Last month the world's press fawned over the announcement of Egypt's first tech park; a Silicon Valley on the Nile. Managing editor Dalia Awad meets Ahmed El Alfi, Tarek Taha and Sherif Kamel - the men making the vision a reality - to find out more.
There’s a common conception that those who have the money and resources to invest in Egypt are far removed from the needs and struggles of entrepreneurs and those who, in other words, need the money and resources that the big shots have. In the case of Ahmed El Alfi, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Founder of venture capitalist firm Sawari Ventures, Alfi has become the go-to man for those searching for investment, especially after founding start-up accelerator Flat6Labs, in association with the American University in Cairo. His latest commitment to Egypt’s ever-growing tech industry is Tahrir Alley Technology Park which plans to transform the historic Greek Campus into the futuristic GrEEK Campus. The vivacious, energetic man certainly has his finger on the pulse, dismissing my introductions to CairoScene and the MO4Network, with an intense “I know what you do. Tell me who you are,” which certainly threw me off. We’re at the Greek Campus at the height of the Rise Up Summit, where the story of Egypt’s very own Silicon Valley begins and, if all goes well, never ends. In a makeshift office/balcony overlooking the technological festivities, I tell Alfi who I am, to which he replies that I’d make a great friend for his daughter, once more dispelling the myth that big business doesn’t care for the little (wo)man.
It’s this sort of personal connection that Alfi makes with everyone he meets that has made Flat6Labs so successful; everyone has an idea, but it takes a certain character to make it thrive and an even more unique kind of person to spot that character and help them grow. The idea of Tahrir Alley Technology Park, too, came when one of the company’s Sawari Ventures has invested in coincidentally found itself as a neighbour to another company doing exactly the same thing. “They ran into each other and started talking about ideas and I instantly had this vision of our own Silicon Valley, CalTech kind of community,” he explains. At the same time, Alfi had heard rumours of the AUC selling off the library in the unused downtown campus and, even though he’d never seen it before, had imagined the open space would be a great place for a collaborative and creative environment. “I asked them if I could buy the library. They said no. I asked to see the Greek Campus, they showed me it, and I said I’ll take the whole thing! I’ll rent it, buy it, whatever you want, but I want this place!” he explains, as though it was a simple as an impulse buy at the On the Run check out, when in fact negotiations have been underway since February 2012. Sherif Kamel, Dean of the AUC’s School of Business, explains far more formally: “Ahmed El Alfi approached AUC with the proposal to create a tech park in the Greek Campus. This was followed by extensive discussions and exploration between the two parties to structure the agreement, and conduct the necessary due diligence.” Though the campus has been unused by the university since 2008, Kamel insists that “through this partnership, AUC will ensure that the GrEEK Campus is utilised in a way that is consistent with our educational mission, while contributing to the development of the downtown campus and the economy at large, and helping Egypt’s emerging entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem.”
The deal was finished just 10 days before the Rise Up Summit, which acted as a precursor to what we can expect when the GrEEK Campus is up and running; thousands of bright, young things, mingling with hundreds of industry pros, together building Egypt’s rapidly developing tech industry and fostering entrepreneurship. “You know, I’m an optimistic person. I always find something to be happy about,” says Alfi. “But when I woke up on the first day of the summit and made my way here, only to find the whole of Tahrir closed, with traffic backed up for miles. I was worried, of course, and couldn’t be optimistic... Until I got here. And what amazing feeling it was; we had nearly 2000 here on the first day alone.” And that wasn’t it. During the two day event, which really proved, if there ever was any doubt, that Egypt’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and kicking, the GrEEK Campus development had interest from scores of potential tenants, from massive multinationals to small start ups. “I have no doubt that the GrEEK Campus will have a scalable and sustainable impact on the community at large and will help create a more disseminated culture of entrepreneurship,” adds AUC’s Kamel, and it quickly becomes clear that he’s not the only one that has high hopes for the project.
Keeping the campus’ architectural integrity and the buildings’ importance in Cairo’s history intact, Tahrir Technology Park is beginning the internal renovation processes as we speak. What’s unique about the development is the flexibility it affords. Alfi, the proud landlord, explains it: “If you’re one person with an idea and some money and you want to work on it for a few months to see if it’ll work out, you can come rent a desk by the month here in the co-working space. You hire three people, and you’re not sure if you’re going to keep them, keep them with you in the co-working space. You’re committed, you’ve got some funding, you’re serious – it’s cheaper to rent a five-person office. You grow; you can adjust the space and expand physically by moving the partition walls. You grow more; you have 500 people in your company. You move out. And I’m happy for your success!”
Any entrepreneur or company can rent the customisable spaces, for any period from a month or two to five or six years, so long as they’re based in the technology industry. “Other industries depend on incremental growth, but the tech industry depends on huge leaps of creativity. I believe – clearly! – that the growth engine of Egypt’s economy is entrepreneurship across all sectors, but technology will have a disproportionately large impact,” adds Alfi. AUC’s Kamel shares a similar sentiment regarding the importance of enterprisers in Egypt today, describing human capital as the country’s “most precious resource; our oil of the 21st century. This park will be a catalyst for creating many start-ups, which will inspire, and also employ, youth."
Alfi, the ideas man, sees the campus becoming a “melting pot” of professionals and innovators in various fields, hoping to replicate the success of Flat6Labs, in terms of connecting go-getters together to create super-teams and prosperous business partnerships. “The biggest compliment I ever got was from a Flat6Labs graduate who’d worked at IBM for 15 years, and said that if an accelerator like this hadn’t come along, he’d never have left his job to pursue his idea,” he recalls. “I asked him why and he said that he’d always been intimidated by the concept of owning and managing a business. I said that’s the easy part and he said ‘Not for me; not for an engineer.’” As such, Alfi envisions a creative, collaborative environment where a business-minded professional can cover a techie’s back and vice versa. I wonder if this kind of vision could be too idealistic – Egyptians are notoriously protective of their work, and competition has a habit of turning ugly here, I explain to Alfi, which he wholeheartedly disagrees with, “Competitiveness is good. Competitiveness creates excellence and excellence is what we need.” Nevertheless, cooperation seems to of utter importance to him and he’s quick to mention that tenants of the GrEEK Campus will not be companies that Sawari Ventures has economic interests in. “That’s only about 5% of the companies we’ve got moving in. It’s not about one fund portfolio, it’s about the whole community and that way everyone’s engaged with it and they have a sense of ownership of the place. But no jerks, though. Nothing ruins a community more than a bully or a jerk.”
If Alfi is the ideas man, then he couldn’t have picked a better colleague to take care of the execution. Tarek Taha has been appointed as CEO for the GrEEK Campus off the back of years and years of experience in tech and private equity. Having founded E-Dar.com, Egypt’s most comprehensive real estate directory, worked as LINKdotNet’s cheif product’s officer, been in charge of Osool TV and had a three year stint as real estate director at EFG-Hermes, his CV reads like the perfect match for Alfi’s mission. “You know when you’re driving past a roundabout or a square and you see tradesmen offering their skills? I like to joke and say that you’ll find people here at the GrEEK Campus yelling, ‘iOs ya basha?’” Taha laughs, pointing at the steps that were many an AUC alumnus’ favourite hangout in the past. “We’re going to keep the university feel,” adds Alfi. “But this time, we’re playing for real.”
“I’m here to take the vision and turn into a reality,” says Taha. “The beautiful thing about this campus is that it’s well-built and offers us a lot of options without changing too much. We’re focusing, right now, on the infrastructure part, especially in the Jameel Building and the library, which offer bigger spaces, up to 600m2. These are suitable for corporations, who we’ve realised really understand our mission here so this is the best place to for them. Here, they’ll find the talent and the people they want to invest in. We’ve been in talks with the likes of Vodafone and Microsoft already, both of which want to take advantage of the atmosphere and creativity that’ll be on offer here.” Alfi is quick to add: “And these big players want their technology to be used by the cool people!”
The campus is made up of five buildings, and Taha tells me that the first occupants are already in the process of moving in. “We work on the core/shell model, delivering the space, and all that’s left is for the tenant to decorate as they wish. We’ve wired the spaces in terms of electricity and internet connectivity. The beauty of being downtown is that we’re right next to Bab El Louk which is home to one of the main sources of internet in Cairo, meaning that you get high bandwidth. We have our own, dedicated fibre optic cable providing connectivity to the campus,” he adds. But what of the traffic, the lack of parking, and the limited recreational facilities the downtown area is plagued with? Yes, it’s geographically accessible, but by God can it be stressful. Taha senses me tense up when I talk about the scars navigating Cairo’s centre has left me with over the years, offers me a lemonade and, conveniently, has an answer for each of my woes. “There’ll be parking especially for tenants. There’ll be communal areas and cafes and catering. There’ll even be a rock climbing wall and a day care centre for those with children. We want working here to be as easy as possible because when we remove all the obstacles, real innovation can be made,” he explains. “That’s not to mention that we have multi-back up electricity and on-site generators,” injects Alfi, beaming with pride that the vision is coming to life. “I mean, look around you – Tahrir is closed and people are still here,” says Taha easing apprehensions.
With development coming along quickly, Taha estimates that by February 2014 – yes, just a few weeks away – the construction element of the campus’ futuristic upgrade will be complete. As companies, big and small, rush to snap up the space on offer, by mid next year, the bustling community will be truly coming to life, as more and more move in, customise their space and call the GrEEK Campus their own. “If you want pink polka dots and swings inside your office, that’s up to you!” laughs Alfi when I ask if there are any limits on what one can do with the space they lease. “As long as it isn’t unethical!” adds Taha with a wink. These two men certainly have a joie de vivre that works perfectly with the ethos of the GrEEK Campus and the young community they want so desperately to foster. And foster is exactly the right word; while no one can deny the unique brand of Egyptian ambition that runs deeper than the Nile, it takes the initiative, inspiration and experience that these men, and their talented team, provide that can turn ingenious infant ideas into to grown-up, go-getting businesses.
For more information on the GrEEK Campus visit their website here.