Design thinking and the Egyptian startup scene

While Egypt’s green-tech startup scene is growing bigger every day, startup events are packing University towns with young entrepreneurs. Their ultimate goal is to learn the tools and practices that allow them to work independently (preferable for foreign costumers) while setting themselves free from a hopelessly corrupt political and economical system.

March 3, 2014

Can crisis trigger creativity, entrepreneurial businesses and self-created-value?

Well, about five years ago when jobs were cut and the biggest economical crisis since World War 2 occurred in Berlin, pioneer coworkingspaces and startups set the ground for what we’re seeing today. In 2011 the Fukushima crisis changed mindsets in Japan, and Spain and Portugal witnessed their entrepreneurial arising during the financial collapse.

In Egypt, meanwhile, the energy of the Tahrir Square is being channelled towards tech hubs, innovation labs and coworking spaces where fear, politics and religion are not welcome.

While working with the communities around two Egyptian leading spaces (icecairo and icealex) it became my mission to pass on the Design Thinking mindset.

The University-smart vs. Street-smart“ dictionary was one of the most significant byproducts of this workshop in Cairo.  While middle/upper-class Egyptians from notable (international) Business and Engineering Schools are familiar with terms like KPI or CTO they may lack the hands-on knowledge of the street-smart kids.

“If I tell a buyer to pay me later, I know he will look for my vegetable stand next time”: The 11 year-old entrepreneur Asmaa knows what long-term costumer retention is, but may not be able to express her tacit knowledge when it comes to enrolling for startup events. For Ezzet, a local farmer, pitching is like displaying a half-cut watermelon on the roadside: “A quick view shows the sweet core of the product and attracts investors”.  The commonly developed dictionary includes storyboards that help both sides approach each other with more empathy.

Egyptian startup scene


A “no plan” festival disruptively sharing skills at the Nile

During the Festival around 60 tech leaders, social media pros, engineers, farmers and craftsmen hacked the classical setup of development work. That setup usually runs as follows:  ‘university-smart kids’ meet up with western mentors in conference rooms to help the poor (often developing apps for people with no phones or online services).

Instead of this classical setup, we arranged a playground for free collaboration, mutual teaching and spontaneous ideas to be tested on Felucca boats. Everyone was responsible for giving workshops and making things happen. The hardest part was to understand and accept that there was actually no plan or organisational hierarchy! Co-creation can be slightly scary when it really happens, because you lose control, and instead of consuming an event you produce it.

The power of free collaboration between brilliant minds and hands in an open process advocated by Jay Cousins and his Nubian partners Darsh and Ashraf, brought up the Nubialin project. This bridge between Berlin and Nubian entrepreneurs is the coworking-coliving-making lab to look out for in 2014!