Some people are born entrepreneurial, others are encouraged to take up that path. One born entrepreneur, Qais al-Khonji, is determined to ensure that Omani youngsters and existing SME owners are given every opportunity to succeed as their own boss. By doing so he hopes to secure the economic future of his birth country.

Even as a youngster Qais Mohmood Al Khonji knew his destiny was to create his own identity (rather than eventually fall back on the family fortunes at the Al Khonji Group and spend his life making board decisions). Going it alone, he felt, would not only challenge him, but allow him to get to know himself inside and out.

And so at the ripe young age of 32 he turned his back on a lucrative corporate banking career (and, finally, his boyhood dream of becoming a pilot) and set about forming his own company – being his own boss, as it were. So worthwhile and life-enhancing did he find it that he’s now he’s lobbying government and private industry in Oman to allow others to tread a similar path.

Today, aged 36, and with two successful companies – Quais United Enterprises Trading and Genesis International – already under his belt, Al Khonji is keen to see an infrastructure in the land of his birth that will not only nurture and educate a school-age entrepreneurial mind, but also provide favourable conditions and more financial help for SMEs.

Spotting entrepreneurial opportunities

Oman is a country where huge global enterprises in the oil and industry make up at least half of its GDP. And it’s here, where the entrepreneur – whose EOR (Enhanced Oil Recovery) Lab Services company is a first for Oman in terms of meaning they no longer have to outsource the service – reckons small and medium-sized companies could particularly excel.

In fact, there’s a ready-made market for entrepreneurs right there, he insists. What Al Khonji means is that large companies who are financing the oil and gas industry but don’t have the technical know-how, would like entrepreneurs to approach them with ideas. It’s a sector Al Khonji would like the government to concentrate on far more than it currently does when it comes to supporting young entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, what the government has been intensely focusing on in recent years, is their Omanization programme which encourages large corporations and public sector bodies to hire Omanis (at the expense of jobs filled by foreigners). They do this by insisting they meet a particular quota.

In a promising move however, this has recently been widened so that those same government bodies and huge private firms have been encouraged to give non-essential areas of business to entrepreneurs. Training and mentoring of new start-ups has also been initiated.

Meanwhile, Oman Vision 2020 is a strategy aimed at boosting industrialisation and encouraging more private investment in the economy and jobs market. At present the jobs market sits at a relatively high unemployment rate of 8% in a country of just 3.2 million individuals.

Inspiring entrepreneurism in schools

But what about education in schools? Al Khonji is particularly vocal on this. Granted the government is already funding programmes for entrepreneurship aimed at school-age youngsters, but it’s not focused enough he insists.

He adds: “It’s not really about how much money the government is prepared to put in to educating school pupils, rather it’s what they’re doing to encourage the students to learn. What’s the use of investing let’s say 100k for instance, and it being spent on programmes which neither inspire nor enthuse their target audience?

“Ideally what we need is a plan with a realistic time-frame and a strategy that we know is going to work. Ultimately there has to be a vision. Let’s start with a pilot project first and see what we achieve from that. We can then build on the rest.”

The main problem with teaching entrepreneurism in schools, he says, is that it’s not an easy subject to teach in a theoretical manner.

“It’s not an art or a science,” says Al Khonji (whose background is in business information systems). “Because of this it has to be taught using case studies and practical examples.

“Assign the pupils – in grades 10 to 12 – projects and tell them what they need to accomplish. In doing so they will learn the essentials for business such as ‘the importance of cash flow,’ ‘that patience can pay off in the end’ and ‘the necessity of believing in your product or service.”

In April this year the Oman Ministry of Higher Education (OITE) launched its first ever Oman Higher Education Summit. Titled ‘Entrepreneurship and Higher Education,’ the two-day conference was aimed at encouraging young graduates to venture down their own path rather than one already formed by government or private industry. In other words, they were encouraging school leavers to consider working for themselves.

Academics were the target audience, along with trainers and policy makers in youth entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs to concentrate on the service sector

Like the best kind of entrepreneur, Al Khonji is a man who believes in learning from his mistakes. His first company, which imported goods from China to Oman, failed. This he attributes to the fact he didn’t have a smart enough marketing strategy and the Omani market wasn’t big enough (there were too many global brands to compete with).

He also believes it’s easier for entrepreneurs to kick off in the service sector. The reason, for this, he explains is down to customization ie the ability to make a service your own by adding something to make it distinct.

“That way you have control over your business,” he says.

Official projections show that tourism in Oman is set to expand over the next few years – thanks, in particular, to improved infrastructure in the country’s transport industry. This includes expansion and development of major ports at Salalah, Duqm and Sohar, as well as improvements at two international airports – Muscat and Salalah. It means Oman is also becoming a key logistics player in the Middle East.

But getting back to the oil and gas industry that we mentioned earlier (as well as manufacturing) – Al Khonji believes these are the sectors in which to provide a service industry. Why? Well, one reason – and it’s a big one – is that the country’s industrial sector, especially petrochemicals, is set to expand rapidly over the coming years and up to the end of the decade.

Giving SMEs in Oman a fighting chance

Although he admires the effort the Omani Government has already put in to encouraging entrepreneurship (especially within the past few years) Al Khonji admits he will probably never stop lobbying them. One of his pet projects is to see a separate tender board for SME’s so that they don’t have to compete on the same level with large corporate firms, and which will prove far fairer to the smaller businessman/woman.

In the meantime he is already a director of the government-funded Sharakah project. Created by Royal degree back in 1998, this is designed to educate and encourage Omani entrepreneurs. And it certainly seems to be keeping to its word. In May this year, for instance, it announced funding for 21 colleges and universities to take part in its entrepreneur programme resulting in 700 students (or would-be entrepreneurs) benefitting.

One former graduate Sulaiman Al Mahrooqi used the course to boost his now successful photography and video business Bella Luna, having acquired new skills in management, client communications and pitching, amongst many.

Another government initiative Riyada (Public Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises Development), launched the first edition of its newspaper for small business people this year. It’s title? Entrepreneurs. Its aim, together with those of other media outlets in Oman, is to highlight SMEs, instill a culture of entrepreneurship by interviewing successful businessmen, such as Al Khonji, and to help those same individuals publicise and promote their businesses.

But what else would Al Khonji like to see happening in his home country in order to encourage entrepreneurship?

  • Less bureaucracy. It can be extremely slow in Oman to get a business off the ground, he says. This is due to the fact licensing can take ages to come through “and yet time is money and could lead to minimising the survival lifetime of a start-up.”
  • More acceptance. At the moment there are two options open to young people in Oman job-wise. These are to either go into government, or the private sector. Entrepreneurship is a way to create employment and ultimately jobs too, Al Khonji insists.
  • Better finance. An Angel Investment sector operating in Oman within a couple of years. At the moment there are plenty of ideas but no-one to back them up financially, says the entrepreneur. He says either the government or the private sector must look to this initiative. “That’s because a business can only go so far until a big investor is onboard and then it can soar.” He admits partnership isn’t always easy, but “it is essential.”

Providing ongoing inspiration

It’s perhaps not too surprising to learn that Al Khonji’s own inspiration is a global entrepreneur.

“I get asked which particular entrepreneur I admire quite a lot,” he said. “And I’ll always give the same answer. Richard Branson isn’t the richest entrepreneur out there, but he is the most inspiring. I’m determined to work hard to achieve the way that he has. And I’m sure one day I will – regardless of how long it actually takes.”

So that’s Al Khonji’s future sorted. Meanwhile a conference due to open in Oman in October this year is sure to provide a boost to the thousands of budding young entrepreneurs in Oman. The Social Entrepreneur Forum will gather together SMEs, young entrepreneurs and students then connect them with movers and shakers in the corporate sector. The idea is to teach these aspiring youths to develop sustainable social businesses which will, in the end, benefit Oman’s economy and people. It’s an ambitious and clever idea. And with the likes of Al Khonji cheering it on, we’ve no doubt it’ll lead to some impressive results.