Six months into its revolution, not only has Egypt’s tourism fallen dramatically, its unemployment rate rose from just under 9% to almost 12%, and its GDF fell by 4%. Over half of Egypt’s population is under age 29, and 90% of unemployed Egyptians are under the age of 30, an age bracket that carries a 25% unemployment rate in men and 20% unemployment rate in women.
Yet in a revolution partially started because of unemployment, not all is grim in the world of entrepreneurship. According to a 2011 World Bank report on business in the Arab world, Egypt began making it easier to create a business start-up in 2005, when it eliminated minimum capital requirements, created a private credit bureau and consolidated the registration process. This year alone, Egypt’s “Starting a Business” ranking rose to number 18 out of 183 economies. It held number 23 last year.
“This is an unusual revolution in that it was led by a very educated and economically conversant, forward-looking group of people,” said United States-Egypt Business Council executive director Khush Choksy. “But to secure what they went into Tahrir Square for, there needs to be economic growth, a modern set of thinking, and a more diversified economy.”
“You hear a lot about Facebook and Twitter being used for a revolution, but what does that mean from an entrepreneurial standpoint?” Young Entrepreneur Council founder Scott Gerber asked. “In a nation like Egypt, where you have huge youth unemployment, entrepreneurship boosts the GDP and allows economy to thrive.”
Which is why the U.S. State Department and Danish government recently sent a delegation of young American entrepreneurs to Egypt to run a “traveling start-up accelerator” mentorship program called the NexGen IT Entrepreneurs Boot Camp. A $125,000 investment pool was also created, which will be distributed by Flat6 Labs, a brand-new fund launched by Egyptian venture capitol company Sawari Ventures.
“The world has learned from Egypt the power of using technology to help achieve dreams,” USAID Director James Bever stated at the boot camp’s opening ceremony. “It is strong leaders like you who will increase economic freedoms for all Egyptians.”
Of the participating 19 Egyptian start-ups that were mentored, four were chosen to intern at an American company or continue the boot camp for three more months in Denmark:
Bey2ollack is a smart phone application and website that reports on road conditions in Cairo, named after an Egyptian expression used when passing on overheard information. “Anyone who lives in Cairo dreads the traffic,” said co-founder Mostafa Elbeltagy. “We have some of the worst traffic conditions of any city and it’s so unpredictable.” Because news coverage of traffic conditions is non-existant, Cairo residents mostly rely on word-of-mouth, so Elbeltagy and four other cousins, all between the ages of 23 and 30, launched Bey2ollak last October to collect word-of-mouth news on traffic and cast it out to a wider net of residents by showing drivers maps of traffic reports from home.
“It’s part of Egyptian culture,” said partner Ali Rafea, “and the app is all-Egyptian.”
“We are lucky that we don’t need the support of anything except good wattage, as opposed to manufacturing goods or opening a store,” said Rafea. “Those kinds of businesses need the support of the government.” He explained, “We were lucky ’cause we didn’t have any costs. The only cost was our time. The difficulty we faced in the beginning, was that we weren’t experts in Blackberry development. But despite that, we managed to develop the app in two weeks.”
Already the app has over 50,000 registered users, 5,000 of which signed up pre-launch, and many more utilize the website without registering. “In the near future, I expect mobiles to play an even bigger role, unlike Internet, mobiles are everywhere in Egypt carried by the poor and the rich,” predicted business partner Gamal ElDin Sadek. They also have a strategic marketing and advertising partnership with Vodafone, one of the largest mobile phone companies in Egypt. “Our vision is to go global,” said Elbeltagy, “and if we are going to do this we will be creating more jobs and helping out the economy.”
“We are proud of what we did in the revolution. It was a spark of hope that we can do better and build a better country. It means a lot to be starting a business at this optimistic time, although we know there are difficult times ahead.”
Supermama.me, an Arabic parenting website and smartphone application created by colleagues Yasmine El-Mehairy and Zeinab Samir, both 29, is scheduled to launch this September. The genesis of the project came from El-Mehairy’s sister-in-law’s pregnancy and the wealth of conflicting advice she received, mostly from old wives’ tales. “Your mother tells you one thing, your mother-in-law tells you something else, but there’s difficult to get good expert advice.” With women making up almost half of all internet users in Egypt, the website now boasts a staff of ten offering advice on pregnancy, parenting, women’s health, career options, child care, nutrition, cooking and budgeting.
By 2015, Supermama.me hopes to emerge as the number one Middle Eastern website for women. “We have a vision that we want to establish now because when things are more stable and the political systems are in place, people will start looking for jobs and we will be able to provide a work environment where women can work from home,” El-Mehairy explained. “Everybody has a real belief in the country at the moment.”
“We are believers that entrepreneurship is how the future will get better. Not through thousand-person corporations like the pre-revolution, but rather thousands of smaller businesses, each providing two or three job opportunities.”
Inkezny, which means “rescue me” in Arabic, is an application currently in development by construction management student Marwan Roushdy. “The emergency system in Egypt is really bad and you often get put on hold,” explained Roushdy. “I thought of an application to bypass the system and get in touch with hospitals directly. The idea developed further into something for travelers worldwide to help them find emergency numbers in whatever country they are in.”
#18DaysinEgypt, an online platform developed by Ahmed Ellaithy and four other business partners, documents and tells the story of Egypt’s revolutions through the eyes of those who lived it, through videos, blogs, photos, tweets and commentary. “We see immense potential in transforming crowdsourcing and citizen journalism,” said Ellaithy, who hopes to expand the platform into an aggregated site for any major news event.
“I feel lucky to be in Egypt at this time and if I was still living abroad I would want to come back, said Ellaithy. “It’s a great time for new ideas, there’s more of a can-do attitude in everyone.”
“Building a successful entrepreneurial community is critical for pointing the way towards building a strong economy in Egypt,” said Mike Ducker, member of the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program. “The Middle East is striving to become the next global center of entrepreneurship, and Egypt is a central focal point of small business activity in the region.”
In order for an economy to repair, there needs to be room for new ideas, plus the financial backing to make those ideas a reality. Not only are these burgeoning start-ups gaining validation through their recognition and mentorships, they are also creating a community of innovation, where people look to each other not for rivalry, but for cooperation in building towards a shared vision as an economically viable home to creative solutions and ground-breaking results.
“Two things were very obvious,” Young Entrepreneur Council founder Scott Gerber told Mashable. “Entrepreneurship is alive and well in Egypt, we just need to solidify the ecosystems. All the pieces are there, they’re just not on the same board yet.”
“The tech start-up scene in Egypt started about two years ago. An ecosystem needs to be formed. They are at square one. In a few years, it will be booming.”
Photo courtesy of BlatantWorld.com via Flickr