The $15 billion B2C e-commerce industry has pulled the attention, and the money, of enthusiastic industry leaders and entrepreneurs in the MENA region. But what everyone seems to be overlooking is B2B e-commerce. A recent US survey estimated sales revenues from B2B e-commerce to reach $559 billion by the end of 2013, more than double the $252 billion generated from B2C online sales.
The B2B online sector in the MENA region is a sleeping giant. Although there are more than 90 million online users in the Arab world, only 15% of companies in the region have an online presence and benefit from this widespread exposure. So it is not surprising that when Eng. Salim Akil surfed the internet in 2007 for medical equipment companies in Syria, his search resulted in nothing. This triggered the idea of launching an online directory for businesses in Syria, and SearchinMENA.com was born. Salim’s project evolved into a unique B2B online marketplace that specifically targets businesses in all Arab countries and across all sectors. Today, more than 13,000 companies are registered on the website.
Evolving from Business E-Directory to Online B2B Marketplace
Salim Akil and his friend first launched the online directory under the name “Search in Syria.” Clients paid $100 to place information about their business on the website. Most were close friends of the family wanting to support the young entrepreneur, who at the time was still a student. Three years later, the fee was increased to $300, and the online directory became a business search engine. Salim was gaining invaluable experience on how to run and develop an online business. “My vision was to expand the business. I wanted to go from national to international. That’s why I changed SearchinSyria.com to SearchinMENA.com,” exclaimed Salim. “And it was the best decision I made.” In 2010, Search in MENA was elected among the top 30 Mediterranean startups with a high growth potential by MedVenture, France.
After the political situation in Syria became tense, Salim relocated to Beirut, and then to Dubai. It was in Dubai—the hub for the region’s fastest growing digital startups—that Search in MENA took on a new dimension. Salim and his team improved the website’s interface and added many exciting features, such as Products and B2B TV, that allow clients to discover and locate products, services, and companies within the MENA region.
They also improved the business model; clients can choose between different subscriptions charged at $300, $600, or $1000. In short, the company was taking advantage of the little, almost nil, competition in the market.
However, these glimpses of success were not void of challenges, nor were they short-lived. “The biggest challenge was to attract investors. After talking to 15 investors, we finally scored a partnership with Silicon Oasis Founder in December 2012,” stated Salim. “This was the turning point. The partnership has uplifted the company to new heights. They helped us define our company. Now we have a team with a sense of engagement with the company’s strategy and more clients flooding in to be part of this new and growing phenomenon.”
The Effect on the Arab Business Community
SearchinMENA.com was developed because there was an apparent weakness in the online content of the Arab business. When the company was established in Syria five years ago, it witnessed first-hand the thirst of companies to gain online exposure. In no time, the number of Syrian businesses registered on the website reached 3500. With the new additions that the company has made to the project, clients are even more excited. The prospect of online exchange appeals to them immensely.
Today, SearchinMENA.com aims to improve the overall business e-content in the Arab world. “First and foremost, we want to improve the connectivity between sellers and buying,” says Salim. “Business people search for each other on LinkedIn. Now we want businesses to search for each other on Search in Mena. We want to create channels for commercial exchange in the MENA region. We want to to be the Alibaba of the Arab world.”