Entrepreneurs Can Help the Middle East Adapt to Climate Change

The 2023 UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) ended without a firm commitment to end fossil fuel reliance. Instead, global leaders reached an agreement on the terms under which an “orderly” transition away from fossil fuels will take place. While they debated, a community of climate tech entrepreneurs and investors also gathered to advance their own solutions. Relatively new entrants to a summit that was originally meant for government bargaining, climate innovators are making their voices heard on the global stage and providing a parallel narrative to what many critics have written off as a “talk shop.” They are responding to the climate crises that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and other parts of the world are already facing. This small yet growing population of innovators will be a critical source of support to regional governments as they grapple with the realities of the changing climate, but they need more help, particularly around implementing climate adaptation solutions.

By and large, climate interventions can be thought of as either mitigation or adaptation. Mitigation refers to any activities that are meant to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Renewable energy, electric vehicles, carbon capture, and energy efficiency technologies all fall under this category. Whenever governments and civil society leaders discuss reaching “net-zero” and a “green transition,” they are typically referring to mitigation strategies. Adaptation strategies are critical to helping countries adjust to a warming planet. Time delays in the earth’s atmosphere, as well as stored heat in the oceans, mean that even if all greenhouse gas emissions cease, it would require many years to begin to cool down. Until then, the world is stuck with an increasingly hot planet. Food and water supplies, water access, infrastructure, property, and personal health are all at risk. However, according to the most recent Climate Policy Initiative report, less than 10 percent of all climate finance globally goes toward adaptation.

In the MENA region, adaptation is tantamount to societies’ continued survival. Over the past three decades, temperatures in the region have risen twice as fast as in other parts of the world. Last summer saw record temperatures and humidity, rendering it difficult to be outside for more than a few hours in parts of Iran. Several MENA states face severe water shortages. The Tunisian government imposed months of water rationing last year, as it experienced its fourth consecutive drought. And more intense bursts of rainfall have increased the risk of flooding, which was seen most dramatically in eastern Libya in September 2023. The MENA region needs to decarbonize rapidly, but in parallel, it must adapt to the reality of a quickly warming planet. 

Climate adaptation strategies are critical to protecting Middle Eastern societies, and entrepreneurs are finding innovative solutions. One start-up is helping deal with a climate-induced threat to Jordan’s food security. A tree-boring pest has infiltrated many date farms in the Jordan Valley, feeding off the palms’ hearts and gradually killing the trees. Because pests proliferate in hot weather, global warming is making matters worse. Various efforts to detect pests failed, including using heat sensors, sniffer dogs, and drones, but a Jordanian start-up developed an innovative solution. After discovering that the larvae make tiny noises as they start to chew on tree trunks, Palmear combined acoustic technology with artificial intelligence (AI) to develop a tool to help farmers detect pests early. The company is expanding across the MENA region and promises to save millions of trees from a climate-induced disaster. In doing so, Zeid Sinokrot, Palmear’s founder, is helping farmers build resilience against steadily rising temperatures and the myriad threats that come with it.

Like Palmear, several start-ups have focused their adaptation efforts on the agricultural sector. In Tunisia, Seabex is developing smart irrigation technology to help farmers conserve water, reduce costs, and increase crop yields. In Egypt, Mozare3 is an agricultural-fintech start-up that uses AI to help food manufacturers and exporters access new markets, while Mousaffa develops innovative beehives with smart sensors to help protect bees. Each of these start-ups is bolstering food security as the Middle East grapples with the effects of climate change.

However, many investors still view adaptation efforts more in terms of serving a public good than having the potential to make money, meaning they provide little support to entrepreneurs. The International Monetary Fund estimated that only a quarter of the climate finance provided to the Middle East from 2009 to 2019 was dedicated to adaptation. In 2022, that amount increased to 36 percent of climate finance from multilateral development banks–$1.83 billion out of the total $4.95 billion for the MENA region. However, again, only small amounts of adaptation finance go to private sector actors working on adaptation: Less than a quarter of climate finance worldwide went to private actors in 2022.

COP28 helped highlight the role entrepreneurs play in the climate crisis response, particularly in the Global South. For example, in December 2023, major international charities launched Allied Climate Partners (ACP) in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation. ACP plans to mobilize $11 billion for bankable, climate-related projects and businesses in emerging markets. It has the potential to boost entrepreneurs working on adaptation across the world. However, the MENA region is not one of the organization’s initial focus regions.

Faced with minimal investment from abroad, MENA governments have an even more critical role in advancing adaptation innovation. Government ministries that focus on adaptation-specific areas, such as food, water, and health, should partner with technologists and entrepreneurs to accelerate the development of new adaptation solutions. They should also work to scale existing start-ups to expand across the region, while simultaneously creating space for new ones to flourish. To do so, higher-income MENA states can create sandboxes for experimentation and allocate more grant capital for testing early-stage start-ups.

Support from international donors also plays a key role in this equation. Palmear received venture capital funding through an angel network launched by BeyondCapital, which the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funds. Mozara3 participated in the Ebtekar agri-digital accelerator program, supported by the German government and Flat6Labs. And Seabex recently won a place on the Google for Startups Accelerator: Climate Change program. But it is not just about funding. International actors can help create venues to share innovations, identify and convene the right local players, and then highlight best practices. They can also help relevant ministries in the MENA region understand the role of climate adaptation in their local context and empower them with the right technologies. International actors also have the power to shift the narrative about the importance of adaptation efforts, which would help generate greater private interest.

COP28 in Dubai was a prime venue for showcasing the necessity of adaptation technologies and their potential for the MENA region. But the benefits of pushing adaptation innovation would extend far beyond the region. The Middle East can become fertile ground for developing adaptation innovations, capitalizing on its rapidly growing cadre of entrepreneurs who are developing solutions to climate crises. In turn, those efforts can inspire others around the world who are in the adaptation effort.

Will Todman is deputy director and senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jamil Wyne is the founder of the Climate Tech Bootcamp and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University.

Image
Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program

Jamil Wyne

Founder, Climate Tech Bootcamp and Adjunct Professor, George Washington University.