Cultivating Egypt’s Social Entrepreneurs

Ayman Ismail By Lynne Weiss
November 30, 2012

When Professor Ayman Ismail went to visit his home in Egypt early in 2011, he had no idea he was walking into a revolution. Three weeks after he arrived, however, demonstrations began in Tahrir Square, and Ismail saw he had a positive role to play.

Ismail, who today holds the Abdul Latif Jameel Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship at the American University in Cairo (AUC) School of Business, received both his Ph.D. in international economic development and his master’s in city planning from MIT. Selected by the World Economic Forum as one of Egypt’s two most influential and inspirational leaders of 2012, he discussed the prospects for social entrepreneurs in Egypt at an October 11 event co-sponsored by the MIT System Design and Management (SDM) Speakers Series and the MIT Egyptian Students Association.

He began his talk by describing the situation in Egypt when he arrived there some 20 months ago. On a macro level, Egypt’s economy was strong—levels of foreign investment, economic growth, and foreign currency reserves were increasing. Domestically, however, there were problems. Poverty was at 42%. Poverty in Egypt means living on around $1.70 a day. The unemployment rate was high and labor unrest was increasing.

In the wake of the revolution, investments have slowed and foreign currency reserves have declined from $35 billion to $15 billion. Poverty and labor unrest are still widespread.

Ismail believes, however, that Egypt offers reasons for optimism. First, Egypt now has its first democratically elected civilian president in over 60 years. Second, it has a healthy middle class with significant disposable income and a desire to build a safe, stable society. And third, Egypt’s burgeoning entrepreneurial activity gives Ismail further reason for optimism.

While small businesses such as corner groceries have long been the traditional backbone of Egypt’s entrepreneurial economy, today Egypt has an increasing amount of contemporary innovation and is home to many of the same types of technology-based start-ups that one finds in Cambridge or Silicon Valley. One of the most exciting ventures is a business to develop solar-powered water pumps and desalination stations for Egypt’s desert climate. Another uses patents on nanoparticles for diagnosing hepatitis C.

Ismail is co-founder of Nahdet El Mahrousa, a nongovernmental organization that provides incubation services and seed funding to young social entrepreneurs. He also leads the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program (EIP) at AUC. "That’s my baby," he grinned, as he spoke enthusiastically about the huge network of mentors that EIP has created to strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem. "I hope to come back next year to tell you about our success."

Ismail ended his talk by offering a final reason for optimism. Egypt’s network of 18 national and numerous private universities provides a solid foundation of technical education. Ismail said, however, that the country’s most interesting entrepreneurs are not necessarily those with the best academic background, but those who bring something unique at this moment of massive political, economic, and social change: a mix of "business skills, street savvy, spirit, and tenacity." Revolutionary, indeed.

Ayman Ismail