How young entrepreneurs in Cairo are driving the local startup scene
market of over 20 million people, a tech-savvy population and a hive of young and ambitious entrepreneurs have come together in the last decade to create a dynamic startup scene in Egypt’s sprawling capital. We find out how.
The beautiful and bustling city of Cairo has become known in recent years as a lively center for entrepreneurship. With a large, vibrant and fast-paced market, the capital is brimming with opportunities for businesses, ranging from retail to healthcare to e-commerce.
Amid the surge of startups that have sprung up in the capital, some have even been making headlines. Cairo-based ride-hailing company Swvl, for example, raised $42 million this year, dubbed by many global news outlets as the largest funding round won by any Egyptian startup to date.
Apparently, it’s Egypt’s young population that has largely spurred on these developments in the startup scene.
The events of the Arab Spring in 2011 across North Africa and the Middle East – some of which took place in Cairo’s Tahir Square – stimulated many young Egyptians to choose entrepreneurship over stable 9–5 jobs as a way to enact much-needed social and economic changes.
Across the country, entrepreneurship is now increasingly viewed not only as an important underpinning for economic growth and social inclusion but as a viable career choice for young professionals.
Entrepreneurship has become seen by many young people as a way to make real changes in society
We spoke to two well-known names in Cairo’s startup ecosystem from organizations bolstering entrepreneurship in the city to find out more about its strongest assets as well as the areas in which it can improve.
How has Cairo’s startup scene evolved over the last few years?
Essam: Entrepreneurship has really blown up in recent years. After the revolution in 2011, entrepreneurship became seen by many young people as a way to make real changes in society without waiting for the government to take action. Around this time, many projects started cropping up that focused more on societal needs than on financial or business goals. That’s why we have so many startups addressing problems in industries such as education, healthcare and transportation.
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The ecosystem is also a lot more mature now than it was a few years ago. We have more sector-specific accelerators and incubators, more investors, more support and, ultimately, more talented entrepreneurs.
Mohamed: Cairo's startup scene has been gathering significant momentum in the last decade. We’ve since seen a rush of individuals creating startups, social enterprises, NGOs and also an increase in organizations – such as incubators, accelerators, venture capitalist firms and angel investors – that are enabling these enterprises to grow. Cairo is still a young ecosystem but it’s growing, and growing rapidly.
What are Cairo’s greatest strengths?
Essam: The city of Cairo has a metropolitan population of 20.5 million – that’s a huge market size for any entrepreneur looking for a large pool of users. Cairo is also a really international city where most people involved in entrepreneurship speak perfect English.
Mohamed: Compared to other countries in the MENA region, Egypt has a well-developed and affordable infrastructure – especially when it comes to electricity, office space and internet connectivity, which are all necessities for modern businesses. As an ecosystem, Cairo is very well connected to the rest of the region, as well as to Europe and the US, which gives companies good prospects for scaling.
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Social entrepreneurship is also becoming more widespread across the country, with startups in Cairo coming up with really advanced tech solutions, particularly in the areas of healthcare and education.
Interestingly, there are also many entrepreneurs living in rural areas surrounding the city who are starting ventures to address issues in their local community. There’s a lot of exciting things happening in places far away from Cairo and its entrepreneurship hype that we don’t necessarily hear about in the capital.
Even as an Egyptian it can be really hard to navigate the country’s complex legal and administrative processes.
And its challenges?
Essam: Bureaucracy. Even as an Egyptian it can be really hard to navigate the country’s complex legal and administrative processes. A lot of government officials also don’t speak very good English, which can make it even harder for foreign entrepreneurs to set up their companies.
Funding is also a challenge in Cairo, which is simply down to issues with supply and demand. At the moment, the people who are seeking investment in the city outweigh the capacity of investors to invest. However, this situation is slowly improving over time. As the ecosystem matures – and more entrepreneurs who have scaled their companies become angel investors – funding will become more readily available.
Mohamed: Challenges are faced by entrepreneurs everywhere, no matter what ecosystem you’re in. However, there’s a lot of red tape in Egypt. It’s not as easy as it could be to start a business, and getting the right licenses and permits is particularly complex.
I think the fact that the government is actively endorsing the entrepreneurship agenda in Cairo – with policies designed to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start up here – has been really pivotal in creating a more positive attitude toward startup culture.
How would you describe entrepreneurship and the startup culture in Cairo?
Essam: In the past, the ultimate career option for many people was to work for the government or for a multinational corporation, but now people are viewing entrepreneurship as one of the most desirable career options you can have. I think that this has created a very open and collaborative business environment, which is something that you actually don’t see as much of in other ecosystems.
Having lived in Sweden for three years and Berlin before that, I’ve noticed that entrepreneurs in Cairo are more willing to support each other because there is enough market share for everybody.
Mohamed: I think the fact that the government is actively endorsing the entrepreneurship agenda in Cairo – with policies designed to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start up here – has been really pivotal in creating a more positive attitude toward startup culture.
The mainstream media has also contributed to the widespread awareness and acceptance of entrepreneurship as a viable career option for young people.
As a result, more and more people are wanting to become entrepreneurs in Cairo, which is good news for the local economy. Not only can entrepreneurship produce more jobs but it can also give young people the skills and knowledge to become self-driven individuals. My hope is that there will be many more successful businesses to come out of this new movement.
Both of you are involved in different organizations that are bolstering Cairo’s startup ecosystem. Can you explain more about the impact these initiatives are having?
Essam: Enpact e.V. is a Berlin-based nonprofit organization that was founded in 2013 with the aim of promoting entrepreneurship in emerging and developing countries. We currently have programs running in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.
I think the biggest value that we add to the local ecosystem is helping foreign entrepreneurs settle in Cairo, as well as enabling Egyptian entrepreneurs to access international markets.
Mohamed: At Endeavor Egypt, we are trying to drive economic growth and job creation by selecting, mentoring and accelerating a small number of high-impact entrepreneurs. Our portfolio is a mere 30 companies, but between them, they have created over 9,000 jobs and have generated more than 4 billion EGP. That’s a significant contribution to the country’s GDP.
In addition to this, I think the most wide-reaching impact Endeavor is having is encouraging successful entrepreneurs – who have already scaled their businesses – to help other entrepreneurs in the local ecosystem. These business owners can help others just starting out on their journey in a number of ways – whether that’s through becoming an angel investor or by offering mentoring to an early stage company.
Why launch a business in Cairo and not in any other city worldwide?
Essam: If you're looking to launch a product or service in the MENA region and you need a big number of users, Cairo is the city to be. It’s also far more easy and cost-effective to hire exceptional talent in Cairo than it is in Europe or Silicon Valley.
I think what makes me so passionate about Cairo’s startup scene is the number of opportunities available. Wherever you go, the city is brimming with life. As an entrepreneur, you can also really see the impact that you are having. The ecosystem moves at such a fast pace that projects that you start seem to come to fruition quite quickly.
Mohamed: Affordable talent, vast market size and a close connection with other global startup hubs are just some of the qualities that pull entrepreneurs toward Cairo’s startup scene. The city has its own share of challenges, but with challenges come opportunities.
For further insights into Cairo’s startup scene, Startup Guide Cairo can be purchased online here.