SMEs in Oman come to the fore during COVID pandemic

There are 52,524 SMEs currently operating in the country

  
Image used for illustrative purpose. General view of old Muscat the day after Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said was laid to rest in Muscat, Oman, January 12, 2020.

Image used for illustrative purpose. General view of old Muscat the day after Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said was laid to rest in Muscat, Oman, January 12, 2020.

REUTERS/Christopher Pike

Muscat: Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are helping businesses and people in Oman lessen the economic and personnel impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on them.

SMEs have been able to provide vital goods to those who were unable to buy them from elsewhere, have offered shops required to shut down an online space to continue operations, and created digital solutions for clinics to reduce crowding, and the chances of a potential spread of infection.

There are 52,524 SMEs currently operating in the country, and more than 7,000 of them have been set up after March 2020, shortly after the pandemic began in Oman.

Sharifa Al Barami, the co-founder of Markeetex, has offered free membership to some merchants who have been affected by the pandemic.

Sharing an example of how this helped families procure food and other items essential to their day-to-day living, she said, “When Wilayat Muscat was put under health isolation, we received permits to go in. We had, for example, an expat family who had gone outside the country for business when the lockdown began, so his family was completely isolated. They had no means of even paying: he would pay online, buy everything for them, and we would make sure they were delivered to his family.

“There were many families in areas like Ruwi, Darsait, Muttrah and Muscat who came to rely on us,” she added. “We used to run three big truckloads on a daily basis, with a cold chain, to deliver all of the goods that needed to be delivered to families there.”

“It’s been quite a journey, and we will continue to offer this service to the pandemic,” she further said.
Many shops that usually rely on tourism to make a living have also joined Markeetex so that they can sell their products to customers overseas.

“We are also able to deliver Omani frankincense and oud to people in Singapore, Australia, the US, and Europe,” Al Barami said.

“Even with the shipping costs, the prices are affordable compared to the quality and price received there. This is the beauty of online: it dissolves all of the commercial borders. We are very happy we can offer the service to businesses and other SMEs whose shops have closed. We also have merchants from outside Oman: the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Estonia, for example.”

Another SME, Atoms Labs, are partnering with companies that offer surgical prosthetics made from PEEK (polyetheretherketone), a material that has durability and resistance similar to that of bones. Initially used to make spinal and cranial implants, PEEK now finds use across a number of medical fields, including orthopaedics and dentistry.

Surgical prosthetics can now be manufactured in Oman for those who require urgent medical care, instead of waiting for them to be ordered and delivered from overseas, which could take months.

Founded jointly by Yumna Al Sharji and Bassl Koukash, the company has also developed digital scanning processes to lessen the wait times for patients at clinics and dentists, helping reduce visitor numbers, which helps minimise the spread of COVID-19.

They have helped set up three dental labs based on this technology, and also run training programmes for medical technicians to learn the skills required to conduct these procedures.

“PEEK-based implants are very important right now – many hospitals currently provide these services outside the country,” said Koukash.

“We buy the raw material from outside, and manufacture here, thereby localising this technology in Oman. Designs can be made on the needs of patients. It can be used for a number of surgical treatments. Our aim is to help save time and resources in current procedures, as well as bring new concepts to Oman.”

Andrew Roughan is the managing director of UK-based startup developer Plexal. In collaboration with the Oman government, the Embassy of the UK in Muscat, and local partner Al Jabr, Plexal recently ran the Rapid Innovation Accelerator for 15 start-ups to enable them to develop their products and help them expand business.

“Generally, startups and SMEs are the ones who tend to see the opportunity for innovation in an industry,” he said.

“They are also usually much more flexible and can move more quickly than bigger businesses, so they can develop ideas and new solutions much more quickly than larger players in the space. Therefore, they often provide a vital service to big business by developing solutions to problems. In the context of the pandemic, startups have an important role to play in coming up with creative solutions to the unique challenges of our time.”

According to data from the National Centre for Statistics and Information, there are 52,524 SMEs in the country as of April 2021, up from the 44,139 during the same period in 2020. Muscat is home to 17,692 SMEs, the largest share in the country, but the biggest growth in terms of percentages, have been seen in Al Wusta (38.2 per cent), where there are 684 SMEs, and in South Sharqiyah (24.5 per cent), where 3,123 operate.

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