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The Middle East femtech industry is worth $3.8 billion. But what is holding investors back?

With significant demand and potential for femtech technologies and investment, we speak to industry leaders and startup founders to understand the challenges and opportunities ahead

The Middle East femtech industry is worth $3.8 billion. But what is holding investors back?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Menstrual products and their disposal represent one of the last great consumer taboos. It’s a taboo that powers a huge environmental issue. What if we have biodegradable pads that are safe for the environment and more hygienic? That’s what one young company, Lizzom, is trying to prove by using organic bamboo and corn to create a cleaner and compostable sanitary napkin. 

Over the last few years, there has been an explosion in femtech, digital tools, and services centered around women’s health. The UAE is home to one-third of femtech companies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The industry is projected to be worth $3.8 billion by 2031, with a growth rate of 15%. There are positive aspects to this, but the mostly male-led investors are yet to overcome their wariness over women-oriented products.

Chanda Lokendra, the founder of Lizzom, believes that there continues to be a bias against female-led startups. A Wamda article notes that out of $622 million raised by startups in the MENA region, less than $6 million was invested in startups founded solely by women – less than one percent of the total. 

Sharing her experience, Lokendra talks about how investors lack confidence in female entrepreneurs while they do not pitch their ideas as aggressively as men do. “While women are not high-risk bearers, it also means that we have done our due diligence, and there should be more trust in female entrepreneurs.”

Attracting talent to startups also remains a challenge – Lokendra believes femtech suffers from diverse expertise because it is considered a woman’s domain. “But it’s much more than women’s health; femtech improves the quality of life for everyone,” she says.

Mashal Waqar, an entrepreneur in residence with MyLily, a period and femcare subscription box service that hopes to remove the stigma associated with buying these products from store aisles, adds that female founders are also more cautious in their approach. “Last year, we saw a trend in startup profiles. For instance, food tech and insurance tech are hot spaces for investors right now,” Waqar says. “So, there may be pressure from investors in terms of industries to invest in. Or there’s less interest in wanting to venture out of a comfortable space.”

“There’s also little interest in issues on female health, hence a low appetite for risk in the femtech space.”

Kate Batz, director of FemTech Analytics, the agency that researches the emerging femtech sector, adds as most investors are men, the lack of understanding of female healthcare needs makes them reluctant to invest in female-related products, and “narrowing the gender fundraising gap is a key factor in overcoming femtech challenges.” 

“Given the sensitive nature of the industry, femtech entrepreneurs face additional challenges,” she says. FemTech Analytics has been raising awareness of the importance and prospects of femtech. Through continued written and spoken discourse, it hopes to break down the stigma associated with women’s health and “make sure women have access to equal funding opportunities.”

LACK OF RESEARCH AND FUNDING

While women were excluded from clinical trials in the US until 1993, globally, there is a dearth of research on women’s health, resulting in a limited understanding of female health and well-being. “The lack of region-focused market research and data is also a major femtech challenge,” Batz says. 

Sophie Smith, founder and CEO of Nabta Health, a hybrid healthcare platform that enables accelerated detection, diagnosis, and treatment of chronic diseases in women, adds that there are research gaps.

“There is a significant need for data and diversified datasets in clinical research and trials,” she says. “Health outcomes are still relatively poor – with 80% of breast cancers being diagnosed at Stage 4, and 40% of women not attending a single antenatal appointment.” 

“In terms of ages and stages, there are gaps to address around fertility, postpartum recovery, pelvic health, and menopause,” Smith says. 

The other big challenge for femtech in MENA is the lack of capital – for research, development, and commercialization of projects. Additionally, regulation of health technologies is still in its infancy, and healthcare ecosystems are complex, with many competing interests. Gaining traction as a consumer health tech company takes time.

LOOKING AHEAD

While there are significant challenges, the region is catching up. 

Female healthcare has garnered attention over the recent years, and health conditions like PCOS and postpartum depression have entered popular discourse. “It is a socio-cultural openness or paradigm shift that we are witnessing,” says Batz. 

“Breaking down taboos around female healthcare is helping the industry thrive. Female health issues are becoming less stigmatized. Society is now ready to discuss topics related to menstruation, female sexual well-being, and menopause,” she says. 

Women’s increased awareness, early self-detection, and better management of illnesses have also increased the demand for technological solutions. And the growth of telehealth services is allowing women greater access to healthcare at all stages of their lives. “Until now, this demand has not been fully met, and the potential is huge,” she says.

Last year, Flat6Labs, MENA’s leading seed and early-stage venture capital firm, and Organon, a global healthcare company, launched the region’s first femtech accelerator program to support female-founded digital health startups by building products, testing the market fit, and improving business models. 

Launched earlier this year, the 2022 Female Angel Movement aims to diversify the early-stage investment landscape in the region by identifying and publicly listing more than 200 female angel investors – as opposed to only two listed last year. 

An increasingly vibrant ecosystem is emerging, led by vocal advocates for women’s health – like Merette Khalil of Egypt or Dr. Maha Al Mozaini of Saudi Arabia. 

While the region is a hub for innovation across sectors and has an empowered women population, Smith explains that the UAE is poised to become a hub for femtech. 

“With factors like access to capital, the backing of government and corporates, and ecosystem support (from the likes of Hub71, the Dubai Science Park, and Sharjah Research Technology and Innovation Park grows), this trend will only intensify.”

“The UAE is home to over 200 nationalities, and with a sophisticated healthcare system, it is the ideal place to conduct clinical research and test product-market fit,” she adds. “The diversity of people provides a real chance to address some of the systemic gender and racial biases in healthcare.”

Given the right business environment and opportunities, all femtech categories – including previously underserved – can present lucrative opportunities.

Read more related tech articles in our tech section here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shaistha Khan is a freelance culture writer who writes on Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and South Asia. Her work has appeared in BBC Travel, Al Jazeera, TRT World, Aramco World, Teen Vogue, and more. More

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