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Egypt’s tech innovators seize opportunity from turmoil

About the author

Jonathan Kalan is an independent journalist and photographer specializing in social innovations in emerging markets. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, he frequently reports from around the region, specialising in the spaces where technological innovation, social justice and media converge. You can find him on Twitter at @kalanthinks

  • From the streets
    Since the January 2011 protests which ousted longtime-ruler Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s economy has been crashed, with further political tensions. (Copyright: AFP/Getty Images)
  • Sliding fortunes
    Many of the country’s 84 million citizens living in poverty, as political protests have caused investors to leave and hurt Egypt's tourist industry. (Copyright: AFP/Getty Images)
  • Shared space
    Since 2011, tech hubs have sprung up across the capital Cairo, as entrepreneurs seek funding for their projects. (Copyright: Jonathan Kalan)
  • Innovation energy
    Flat6Labs is one of Egypt’s new start-up investors, which has so far funded 36 new tech projects. (Copyright: Jonathan Kalan)
  • Traffic stream
    One of the biggest successes among new start-ups is Bey2ollak, a crowd-sourced traffic app which Cairo residents use to negotiate the city’s jams. (Copyright: AFP/Getty Images)
  • Water worries
    Access to clean water is a common problem in Egypt. Easier, cheaper ways to desalinate water are a challenge some new start-ups are trying to solve. (Copyright: AFP/Getty Images)
  • Solar system
    Using the country’s ample sunshine, start-up Solarist hopes to lower the cost of providing clean water and power to small businesses like hotels. (Copyright: AFP/Getty Images)
  • Waste, not
    Mostafa Hemdan’s Recyclobekia, which recycles the growing mountain of e-waste, is another example of start-ups filling gaps in the system. (Copyright: Jonathan Kalan)
Since 2011, Egyptians have had to deal with unrest and political disorder. But the upheaval has also spurred a new wave of tech start-ups eager to restore the social order.

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.

“Silicon Valley shows us what can be done, but if we try and copy it exactly, we will fail,” he says. “We’re building a knowledge and tech-based ecosystem here, taking advantage of the local environment.”

Crowd-sourcing

One of Flat6Labs’ recent start-ups is Ferka2, an all-women team founded by 25-year-old Sabrine Assem. The company is developing a platform called SolverMine where NGOs, universities, governments and multinational companies across the Middle East can try and overcome their challenges via crowdsourcing.

For example, an NGO can post a challenge, calling for someone to design a cheap water filtration system with the winner receiving a prize of $10,000, or a job working with their project. Then a pool of “solvers” – including scientists, entrepreneurs, students or researchers – submit their best ideas.

 “It’s not about outsourcing simple tasks, but serious regional challenges related to renewable energy, health, and agriculture that the government doesn’t have the capacity to solve,” Assem says.

Other start-ups are looking beyond online platforms apps. Solarist, a company developed by Dina Mosallem when she was an undergraduate engineering student, is hoping to tackle two of Egypt’s biggest problems – water and energy.

Egypt ranks eighth on the list of countries facing extreme water security risk, according to global risk analysis firm Maplecroft’s Water Security Risk Index. Much of the country receives ample sunshine, yet few local companies are pushing solar energy technology.

Nearly a quarter of the government’s budget is spent on public energy subsidies according to Hesham Wahby, CEO of Innoventures, which promotes green start-ups. Yet with the rising costs of energy and oil, and given the current political conditions, “many of the subsidies that exist are going to be removed”, says Wahby, making it “the right time to be innovative with the resources Egypt has most of, like solar.”

Solarist has designed a portable, solar-powered seawater desalination unit, which they hope will help bring affordable clean water to more remote areas of the country. While there are plenty of projects using solar energy and desalination in Egypt, the combination of the two is something new.

“Using oil for desalination is expensive, and takes up a lot of space,” says Mosallem. The unit, which is the size of a small chest, can reduce a small business’s electricity and water expenses by 10-30%, according to Mosallem. The cost varies, as each system is custom-made.

The company is also looking beyond just water desalination. “We’re working on using solar for treatment of sewage water and also water pumping for agriculture and irrigation,” she says.

Another start-up, Recyclobekia, hopes to tackle Egypt’s growing e-waste problem. As cheap phones and consumer electronics flood into the region, little thought is put into where, and how, they will be recycled. Few people realise the value of their raw materials.

“I was always fascinated with electronics,” recalls Mostafa Hemdan, Recyclobekia’s 22-year-old CEO. “But I was surprised to find electronics contained very precious metals.”

With just $1,000 in funding from a university business plan competition, and a $6,000 loan from a professor, in two years Hemdan has turned Recyclobekia into one of Egypt’s largest recycling companies. It exports nearly 25 tonnes of old computers, hard drives, monitors and phones for green recycling each month.

For Egypt’s newest generation of young entrepreneurs, like Hemdan, trying to find innovative solutions to the country’s problems is one way to move forward amidst the political turmoil. While regimes have risen and fallen in the last three years, and recent events have destabilised Egypt once again, there is cautious optimism.

“We cannot depend on the government for jobs,” says Hemdan. Many in his position have simply decided, instead, to create their own jobs, inspired by the shortfalls in their society. “There’s a huge opportunity, because Egypt has so many problems,” he says.

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