By: Ingy ElSafy
Cairo – Mubasher: Non-profit and non-governmental organisations play a pivotal role in developing the country’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, especially when they build the capacities of organisations to scale and expand their social impact.
An example of this is Nahdet El-Mahrousa, which has been making a difference in the Egyptian community for almost two decades now. Mubasher will be taking you on a journey with our guests in the Startup Lounge Jackie Kameel, Managing Director at Nahdet El-Mahrousa, and Communications Manager, Moustafa Kharma, to talk about the entity’s role as an incubator for social enterprises at the early and growth stages.
You have been an incubator for the past 18 years, how do you describe your journey over the different stages Egypt has been through?
We did start off as an incubator, yes, and grew to what we are now over the years. Our evolution as an organisation was very representative of that of the ecosystem around us. We started out with a very small team; our programmes were much smaller in size, the number of social entrepreneurs we were supporting per year was much less than the number we support today, and our beneficiaries themselves were still trying to figure out the difference between being a charity or a community initiative versus being a sustainable revenue generating enterprise with a clear social mission and an innovative business model. We were always looking at other ecosystems around us to see what was happening in the social innovation and entrepreneurship space in other parts of the world, and fortunately with the exposure and influence of our founding members we were able to play a very active role in the creation of that ecosystem here in Egypt while it was still nascent, and that relates to both the entrepreneurship front in general and the social entrepreneurship one in specific.
There’s no doubt that an entrepreneurship boom has been unfolding in Egypt over the past decade as youth started realising that there was indeed an alternative to the employment route. The pace of that unfolding is faster in urban centres, but generally entrepreneurship has been picking up across the board.
Another important factor that catalysed the spread of entrepreneurial thinking amongst youth on local and national levels was entrepreneurship offices and training centres inside university faculties. Nahdet El-Mahrousa worked with other partners in 2006 on establishing the first comprehensive Career and Entrepreneurship Development Office (CEDO) in Cairo University’s faculty of engineering, and we supported other entrepreneurship centres later in the faculty of science and at Ain Shams University.
The growth of university-based incubators and accelerators over the past few years also raised awareness among students and youth in entrepreneurship and expanded their access to entrepreneurship resources.
All these factors contributed to an increased demand for new and innovative ways of working and new work environments like coworking facilities and shared offices. Also, the adoption of technology by all sectors triggered the eruption of fintech, edtech, healthtech, streamlined logistics, etc.
Over the years, the growing economic and social impact of entrepreneurship on the ground became more evident. More collaborations between startups and more so between support organisations resulted in the development of more sophisticated support programmes. The government continues to play a key role in offering the necessary legal frameworks and regulations that allow entrepreneurs to innovate, while supporting the widespread adaptation and replication of successful entrepreneurship programmes.
Do you see a difference in the government’s support when you first started versus now?
Of course we do! Government support and engagement with entrepreneurship programmes has grown substantially over the past decade. For example Ministries of Social Solidarity; Planning and Economic Development; International Cooperation; Communications and Information Technology and Trade and Industry have a very clear focus on nurturing the entrepreneurial environment in their respective domains. We’re seeing government agencies looking at value chains comprehensively and designing elaborate programmes that create linkages between entrepreneurs of different types and at different stages to key areas within large and mature traditional sectors.
Some government entities are also implementing their own entrepreneurship and training and support programmes. They’re engaging both young and seasoned entrepreneurs and experts in matters relating to programme design and policy, creating strong partnership with key support organisations and universities, and pushing for the integration of entrepreneurship in school curricula. So definitely, the government has a very clear and strong interest in supporting entrepreneurship and they see the immense value it can create to the country’s social and economic welfare.
What can the government do more to boost your presence and the broader startup ecosystem?
The government has been successful in moving us towards a more favourable environment for entrepreneurs to innovate and to launch and operate their businesses in. The next step would be to have a stronger ecosystem to support growth-oriented startups. We need to have incentives to keep them growing, particularly those operating in key sectors.
Which startups/industry can benefit the most from your current programmes?
Our focus is on social enterprises from all sectors. We also have sector-specific programmes to support creative industries, particularly handicrafts and performing arts, and the clean and green sectors, including everything from sustainable food agriculture and food production to waste management and renewable energy.
One of these partnerships resulted in the Green Works programme. Could you tell us more about its motives, objectives, and the expected outcomes for aspiring entrepreneurs in local communities outside Cairo?
The Green Works programme is led by Hivos and implemented by a group of organisations across North Africa, including us. The programme’s main objective is to contribute to the climate change mitigation efforts by creating sustainable business and job opportunities for the young women and men of North Africa, with a special focus on the green economy.
We at Nahdet El-Mahrousa are working on several key components of this programme, like running incubation and acceleration programmes to support startups from the clean and green sectors, building the capacities of other support organisations from different parts of Egypt to run their own successful incubation programmes, and supporting job intermediaries match job seekers to good job opportunities in those sustainable sectors.
How do you help startups create more supportive and innovative work environments?
We focus on the people. One of the most important factors for startup success is how a team transitions from the early stage informal setting to a professional team working together with clearly defined roles and organizational structure. We work with them on many elements surrounding team dynamics, from what we just mentioned to having solid retention plans, salary scales, etc. We are strong advocates of collaboration as a concept, so we do work on creating an environment that encourages that, and we also highlight the importance of setting a healthy culture with clear values because that guides decision making across all levels of the organisation.
How could your cooperation with UN Women and the National Council for Women empower Egyptian female entrepreneurs nationwide?
Our partnership with UN Women and the National Council for Women is focused on women-led or women-founded startups because there are still plenty of women-specific challenges in many sectors and areas, particularly outside Greater Cairo and Alexandria. Many of the beneficiaries are mixed-gender teams, which we find to be quite important and healthy, but the programme aims to ensure that women have the space they need to work and perform at their best. We hope that this partnership yields results that inspire similar initiatives, especially ones that focus on areas beyond the urban centres of Cairo, Giza, and Alexandria.
How do you describe the progress towards equality and women empowerment in Egypt and the Middle East?
In Egypt’s business and entrepreneurship world we think it is good and improving. We’re seeing many top-notch inspiring women in leadership positions across all different types of civil society organisations, the private sector, and in government.
Do you plan to expand your local model abroad to support startups outside Egypt?
No, we are focused on Egypt. We are a local NGO and our geographic interest is Egypt. However, if our incubated or formerly incubated startups are expanding abroad, we still find ways to support them through our international relationships with regional and global partners or through the Egyptian diaspora connected to Nahdet El-Mahrousa.
Tell us how could you support female refugees in Egypt, whether directly or through other organisations?
Our mandate does not specifically include working with refugees, however, in many cases startups that apply to our programmes have refugee co-founders and we evaluate their applications the same way we evaluate all other applications. In the case of non-Egyptian team members in general we always make sure they have a legal status to live and work in the country.
Looking back to your alumni list, which startup are you proud the most of supporting?
We’re proud of all our startups, and we’re really not trying to sound diplomatic here, but each one of our startups hails from different contexts and environments and they each have their own unique sets of challenges, so we can’t really say that we are proud of one more than the other just because they’ve been making headlines. We are proud of all the social entrepreneurs who dedicate their time and effort, and life really, to finding sustainable solutions that can benefit them and their communities. They’re not only creating profound and lasting social impact, but they are also changing the shape and perception of development and proving that it can indeed be done bottom up in our contexts.
We are proud of the idea behind Nahdet El-Mahrousa and of all the startups and organizations that come to us believing in the same thing, because in the end this all contributes to Egypt’s wellbeing and sustainable development.