Startup Bahrain has the honor to get inside the mind of His Excellency Shaikh Mohammed bin Essa Al Khalifa, the Chairman and Acting Chief Executive of Tamkeen, to find answers on today’s burning questions about Tamkeen, Bahrain’s entrepreneurship scene, and its future.
Thank you for this opportunity sir, it’s truly an honour to interview you. First, can you tell us what are Tamkeen’s biggest challenges?
Tamkeen is a service-oriented organisation that aims to serve the private sector, so being able to adapt to the rapidly growing and ever changing needs of the private sector I would say is our biggest challenge. When we first started, we were focused more on reaching the largest number of people within the private sector. Today, we are focusing on the quality of our services. Those we serve have higher expectations than they did when we first started, and what we are working very hard to achieve is exceeding those expectations.
Another challenge we continuously face is what KPIs must we put to measure the impact our support schemes have on those we serve. Our focus is on how we support the businesses we serve and the effectiveness of our programmes, but how do you measure it? For example, we need to know what impact a small, highly profitable Bahraini company, supported by Tamkeen, has on the economy. Do they have other objectives? Are they employing Bahraini citizens? Each market is unique, and each sector has different needs, which makes this among our biggest challenges.
In the end, there will always be challenges in what we are doing. Challenges however, expose to you opportunities to do things better and smarter the next time around.
What do you think of funding businesses based on a scoring system, one that differentiates them based on their contributions towards the economy and Bahrain’s Economic Vision? Is this something doable?
It is really difficult to measure a business’s contribution or its impact towards our economy because it is difficult to have it implemented effectively. Measuring “macro” impact is tough and consists of factors beyond our reach. What we are doing however is offering the best service we can possibly offer to address our customers’ needs and requirements. We’re working on creating an enabling environment for businesses to start, grow, and thrive.
We need to continue engaging with those we serve in the private sector to refine the ways in which we can support them. In line with that, we will be holding the first of our quarterly stakeholder consultation meetings in March, which used to be held only once a year previously, to gauge how they think we should spend the private sector’s money back into the private sector. By taking their opinions and asking them to define their priorities, we will be able to increase the effectiveness of our services and better utilise the funds. Those opinions will be the ones that direct how we ought to go about ‘scoring’ a business based on its objectives, goals, and successes.
From a visionary perspective, do you think Tamkeen will always be there to support businesses or is Tamkeen a part of a transitional phase that Bahrain’s economy is going through?
In my opinion, Tamkeen is not part of a transitional phase to support the economy. Tamkeen is the transitional phase. Tamkeen services the private sector and adapts to their needs. If the private sector requires certain types of programmes, then those are the programmes we will aim to provide. Through our many programmes, we are working on figuring out the ways in which we transform a small business into a medium-sized business and a medium-sized business into a larger organisation. A small business ought to have the support it needs to become a regional player in this field.
Today, anyone can start a company. The challenge lays in how said company can grow and thrive. All businesses can make money, only a few can make a difference, here or beyond. We are more than confident that Tamkeen is staying. Through dealing with and helping out the thousands of businesses over the years, be it within our community or abroad, we know we played a positive role within the economy and on those working in it.
This is evident by the increasing demand for our programmes from businesses and Bahrainis alike. With more than 98,000 beneficiaries (60,000+ Bahrainis and 38,000+ businesses) served as of end of 2013, we feel that our future looks brighter than we expected.
One of the comments we keep hearing from the entrepreneurs we interview is that of Tamkeen not offering programmes that cater to the export or franchising industry, one that puts Bahrain on the global map and helps its economy. Is there a directive from Tamkeen to support this industry?
As of today, there isn’t one, but it really depends on whom we are trying to cater to. We are working in collaboration with the Economic Development Board (EDB) and Bahrain Development Bank (BDB) to cater to the export industry, but this is geared to the industrial complex. Tamkeen on the other hand, is more focused on the local service industry, mainly the private sector.
However, it would be something we can aim for. For example, we currently offer the legal and business consulting franchising businesses require to function abroad through our ‘Istishara’ programme. Many may have not realised this, or that they can make use of this programme in this way. ‘Istishara’ helps businesses put together sound growth and development strategies. We still need to do more in terms of creating awareness as to how to utilise our programmes. We also provide our ‘Tarweej’ scheme. This scheme enables local businesses participate in international exhibitions and trade fairs. This helps open up new doors and opportunities to larger markets. It is better to put things in perspective and study every variable accordingly. We are studying the ways those businesses might utilise our programmes to figure out how to better serve them in the future.
Measuring the impact and effectiveness of businesses that reach well beyond Bahrain also plays an important role on our decision to cater to this industry. I would however, like to comment on one of the things you’ve mentioned earlier. You mentioned how businesses that franchise or export their products abroad help the economy. In what way, would a franchise opening 5 locations abroad, help Bahrain’s economy? Does it help reduce unemployment here? Not exactly. Sure, revenues will be higher, and that is great, but people usually say ‘big impact’ without realising the difficulty of measuring that on our local economy. We need to be clear about this to avoid misunderstanding the concepts behind what we are trying to do. That is not to say there is not an impact on our economy by those who operate abroad from Bahrain, but expectations must be set appropriately.
Ahmed: Perhaps if there was a direction of this sort, it would encourage a larger number of businesses and larger companies to export or operate abroad.
This is one of the things we will be addressing through Tamkeen’s new strategy.
We understand that in the United Arab Emirates, as one example, 5% of all government procurement is allocated to SMEs? Do you think this could help the SMEs in Bahrain?
In reality, this is not part of our role as Tamkeen. Where we fit though is in helping companies apply for government tenders. Tamkeen supports and caters to the private sector.
Government procurement is definitely a great opportunity for SMEs to thrive. To do our part, Tamkeen launched a programme called the ‘e-Tendering Training’ in partnership with the Tender Board. This programme provides the necessary training to SMEs to enhance their skills in the tendering system and familiarise even further with the Tender Board’s e-Tendering system. As of today, this programme served more than 630 businesses to date. We expect to serve a lot more this year.
What was your biggest challenge as Tamkeen’s chairman?
My biggest challenge as a chairman is communication. The ideas behind Tamkeen are brilliant, however, we were not able to reach out to the private sector in the most effective way possible.
Tamkeen’s working methodology was not around its customers, this is something we, including myself, as chairman, are working on. We need to reach our customers better. Their convenience is our success. One of our plans include opening up several branches as communication and service channels with our customers. Up until recently, Tamkeen was in one building and those who required our services had to make the trip to visit us.
It always comes to mind what Michael Eisner of Disney used to say. He believes that everyone working at Disney is a cast member, and everyone is putting on a show. We, at Tamkeen, should be the same. We are all customer service officers, we all serve the private sector, and this needs to be communicated throughout the organisation as a whole.
What has been the feedback from the public on the Customer Service Centre in Seef Mall and are there plans for other branches?
We have received positive feedback so far. However, the service centre in Seef Mall is not all that we have planned. We currently have 16 Tamkeen Ambassadors, with hopes of having 40 during 2014. Tamkeen Ambassadors help in taking Tamkeen to where people are, from the ‘majlis’ to the ‘village’, to people in their homes. We’re also working on opening up service centre branches in Sitra and Riffa this year as part of our plans to have a centre in every governorate.
A while back, I saw Tamkeen being a part of every home. Today, I see that this is the case. Now it’s time to fine-tune our services’ effectiveness, along with the quality of our programmes. This new phase will surely help the private sector a lot more. According to the Ministry of Industry & Commerce, we currently have 70,000 commercial registrations in Bahrain. We want to push that to thousands more!
Working with businesses all this time, what have you learned about people or entrepreneurs in particular? What are they like?
I learned that it is impossible to please everyone. The least one
can do is respect and listen to other people’s opinions. This is basic, yet vital. It is something we ought to work on, while taking the initiative to educate others on what’s available to them and what is best for their businesses. This keeps us true to our mandate.
Why do you think the world market lacks Bahraini brands when we have brands from all over the world in Bahrain?
I don’t think this is the case. There are a large number of businesses we serve that offer high quality products and services to clients and customers all across the GCC and the Arab world. That being said however, the world’s market, in whole, definitely presents a largely untapped opportunity for Bahraini brands.
Do you think Bahraini businesses are just copying one another since funding has become more convenient with the fortunate help of Tamkeen?
I do not believe that is absolutely true. Perhaps to some extent, just not fully. When it happens, it speaks of people’s worry of taking risks in venturing into uncharted territory though.
With Tamkeen’s support, whether be it through our financing programmes or through the entrepreneurial culture we aim to foster through our youth-oriented programmes, we are seeing people becoming bolder and more innovative with their ideas. This is definitely something positive. We’re also glad to see more women willing to venture into the business world.
We’ve seen some multinational corporations, with capital exceeding Bahrain’s GDP, benefiting from Tamkeen’s funds. What do you think of this?
Companies in Bahrain, large or small, are eligible for Tamkeen’s programmes. Tamkeen is for everyone. Our funding comes from the private sector and is pumped back into the private sector this way. Large corporations benefiting from Tamkeen’s funds support the efforts of the EDB in attracting investors that could potentially create jobs for Bahrainis. We encourage that.
If Tamkeen decides to stop all its financial support programmes, who do you think would be hurt the most? What do you think will happen?
The category that would be hurt the most are SMEs. This category of businesses have traditionally faced challenges in getting loans to finance their growth and development. Tamkeen put an end to that through its Enterprise Finance Scheme, it was the schemes main goal ever since its inception.
If that were to happen for any reason however, I do not believe banks will cut off funding to SMEs altogether. They have witnessed the value in funding SMEs and cutting that would be wasteful. In fact, most banks have dedicated staff now that help serve this segment of the market.
We observed a huge increase in the number of businesses that cater to those who are in need for marketing services when utilising Tamkeen’s marketing scheme. Do you think this drastic increase is healthy?
Marketing your business properly is vital to your business’s success. Having more companies that cater to the marketing needs of new businesses is healthy. It helps drive the economy and help in creating jobs for Bahrainis. However, the concern is not with quantity, however with quality.
If companies are setting up to exclusively benefit from the businesses who use Tamkeen’s ‘Tasweeq’ scheme, then that is not a sound or sustainable business model. The businesses we serve through our programmes need to do their research and figure out the
quality of services the marketing companies offer beforehand to ensure quality deliverables.
Tamkeen recently announced that it has stopped its Conference Attendance Support Scheme because it was proven ineffective. Could you please shed some light on that?
All of Tamkeen’s programmes are monitored and evaluated during and after their implementation as part of our commitment to the continuous drive to improve all aspects of our operations. This is done in many ways, including focus groups, consultation workshops, and through our own independent research.
The ‘Conference Attendance Support Scheme’, for example, was created in line with our objectives to enhance Bahrainis’ professional skills by making it easier for them to attend leading conferences and workshops, which in turn, also fosters a culture of continuous learning. More than 7,000 Bahrainis were served through this scheme. Based on the public’s feedback however, the programme needed to be re-evaluated and improved. Hence, it was put on hold for the time being to give us the time and space to re-engineer the way it works to meet its objectives more effectively.
In one of our previous issues of Startup Bahrain, Mohammed Isa, one of our contributors, talked about the challenges a company like Twitter would face if it were to start in Bahrain. Do you think a company like Dropbox or Twitter could start in Bahrain?
smiles Yes, I got a chance to read that.
Absolutely! What you will need to do is think big. If your thinking is limited to the Bahraini market, you are not getting anywhere, but when you are aiming to serve the world from your home country Bahrain, then yes, why not. The first 6 months will probably be difficult, however the sky afterwards will be the limit.
Ahmed: One of the ideas discussed in that article was that this region lacks a strong venture capital foundation.
That is one more aspect that does not fit within Tamkeen’s role at this time. We could find ways to promote that though. Today, most quality employment comes from medium to large companies. Startups however can only employ a fraction of what larger companies can hire. How can one encourage that where on the other hand, larger organisations can employ 300 to 400 people at once.
What we need to ask ourselves is: What are the benefits of supporting startups? When the numbers point to supporting larger organisations that can potentially employ a larger number of Bahrainis?
This is why I stress on measuring the impact of what we support and develop. We need to know, accurately, what Bahrain’s private sector expects from us. For me, I think we should serve the private sector whichever way it demands, whether it be startups or medium and large businesses. Whichever works best for the private sector.
Ahmed: While this isn’t one of Tamkeen’s main priorities, I was speaking from an economic perspective. There currently are no high risk funds available ready to be pumped into starts. This, to me, is obviously an issue throughout the Middle East, not one restricted to Bahrain.
True. This is one of the many challenges in the market and we take on this challenge to figure out the best way to address it. Remember, Bahrain possesses a young and highly-skilled workforce, and has one of the most advanced ICT infrastructures in the region. With a foundation like that, I see no reason why a company in Bahrain not being able to serve the world. What that company is doing still matters more though.
Do you think people have found clever ways to abuse Tamkeen’s system for the money? How and how is Tamkeen planning on fixing that?
There are different levels to this issue. First, there must be some sort of deterrent. This could be as simple as a warning message in Tamkeen’s forms that warns against forging documents. These messages contain the penalties and consequences of breaking the law. Those simple messages can make many people think before trying to ‘outsmart’ the system by submitting fraudulent documents.
In the cases we have exposed, one applicant was applying for Tamkeen’s marketing scheme. This individual seemed to have 50 applications in total. When our auditor did his job, those applications were found to be traced back to a small garage somewhere with one employee. Surely, this raised some red flags. The limit for the quotations required are at BD 7,500. Our auditors are never surprised to find many quotations priced perfectly right under BD 7,500, at BD 7,490 let’s say.
It is a continuous process. Every amendment to our programmes can result in surprising events. For example, at some point, Tamkeen’s marketing scheme’s service providers was limited to 4 companies, we decided to lift that limitation based on the public’s feedback. All of a sudden, we saw 50 new commercial registrations being applied. Not restricting the market is a good idea, but how do we guarantee those decisions’ outcomes whilst facing new challenges?
Dealing with those who abuse the system is not easy. It is a continuous process which we adapt to every day. However, we are more than capable, and we will continue to deal with this abuse. We now transfer most cases to the Ministry of Interior to investigate further. It is an ongoing process. As mentioned before, Tamkeen is a service organisation, so we toe a delicate balance between giving those we serve what they want while maintaining order and safeguarding public funds. We need to ensure where those funds go, and in what way. That is not easy.
Thankfully though, the percentage of those who abuse the system is extremely minuscule compared to those who genuinely want to benefit from Tamkeen’s programs. We have made it public that there are a few cases which have been referred to the public prosecution. Since they are ongoing and pending cases, we cannot comment any further. We do hope that such instances of abuse are few and far in between.
What piece of advice do you have for local aspiring entrepreneurs?
Think big. I believe that an individual has two paths after completing his or her education; Should one get a full-time job in the government sector with a starting salary of BD 300 and maybe, just maybe, BD 1,200 in 20 years? Or perhaps chart his or her own path and destiny? Sure, the latter option can be exhausting but today’s opportunities are limitless. The world is open, do not limit yourself to the Bahraini market; Innovate. Cupcakes work, but only to an extent!
Tamkeen encourages people to be bold and take the entrepreneurial path. However, I must stress, that you must study your surroundings, the market around you, before starting your business; not just do what others are doing. Do it your own way, have your own voice, and follow your dreams. Also, I urge everyone to take advantage of the programmes Tamkeen provides.