth in those countries. Our mission is to create pathways to employment for young people – whether that’s by gaining new skills, acquiring an internship, starting a business or growing existing companies. If young people have access to opportunities to support themselves, their families and their communities, we believe they can create stability.

Neil: What was the impetus for you to start SPARK?

Yannick: During the Bosnian War in the 1990s, I was a student at the University of Amsterdam. After the breakup of former Yugoslavia, young people were eager to take matters into their own hands and rebuild their countries. However, they lacked the educational opportunities to do so. Seeing the atrocities our fellow students had endured, we started SPARK (we went under another name then) and began organising the first ever international summer schools in the region. Lecturers from all over the world travelled to teach young people from both sides of the conflicts in the midst of power shortages, lack of proper accommodation and unrest. Each year, almost a thousand students participated in the summer courses. The idea of inclusive education went on to become a central feature of SPARK’s work.

Neil: What differentiates SPARK from other or similar NGOs?

Yannick: SPARK is unlike other, larger INGOs. Our roots are in youth activism and we try to maintain that agility and flexibility to this day. One of our core values is ‘can do’ and since we support entrepreneurs, we believe that processing an entrepreneurial spirit within SPARK is vital.

Around 85-90% of SPARK staff are from the communities we work with and for. They often have lived experience of the issues we’re tackling and help to guide our programmes to address the reality of youth needs.

Our process is fully localized. We have strong networks of expert local organisations within each country. Together we co-design development programmes and our partnership enhances their capacities to deliver quality services within higher education, training, startup and SME development. The goal is that one day there will be no need for SPARK and local organisations become the market leaders in their fields.

Neil: How does your organization identify and select those who have the potential to become successful entrepreneurs?

Yannick: Our local partners are strong leaders within the entrepreneurship ecosystems. Together, we build full-service programmes that can take potential entrepreneurs from idea generation through to launching their products and services. Our robust selection process ensures that our programmes are inclusive, gender-sensitive and select for promising entrepreneurs that can create businesses that employ even more young people.

With our new Strategy 2030, we have identified three high-growth potential sectors within fragile and conflict-affected regions that have huge potential to create jobs. These are agri-business, green business and digital technology.

In 2030, agri-business will provide up to 75% of all jobs in fragile and conflict-affected states, especially for vulnerable communities. Greening the global economy will create 24 million additional jobs by 2030. In FCAS, green business, especially in the food sector, water and renewable energy has enormous potential to leapfrog. Finally, digital technology is projected to remain the fastest-growing sector in most fragile states.

We are focusing our support on startups and SMEs that are working within these sectors as we believe they have the greatest potential to generate income, create thousands more jobs and contribute to struggling economies.

Neil: What specific programs or initiatives does your NGO offer to help refugees develop their entrepreneurial skills, access funding, and establish sustainable businesses in challenging environments?

Yannick: Our programmes follow four main pillars: Skill Up, which focuses on developing market-relevant skills of youth through higher and vocational education and training; Match Up, which sees us match jobseekers to internships or job placements; Start Up, as the name suggests, supports entrepreneurs to develop their startup businesses; finally Scale Up, helps business-owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to scale their companies, employ more people and support local economies.

For the last years, we’ve been working with on a programme that supports youth, including women and refugees, living in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. Working with our local partners - Zaka AI, SE Factory, Gaza Sky Geeks, Re:coded and Startups Without Borders – we’ve trained 269 youth in digital skills like Full Stack Web Development, provided coaching and mentoring to 130 entrepreneurs to enhance their business acumen, 72% of the participants in these programmes were women. So far, 93 entrepreneurs have successfully developed a minimum viable product and 48 entrepreneurs have successfully launched their products in the market. Of the graduates from digital skills courses, 53 have already received enticing job offers, encompassing both remote and in-person opportunities.

Some of the people and businesses coming out of this programme and others like it are astounding. Through tech and remote working opportunities, they are able circumvent labour market restrictions for refugees. Take for example, Asmaa Hamid, a 26-year-old Syrian refugee living in Lebanon. Equipped with a Full Stack Developer certificate and career coaching, she acquired vital skills that helped her ace interviews and eventually land an internship with a company in the United Arab Emirates.

Since the partnership with Google’s Foundation, we’ve also begun working directly with Google (the company) in a partnership with Udacity, a major nonprofit leader in digital upskilling, supporting youth in Palestine to gain digital skills and boost employment in tech jobs.

Neil: How does SPARK focus on skills building?

Yannick: Over the years, we’ve supported over 14,000 youth, many of them Syrian refugees, to access higher and vocational education opportunities. SPARK focuses on building the skills of youth to be more relevant to the realities of the labour market.

Internships are another crucial way we support young people on their jouney into jobs. In some countries, internships are not a common concept. Employers don’t see the value in hiring recent graduates. We’re working with the private sector to change these perceptions and show more companies that giving work experience opportunities to young people can not only boost their professional growth, but actually be a boon for the company. Before placing young people into internships however, we provide employability training to help youth gain the necessary skills for the workplace and applying for jobs.

One intern shared recently: “[The] Soft Skills sessions prepared me well for the post-graduation period by improving my skills in English language, time management, dealing with potential customers, preparing my CV, and how to function in a job interview.”

Neil: What are the key traits that emerge from this younger generation of entrepreneurs?

Yannick: Younger entrepreneurs that we work with often already see the value of digitalization. They know their markets and they see the potential of e-commerce, digital technologies, creating digital solutions to problems. Young people are also acutely aware of the climate crisis, the negative impact of which is already being disproportionally felt in developing countries. It is incredible to see young leaders who develop businesses that directly navigate these intersecting crises and adapt them for their own contexts.

One such entrepreneur, Omar Itani, was just 22 when he co-founded FabricAID, a social enterprise based out of Lebanon. FabricAID collects second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories through donations. Donations are then sorted, washed, ironed, repaired if needed and sold at micro prices (all under $2 USD) throughout the country. SPARK supported FabricAID with finanical assistance to scale its operations in Beirut as part of the Tadamon programme, financed by the Islamic Development Bank and the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development. The programme supports small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Middle East affected by the COVID-19 crisis. FabricAID has grown to become the largest second-hand clothing collector in the MENA region and recently received $1.6m investment.

Neil: Do you collaborate with local governments or other stakeholders to harness an environment for entrepreneurship?

Yannick: We cannot operate in a vacuum. We work closely with local government, the private sector and local organisations within the entrepreneurial ecosystem to design programmes that work for the youth in the contexts they live in.

For example, in Palestine we are working closely with the Ministry of Entrepreneurship and Empowerment and the EU to draft a Startup Act that will provide a more enabling and inclusive legislative framework for Palestinian startups to thrive. To do this, we’ve brought in our partner, SMART Capital, from Tunisia to support with best practices, advice and knowledge on their experience of successfully implementing a Tunisian Startup Act.

In Iraq, we’ve brought together the (federal) Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MoHESR), as well as the Ministry of Higher Education of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to initiate the Bologna Process, which will reform the Iraq higher education system. In March this year, the MoHESR issued a new ministerial order to implement the Bologna Process in all departments of colleges of science and engineering in Iraqi universities starting from the academic year 2023-2024, naming SPARK as a key partner in this.

By introducing reforms within Iraq’s higher education systems, we hope to better align the education youth receive with the real needs of the labour market. Currently, 35.4% of highly educated youth in Iraq are unemployed and face huge challenges in accessing jobs. The private sector often complains of a lack of qualified labour force, preferring to hire outside the country.

Neil: Do you have any particular success stories that stand out from those who have benefited from your support and made significant contributions in their communities?

Yannick: I’ve mentioned some already and there are honestly so many people that have inspired me, too many to name, but check out: Iraq's first agri-tech company that uses Ai to protect the nation’s historic date palm industry; Kubar Msho, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who was SPARK’s 10,000th scholarship awardee and who we surprised with a call from Queen Máxima of The Netherlands on World Refugee Day in 2021 – her CV is now full of internships; Marwa Raed in Iraq, whose business, Green Gold, recycles organic waste into compost, fertiliser and other agricultural products to boost the country’s food production; and Maha Mrad, the founder and CEO of Spreadly in Lebanon, a natural and healthy nut spread, which now sells more than 10,000 jars a year and is described by many as even better than Nutella!

Neil Hodgson Coyle
Neil Hodgson-Coyle
Editorial chief at TechNews180
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