Like many startup ecosystems in the Middle East and North Africa, the Libyan startup ecosystem is still in its infancy—if not in a fetal state. Young Libyan entrepreneurs have struggled to build a startup ecosystem in the country because they lack the key stakeholders and seed funding needed to establish such ventures.
However, these are not the only challenges that Libyan entrepreneurs face. They also suffer from a great deal of insecurity, constant power outages, and regular loss of internet connectivity. Yet, despite all of this, one young Libyan activist and entrepreneur is fighting to promote positive change by using entrepreneurship and innovation to tackle the problems that youth face in Libya and globally.
Mahmoud Abugrin, also known as Mackey to his friends, is a 23 year old Libyan and the second youngest child in a family of four children. His father is a perfectionist with a PhD in environmental engineering and his mother is a university professor who lectures about food science. The young Libyan activist and entrepreneur received a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business management from the Faculty of Applied Administrative and Financial Sciences in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Since graduating in 2016, Mackey has fought tirelessly to promote progress in his country. “I’m a young man who’s passionate about youth empowerment, entrepreneurship and education. I believe that these three elements are critical to the success of a community, a society, [and] a country,” Mackey told Inside Arabia.
The young Libyan activist and entrepreneur has worked as an English teacher and a project manager in various companies and NGOs. He has also worked in marketing, public relations, translation, and radio hosting.
Mackey currently works at ACTED, “an international NGO committed to immediate humanitarian relief to support those in urgent need and promote inclusive and sustainable growth,” according to the organization’s website. He is a project officer in ACTED’s Quick Impact Projects development department, where he is responsible for managing, reporting, and identifying best practices, among other things, for the organization’s development projects across Libya.
Mackey first began to identify as a civil rights and human rights activist when he joined the Libyan development scene at the age of 17. In 2017, the young Libyan cofounded GAPS, a startup that focuses on using technology to create educational and entertaining products for global consumers.
The young Libyan cofounded GAPS with two other passionate Libyan entrepreneurs: 21 year old Aymen Habbouch and 15 year old Aiham Kadiri. Habbouch is GAPS’ Chief Operating Officer and is responsible for the startup’s marketing and operations. Kadiri, who can already program in five different computer languages, is GAPS’ Chief Technology Officer and is solely responsible for programming the startup’s Android and iOS applications.
Mackey and his team called their startup GAPS because they believe that every young person is capable of being creative and innovative if they are provided with the right environment and stimuli to do so. However, Mackey believes that there are gaps that each person must fill in order to reach this creative height. He hopes that his startup will help young people to close these gaps.
GAPS strives to use “edutainment” technology to create innovative solutions to tackle the problems that young people face globally. GAPS’ first product is a hybrid board game and application called Sinbad.
Sinbad is a well-known, fictional Arab sailor. “[He is an] adventurer, risk taker and a businessman of sorts . . . [and] he possesses the typical traits of today’s successful entrepreneur,” Mackey said.
“The aim of the game is to teach young people the essence of entrepreneurship, finance, and emotional intelligence,” Mackey told Inside Arabia. Through his hybrid game design, the young Libyan hopes to use smartphones to facilitate social interaction instead of destroying it. He also seeks to educate young people on how they can become entrepreneurs.
The map of the Sinbad game has cities from all over the world and each city has two real-life problems to overcome. Throughout the game, Sinbad players are expected to establish a business that addresses one of the problems in each city. Players generate more profit and promote the long-term growth of their businesses by answering questions that are designed to increase their IQ, EQ, and financial literacy.
Not only has Sinbad been featured in Forbes magazine and the BBC documentary Start Up Libya, the startup has also won many competitions and received countless accolades including: Libya’s Best Entrepreneurial Idea Award of 2017, Best Entrepreneur Award in Libya’s Startup Expo, and the Enjazi Competition hosted by Tatweer RC and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Lebanon. Recently, the Sinbad team won €22,000 and was invited to join the YouStartIt 2018 international accelerator program hosted by Mita Innovation Hub in Malta.
Things seemed to be going well for Mackey and his team of passionate Libyan entrepreneurs until the summer of 2018.
“On our way to Misurata airport to fly to Malta, we were ambushed by a group of armed militia that attacked us. They knew us by name and demanded our passports. Once they confirmed [our identities], they took our documents, passports, phones, laptops, clothes, and all of our belongings.”
“[Unfortunately] we have very terrible news regarding our [startup],” Mackey began in a Facebook post published on July 9. “On our way to Misurata airport to fly to Malta, we were ambushed by a group of armed militia that attacked us. They knew us by name and demanded our passports. Once they confirmed [our identities], they took our documents, passports, phones, laptops, clothes, and all of our belongings,” he continued.
“They then beat us and threatened to kill us if we didn’t head back ‘[to] where we came from’ . . . . We have no idea who [was] behind this treacherous and cowardly act, and [what] their purpose [was] from preventing us from simply making an educational [and] entertaining game that [could] help young people become more aware of entrepreneurship and business.”
Later in the post, Mackey expressed his sadness at the loss, but he emphasized that the unfortunate turn of events would not dampen his spirits or the Sinbad team’s resolve.
“We will not stop here, we will lick our wounds, get back to [the] drawing board and start all over again [so we can] make this thing a reality.”
In his social media post, Mackey also highlighted how the fictional character his game is based on had many misadventures and still came out on top.
“[Sinbad] . . . had countless journeys himself and . . . lost everything he possessed time and time again but he ultimately bounced back and never gave up . . . [and] as long as we still draw breath, we’ll do the same . . . . [W]e will succeed eventually, whatever it takes.”
Despite the considerable setbacks that Mackey and his team suffered this summer, they are working hard to restore all of the work they lost, so Sinbad can still hit the market before the beginning of 2019.
The Sinbad team also aspires to achieve various other long-term objectives. These goals include making the Sinbad game available for sale internationally and developing it into a virtual and augmented reality game. In addition to that, Mackey also aims to establish Sinbad as an educational tool accredited by the Libyan Ministry of Education so that it can be used to teach entrepreneurship. More importantly, Mackey and his teammates hope to use their entrepreneurial experience to help develop Libya’s startup community and promote a culture of critical thinking among the country’s youth.
Drawing on his personal experience, Mackey shared with Inside Arabia three pieces of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in Libya. First, he urged Libyan entrepreneurs to establish startups in fields that they are passionate about, so they remain invested and motivated in their business ventures. Second, he encouraged Libyan entrepreneurs to look for teammates who share their vision, complement their skill sets, and push them to achieve excellence. Lastly, Mackey advised Libyan entrepreneurs to “fail forward,” which he defined as failing, learning, growing, and most importantly, never giving up.
“We all care for something or someone in this life, which means each and everyone of us has a responsibility to use what we have and what we have [learned] to help people and make a real difference,” he told Inside Arabia.
“Hard choices will confront each and every single one of us, darkness will surround us, and there will be days where we can lose our way.”
The young Libyan emphasized how important it is for other young people to lead by example — by following their passions and, hopefully, inspiring one another to do the same.
Mackey concluded his post by saying, “[W]e can help leave this world better than how we have found it through love, compassion, and mere determination. Not [only] for us, but for the generations to come.”