By: Moslem Ali
Cairo - Mubasher: In the second instalment of our interview with the Founder and Chairman of Sawari Ventures, Ahmed El-Alfi, we discuss the future of technology and the opportunities of startups to succeed as technological advancement reflects on various sectors, such as education.
Besides his work with Sawari Ventures, the Cairo-based venture capital firm investing in technology companies. El-Alfi is also the co-founder of Flat6Labs, the largest accelerator in the MENA region; the founder of The GrEEK Campus, a technology and innovation park; and the founder of Nafham, one of the region’s top online education platforms.
Based on your extensive experience, what essential advice would you like to give to startups?
I think startups need to be very aggressive in evaluating their personnel. Sometimes, people cannot keep up with the speed of a company, but they stay too long.
Another thing is that startups sometimes miscalculate their cash needs. Proper cash flow management and planning are essential. Having a good financial specialist could help entrepreneurs, especially those who are more specialised in technical aspects rather than financials.
An expression that I always used to say is that a good financial person or “A good CFO is like your headlights. The stronger they are, the faster you can drive.”
As we discuss staffing, would say that working for a startup is usually more demanding than working for a corporation?
It is much more demanding. Most corporations pay you for your time, while most startups pay you for results and outcomes.
Another thing is that sometimes entrepreneurs do not properly communicate their expectations with their staff or partners, and they are then disappointed. They need to make sure to agree with their partners and early employees on the businesses needs and commitments.
One of the services that made great progress recently, especially during the pandemic, is financial technology (FinTech), how do you see the outlook for this industry, especially in the MENA region?
FinTech is a transformation towards more digital transactions, with the guidance and support of market regulators and governments, and there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs in this market.
The challenge is there will be both cooperation and competition between the startups and the existing financial institutions. I think there is a great opportunity for collaborating and transforming such services.
What do you think about the future of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies?
I do not want to mix the two together.
Almost everybody universally supports the concept of blockchain as a tool that helps better processing data and it is expected to be used in almost every record-keeping process in the world.
I am not an optimist on cryptocurrency, because I think that existing outside the sphere of the official market will not be welcomed, and because one of the main roles of government is the control of the money supply.
But you do see a future with a growing role of digital currencies?
For sure, it is a no brainer. However, it will disintermediate a lot of banks and financial institutions, if that happens. Since deposits could be held at the central bank, instead of the local banks. If I own a digital dollar or a digital pound, where is my money held? I do not need a bank to hold it. It is held on the cloud in the central bank. Therefore, this could change the whole financial system and the role of commercial banks.
Speaking of futuristic technologies and the underlying drastic changes, how do you view the future of things like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning?
I think it is very useful, but it can get out of hand very quickly. A lot has been written and said about the need to regulate AI, and other technologies of the future such as genetics and cloning. There is a need for regulation but people have different opinions, then governments and societies come to a consensus about what to regulate. Therefore, these are fundamental debates that will be needed across different countries and societies about how to regulate each of these technologies.
Perhaps we cannot talk about the future without discussing education and educational technology (EdTech), especially with your online educational platform Nafham. What is the story behind this project?
EdTech is a change that is already happening, regardless of how some people might perceive it with different opinions. There is no reason knowledge should not be delivered digitally. Therefore, EdTech will continue. I think you will have full university degrees and many other educational experiences that are digital only.
I think Nafham helped many people and saved a lot of money spent on private lessons with students watching free educational videos that explain public school curriculums, without their parents having to pay. The Nafham platform averaged five million students per school year.
Do you consider Nafham a social enterprise?
It was kind of a hybrid, but it is migrating towards being more of a full-profit enterprise in order to grow and deliver more benefit to more people. We might start offering other services, such as one-to-one tutoring or specialised lessons.
What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to build successful projects?
My first advice is to focus on your business. Secondly, do not bet your future on a deal with a big company, since big companies move at a different speed than small companies. Also, hiring the right people is as important as the quality of your product. Lastly, a lesson that my dad taught me when starting a business, don’t ever run out of cash.
Since you are working on multiple successful projects simultaneously, what productivity tips can you share with our readers?
Optimism is a choice that you make. It is an act of choice, and you can choose it every morning.
I try to focus on things that I enjoy and I am fortunate that the things that I enjoy are the most effective. I think the key to continuity is pleasure. If you take joy in a non-profit project, you will do it more and better and help more people. If you find joy in your work, you will excel.