Cairo’s traffic jams are a bit like a zombie horde; no sooner have you dealt with one than another pops up. By some estimates, the country loses around $8bn, 4% of its GDP, every year from its capital’s clogged roads.
But in recent months, with protests, marches, and roadblocks springing up across the city, traffic has been even more unpredictable. The average commuter already spends three hours in traffic each day; spontaneous protests or security checkpoint can leave them stuck in clouds of exhaust fumes for much longer.
“We’re benefiting from the circumstances,” jokes Gamal elDin Sadek, the 25-year-old co-founder of Bey2ollak, Egypt’s most popular crowd-powered traffic information app. During the recent unrest, the mobile app – which allows users to post real-time information about Cairo and Alexandria traffic – saw its traffic skyrocket to up to 30,000 requests per minute, according to Sadek, as Cairo’s 20 million citizens looked for the best way to navigate the city.
Sadek along with four of his relatives created Bey2ollak (Arabic slang for “word on the street”), two years ago. With over 700,000 registered users and thens of thousands of highly active users, one local paper recently called it “more essential to traffic than traffic lights”.
Bey2ollak may be one of Egypt’s more well-known and successful start-ups (it earns revenue from advertising, and recently launched a partnership with telecom giant Vodafone), yet the young company reflects of a rising culture of tech innovation emerging after the revolution which ousted former leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Pride and unity
This culture of “social innovation” is something relatively new for Egypt, says Sadek. It’s an unforeseen effect of the 2011 revolution and, some say, paved the way for a new era of opportunity for young Egyptians.
“When you come of age with technology, and realise how easy it is to connect and collaborate, not only do you want your voice politically, but also socially and economically,” says Christopher Schroeder, author of Start-up Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East. “[Egypt’s] ecosystem is being built despite the environment, and has been built entirely from the bottom up,” Schroeder says.
“Many people feel a sense of ownership of the country, and trust and confidence,” says Loay El-Shawarby, Chairman of Nahde El Mahrousa (Renaissance of Egypt), a prominent non-governmental organisation supporting Egyptian youth. “They want to do their own things to change the country and for themselves. But they also need profit, and make money,” he says.
Since 2011, over a dozen technology hubs, shared offices and business incubators – which offer start-ups a small amount funding, mentoring and support – have emerged across Cairo’s urban sprawl.
At a new shared office space in the leafy south Cairo suburb of Maadi called The District, dozens of entrepreneurs, developers and designers work together. Across town in Heliopolis is Innoventures, a company that helps creative entrepreneurs build “successful businesses that change the world” is supporting several clean-tech and IT start-ups.
Another new player is Flat6Labs, based on Silicon Valley’s successful Y-Combinator – a business “accelerator” which invests a small amount of money in new technology start-ups, offering them free space, advice and connections. It has already invested $10,000 to $15,000 in more than 30 tech start-ups since 2011.
But the aim, says founder Ahmed Alfi, is not to create the next Silicon Valley. Alfi made his fortune investing in tech and media start-ups in the US, but Flat6Labs is an attempt to create something uniquely Egyptian.