Located upstream of the Nile, Upper Egypt is a region mainly known for its tourism. Home to the most prestigious sites of Ancient Egypt, it receives thousands of visitors each year to visit the Valley of Kings, or the temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel. Recently, it also drew attention for its entrepreneurial energy, becoming the focus of investors. A way to revitalize this region, among the poorest in the country.
From El-Minya to Aswan, Upper Egypt and Middle Egypt are among the poorest regions of the country. Its population is mainly rural (75%) and holds 1000 of the most disadvantaged villages in Egypt, according to a report from the World Bank. Mostly farmers who live from market gardening, cotton and sugar cane culture, as well as some trade and crafts.
However, the region also possesses a unique capital: its youth. Half of its population is under 30 years old, and one third is between 16 and 29. An opportunity as much as a challenge, in this area where the unemployment rate is 16% and the education level very low. A youth inspired by the Arab Spring, who wants to participate actively in changing his country.
An opportunity not missed by Sami Awa, communication manager of Rise Up Summit, one of the largest platforms dedicated to start-ups in the MENA region.
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“Look South”, an event to support start-ups in Upper Egypt
Last April, the platform which connects entrepreneurs and investors from the MENA region, organized a hackathon called “Look South”. It has invited many young entrepreneurs from the governorates of Assiut, Luxor, and Aswan to participate. “We have been interested in the ecosystem of start-ups in Upper Egypt for a while now. We have organized entrepreneur workshops in cities like Minya and Assiut,“ says Sami. “It’s an ecosystem quite difficult to access because we have to face both lacks of funds and data on which we can build products. In addition, the centralization of all the resources in the capital often pushes young entrepreneurs of the region to move to Cairo. “
This difficult region, which concentrates 40% of the Egyptian population, faces many challenges in education, water management, and other basic needs. This is what motivated Rise Up Summit to embark on the incubation journey of companies in southern Egypt. As he explains “It was not thinkable to present ourselves as a representative platform of the Egyptian entrepreneurial world without focusing on the south of the country, which concentrates a large majority of the population and resources”.
The event saw experts and speakers from all over the country come to share their expertise with young entrepreneurs. “We organized a hackathon where developers and tech entrepreneurs built up together solutions to help entrepreneurs from upper Egypt on specific issues like seed irrigation, or transportation”. A way to activate the start-up scene in southern Egypt by providing the needed resources for young companies to monetize their projects and find investors.
Promising start-ups that are solutions-oriented
Five teams, from Assiut, Sohag, El-Minya, and Qena arrived in the final of this competition for funding of 30000 Egyptian pounds (1629 euros). “We were really surprised by the quality and creativity of the projects presented. Entrepreneurs from the region came up with ideas that, far from being replicas of companies in the silicon valley, respond to real local issues. They all came with a detailed plan of their needs, which many entrepreneurs do not do in Cairo”, says Sami.
But the innovation platform is not the only one to look at young projects in southern Egypt. Nile Angels, an investment fund has also sniffed the opportunity. Founded in April 2018, it was specifically created to support innovation in Upper and Middle Egypt. Located in Assiut, 370 km from Cairo, this business angel offers young companies the opportunity to develop through investment programs and coaching.
Silicon Waha, another initiative promoted by the Ministry of Technology and Communication, the New Urban Communities Authority and Information Technology Industry Development Agency, also supports innovation in the region. Following the Silicon Valley model, it has planned the set up of some technology parks dedicated to the diffusion of science and technology in 2nd tier cities. Cities like Assiut, Aswan, Beni Suef will host business accelerators, incubators, and NGOs in order to provide a suitable ecosystem for young Egyptian talents in creating value for their community.
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Some very encouraging projects, although the start-up ecosystem of the region still presents some difficulties, such as lack of entrepreneurial culture and heavy administrative procedures “I don’t think there is a lack of funds in Egypt, unlike what we could think. Many investors, capitals, institutions or even the government offer funds, but the problem is the lack of alignment between the needs of investors and what start-ups offer. “Says Sami” Also the level of general education is quite low, and unfortunately there is a brain drain that pushes the best to go to work for big companies in the United States”.