Last weekend, around 20 Egyptian professionals got together at the French Cultural Centre in Mounira: an oasis of cultivation in the midst of frantic downtown Cairo, and the ideal setting for a workshop that closely gathered so diverse a group of entrepreneurs.
Some participants currently lead or are part of incubated social enterprises at Nahdet El Mahrousa, others are involved in enterprises from the local start-up ecosystem. Despite the obvious variance in age and experience, the entrepreneurs were brought together by a shared desire to refine, revitalise or realise their own projects. The range was exceptional: origami, bike-sharing, bio-gas and handicrafts to name but a few.
In many cases it was the same old story: well-intentioned, intelligent and passionate social entrepreneurs wishing to make an impact, but lacking a refined enough business model to do so.
But if there was any threat of things becoming too bohemian, Gamal Guemeih’s fierce pragmatism was the perfect antidote. On the first evening he guided the SE’s through the concept of Lean thinking.
So what is Lean anyway?
Build, Measure, Learn.
Those are the basic tenants of a Lean approach to testing your business model.
Mai Medhat, the first guest speaker, built on this by presenting fifteen entrepreneurial ‘DOs and DON’Ts’. Mai is CEO and founder of eventtus, an application that allows users to find and share interesting events and network effectively. Her presentation resonated with participants because it was grounded in examples from her own team’s experiences.
The next day, Gamal walked us through the sheer creative potential of business modeling. He gave a few examples; these stuck out as most memorable.
1. Create a story for your product, make it special and niche, the way that Zooba and Amina K do.
2. Do the opposite: make a niche, luxury product more accessible and affordable. Electric toothbrushes started out as really expensive until someone created a cheaper alternative. Now they’re available to almost everyone.
3. Import a geographically isolated innovation and implement it locally. Redbull was an unknown Thai product until it was discovered and went global.
The day ended on an inspiring note. Abdelhameed Sharara and Nabil Rostom told us about their entrepreneurial journey, with all its ups and downs.
Sharara is CEO and co-founder of RiseUp Egypt, a platform which brings all of Egypt’s entrepreneurs together under one roof. He emphasised the importance of focus — “Don’t commit to more than one thing at once, it doesn't work”.
One of Sharara’s role-models is Talaat Harb, who in 1920 founded Banque Misr: the first bank to be owned by Egyptian shareholders and also staffed by locals.
Next and last up was Nabil Rostom, founder of Ventures Dash, The Bootcamp Egypt, and The Wellness Log. Taking his audience by surprise, he started out by talking about failure, using The Bootcamp as a case study. In the spirit of Lean he emphasised the importance of learning from failure.
“Don’t be afraid to fail, just make sure its a lesson well learned”.
“Failure isn't a waste of time because of the experience you gain from it”.
The third day kicked off with a spontaneous jamming session initiated by Osama (“Ozoz”) and Mostafa. Flute-playing, origami, storytelling were all fused in the cool, outdoor cafeteria of the Cultural Centre. Everyone was then divided into four groups. Each group tackled a different challenge to Egyptian civil society: waste, employment, handicrafts and education.
Each group broke down the problem into four steps:
a. Identify a core problem to focus on
b. Brainstorm its causes
c. Brainstorm its effects
d. Analyse both and design a Lean and sustainable social startup model that will effectively tackle the challenge.
We were curious to see what solutions the teams would come up with.
Core question: Why is downtown Cairo so unclean?
Vision: create an incentive for a cleaner Cairo
The group began by explaining that most Egyptians lacked the incentive to responsibly dispose of their trash. Inspired by a startup called Karakeeb, they had the idea for a bin with a camera attached that would take a picture each time someone threw their trash in it.
In the spirit of Lean, the group designed a lower-budget business model to test the vision. They would use wastebaskets made from plastic bottles and cans. These are cheap to produce and recycle waste material.
The more expensive business model involved bins with underground storage and more expensive collection.
Gamal praised the idea to create alternative bins. Ordinary bins are often stolen and are also more expensive to produce. But he asked, are they durable enough?
Core question: Why is there a gap between education and market needs?
Vision: to build a channel between universities and employers.
Although the group wish for the project to encompass all Egyptian universities, both public and private, they decided to initially test the model on one faculty in one private university.
They were inspired by an existing project which was established by the GUC Information Engineering Faculty and EMC2.
Many GUC students take on internships and eventually jobs at EMC2. Wishing to facilitate this interest, the company created a lab in GUC which is only accessible to those who train there. The lab teaches students the system at EMC2 so that they graduate already aware of what the job entails. At present, 90% of their employees are GUC graduates.
Our group of entrepreneurs wished to create something similar, also mobilising university alumni. They envisage a network between students, alumni, employees and employers.
As Gamal pointed out, the project assumes that the problem of unemployment and gap between market and education only affects recent and fresh graduates, but it could also affect someone 30+ years old.
The group explained that they chose to focus on fresh graduates because in order to prevent the problem from developing in the first place.
Core question: Why does the Egyptian education system not encourage critical thinking?
Vision: To empower and inspire teachers all around Egypt, allow them to network.
The group proposed initiating a tour of Egypt which they would call “EduTour”.
Phase 1: Bus tour of schools around Egypt to gather solutions for the education crisis.
Initiate RiseUp Education in Egypt (inspired by Sharara’s RiseUp Egypt) in order to spotlight on successful alternative education models.
Phase 2: Initiate Education hubs in governorates across Egypt.
Gamal’s main critique of EduTour was that it didn't directly address the critical thinking deficiency. It also lacked appeal and wasn't financially sustainable — what was the product that the group was trying to sell?
Core question: How can handicrafts survive in the face of mass-production?
Vision: a platform mapping all the artisans in Egypt.
The group suggested creating a coalition and campaign bringing together designers and artisans from all over Egypt. In such an environment, artisans would have the opportunity to learn from foreign experience, create videos and stories, and launch marketing campaigns. This would be a useful resource for both locals and foreigners, and also raise awareness and encourage networking among the handicrafts community.
Gamal’s main concern about the prototype was that it was too ambitious.
“Don’t consider the scope of the entire community, start small, you don’t have control over everything.”
He also encouraged them to consider successful examples such as Amina K, who tells the story of the Egyptian culture through her designs. “You need a coolness factor — Be the Zooba of handicrafts”.
General messages that stuck:
“Start small, dream big”
“Try something, if it doesn't work move on and try something else”
“Create a story for your product”
What did people make of the experience?
“Excellent guest speakers”
“Changed my perspective”
“I now know what I need”
Thanks to our speakers and trainer, who gave up their time for this workshop. We’re definitely looking forward to our next event! Stay tuned for more.