The drive to improve the business environment for Brunei Darussalam’s fledgling entrepreneurs is gathering pace, with technological and structural innovation playing a major role in efforts to streamline the start-up ecosystem.
Officials are keen to expand the role played by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Sultanate’s economy. However, deeper reforms aimed at facilitating the development of new companies could help accelerate moves to broaden Brunei’s economic base beyond oil and gas.
Brunei fell three places year-on-year to 101st out of 189 countries surveyed in the World Bank’s 2015 Ease of Doing Business index, highlighting some of the challenges entrepreneurs face when looking to launch business ventures in the Sultanate. The change in rankings has also spurred the Ministry of Finance to introduce incentives this year, alongside a number of measures aimed at improving processes for start-ups, many of which were tech-focused.
The ministry’s initiatives included the addition of an online portal to its Registrar of Companies and Business Names (ROCBN), which allows users to pay fees remotely through a secure network. According to local media reports, since its introduction earlier this year, the digital service has reduced the wait time for incorporation to as little as 24 hours, down from four to 10 days.
Brunei has also overhauled its business licence process, streamlining applications and setting up a new authority to oversee procedures under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The changes include the introduction of a single business licence, which replaces the variety of licences issued by more than one authority that were previously required.
The implementation of a more streamlined system is credited with cutting the time taken for a licence to be issued after an application is made from a minimum of nearly three months to several days. The move is expected to create cost savings for new businesses, which had been required to cover rental fees for offices or storefronts while awaiting licensing.
Technology entrepreneurship initiatives like iCentre, Brunei’s first ICT incubator, founded in 2007, are also supporting start-ups. The facility is one of several projects being pursued by the Brunei Economic Development Board (BEDB) to boost the Sultanate’s knowledge economy by creating a tech-focused industrial park, the 17-ha Anggerek Desa Technology Park (ADTP).
Located in the ADTP, iCentre has incubated more than 40 start-ups to date and currently houses eight fledgling businesses, providing subsidised office space, broadband access and skills development for start-ups. The organisation also focuses on networking, looking to connect resident and non-resident enterprises with venture capitalists, angel investors and key government agencies. In addition, iCentre offers workshops and start-up competitions with cash prizes.
In 2009 another facility in the ADTP, Knowledge Hub (K-Hub), opened its doors next to iCentre. Located in a seven-storey, energy-efficient building, the $4.8m K-Hub facility houses initiatives focused on technology training and R&D, including partnerships with international names like Microsoft and IBM.
Last year, the third phase of the project – the eight-storey Design & Technology building – was completed. Constructed at a cost of $19m, the new building is a green facility that will house a variety of start-ups, in areas ranging from multimedia and animation to computer graphics and software development.
Private sector push
Private sector-led initiatives are also working to improve operating conditions for new businesses in Brunei. A programme launched by Tru Synergy, a local training company, aims to create a more business-friendly environment for start-ups. The UsahawanKitani project – a three-phase initiative launched in April in collaboration with the Ministry of Industry and Primary Resources’s Brunei Industrial Development Authority and Entrepreneurial Development Centre – offers entrepreneurs the opportunity to develop their start-up ideas and receive marketing support for their business.
“Business is mostly done in the private sector, so we are trying to increase their involvement with regards to the development of start-ups,” Fatin Arifin, Tru Synergy’s lead entrepreneur in-residence, told local media earlier this year.
Officials agree that start-ups will benefit from deeper reforms. In July Pehin Dato Yahya Bakar, minister of industry and primary resources and chairperson of the country’s Ease of Doing Business Steering Committee, highlighted the progress already made in this respect. The government, he said, was making it easier, faster and cheaper to obtain permits, approvals and certifications in areas ranging from construction to halal food processing.
Brunei has already generated some local success stories, which are expected to help build confidence amongst aspiring entrepreneurs in the Sultanate. The online start-up SocialMart has evolved from a grocery-shopping website to fully-fledged digital mall, while DotRoot Technologies, a mobile app developer, is expanding into the broader ASEAN region. The company recently announced a foray into the Philippine market to develop a food-ordering app.
With solid support in place, together with the emergence of a young, prosperous and tech-savvy market, particularly in segments such as financial technology and app development, the scene looks set for SMEs and start-ups to take on more a prominent role in Brunei’s diversification efforts.