Cairo nonprofit gives lifeline to Egypt’s young social entrepreneurs

Cairo nonprofit provides seed funding to businesses that can tackle some of the country’s biggest challenges, from health to food and education

Cairo-based Misr El-Kheir (MEK) Foundation is helping Egyptian youth with innovative ideas and a social impact slant to get their projects off the ground.

Through the initiative GESR (Governorate Economic and Social Revival), the nonprofit provides seed funding to businesses that can tackle some of the country’s biggest challenges, from health to food and education.

The initiative was started in 2013, with a focus on supporting tech-based innovations able to create affordable access to quality goods and services for the underprivileged in Egyptian society.

“We have 37 million people living under the poverty line and we have several challenges in health, education, food and water. We decided to target entrepreneurs that can tackle these problems,” said Sally Metwally, who oversees GESR and is director of MEK’s social innovation and entrepreneurship programmes.

GESR is gearing up to launch the second round of its Business Incubator programme; a competition that sifts through social enterprise ideas and selects the best for funding.

From the 180 ideas submitted in the first round of incubation, eight were selected. Winning teams receive support in the form of a six-month incubation period, seed capital of up to 160,000 Egyptian pounds, and in kind support, including working space and technical assistance, of the value of 40,000 pounds.

Among the successful teams is Askova, which seeks to design and manufacture small wind turbines, suited to the low wind speed in Egypt, to produce clean energy. Others include InterAct, which uses technology as an education aid, such as converting ordinary work surfaces into interactive ones. Nutrients Recycling, meanwhile, transforms organic waste into biogas, fertiliser and animal feed.

Egypt, with a population of 83 million, is grappling with unemployment levels of almost 13 per cent and a quarter of its population living at the national poverty line. Education, with illiteracy rates in some schools at 80 per cent, is one of the country’s biggest challenges, alongside adequate power supply and access to quality healthcare.

MEK works in human development projects in areas including health, education, scientific research and innovation. More than 85 per cent of its funding comes from the public and the rest from large corporations. The organisation employs more than 600 people and has 15 offices across Egypt. As GESR’s objective is to eventually reach the country’s 28 governorates, the foundation is considering converting the initiative into a company.

“If you are working with entrepreneurs you need to be agile and fast so being a small company will improve that,” said Metwally.

The grants GESR gives to entrepreneurs are conditional. The organisation disperses the funds in stages, depending on the team’s progress. Once their company becomes fully operational and reaches a certain level of profitability, it commits to donating five per cent of that profit to GESR. Becoming a company would enable GESR to take an equity stake in the startups it is supporting.

“We are working now to spin this out into a company out of the MEK Foundation. We have done this before with MEK. Our objective is to establish this company after the completion of intake one of the incubator we are in now,” she said.

GESR, which means bridge in Arabic, requires $1m in funding annually. Aside from its incubator programme, GESR also targets youth with ideas and proof of concept for its innovation lab competition, which focuses on a particular challenge facing Egyptians. Selected individuals work with mentors for two months and a half to enhance the concept and are given access to the organisation’s innovation lab with its mechanical workshop and working spaces.

“This is one area where we receive big numbers of youth who are not necessarily entrepreneurs. The objective of this lab is to give them more confidence in innovation and social entrepreneurship,” said Metwally.

So far, GESR has targeted 3,000 youth with its outreach programme across 10 governorates in Egypt, with 1,000 signing up for the incubation competition.

“I feel we are starting to make an impact with this program in Egypt… These achievements are bringing a new success to entrepreneurs to start their ideas,” said Metwally. “Our objective is to start a GESR in each governorate. It’s a very ambitious project and we need to prove that it’s a very sustainable model. That’s why we are starting in Cairo and in two years we will evaluate where we are and how we can grow.”

Metwally added: “The main objective is that these companies we are incubating have a positive impact on people living below the poverty line and empowering them.”

Photo credit: Education for Employment Egypt