Big ideas on the small screen help social enterprises succeed in Egypt
Reality show teaches Egyptians to start their own businesses
Reality television sometimes seems to be in a race to the bottom, but one woman’s germ of an idea is trying to harness its power for good: to create a lasting impact after the cameras are turned off.
Anna Elliot, 30, was an American college student volunteering in Afghanistan in the late 2000s when the seeds were sown for her social startup, Bamyan Media. She took note when her female Afghan friends worried over how to make ends meet in the country, newly liberated from Taliban rule, and also when Afghanistan’s first reality TV show mesmerized the nation.
Her theater group always stopped rehearsals in time to watch Afghan Star, a local version of American Idol. “I thought about how powerful it was and how so many people would end their days early so they could tune in to this television program,” she said.
“I wondered how television could be made more relevant to their situation. That, for me, was how do you get a job? How do you earn an income? How do you start a business with the skills you have?”
After helping to launch the first season of the hit show Dream and Achieve in 2008, which pit Afghan entrepreneurs against each other to win a cash prize, Elliot returned to the U.S. in 2009 inspired. She began pitching the idea of Bamyan Media, a social enterprise that partners with local production houses to make reality TV shows designed for impact.
Bamyan Media took off, with support from Ashoka, Echoing Green and USAID, and in 2012 Elliot was in Egypt prepping for its inaugural show: a similar idea to Dream and Achieve that would try to build on the wave of entrepreneurial activity following the 2011 revolution.
“We wanted to take the momentum in the wake of that euphoric moment, after all these kids have seen the power of what it means to come together, of what it means to achieve an objective that’s not so dreamy anymore,” Elliot said.
She adds that although Egypt has a thriving entrepreneur class, it’s largely limited to the wealthy and very well-educated.
The audience she wanted to find was the graduate from the mid-tier public school, the kid selling olive oil products in Sinai, and the young adult struggling to find the government job his parents demanded. World Bank figures reveal that Egypt’s unemployment rate for young people aged 15-24 was nearly 40 percent last year.
El Mashrou3 — or The Project in Arabic — was part The Apprentice, part Dragons’ Den and part support network to educate Egyptians on how to start and run a successful business.
Airing from December 2013 on the Al-Nahar network, the 13-episode season featured 14 contestants picked from over 1,000 applicants. They completed individual and team challenges from making products using a Cairo rubbish dump and selling them to furniture stores to being street-side juice sellers.
The winner was 26-year-old pharmacist Tina Boules with her startup Taqa Solutions, which aims to help poultry farms, bakeries and hotels to make and use biogas. She received a 350,000 Egyptian pound ( US$ 50,000) cash prize and her project has gone from a vague idea to a pilot program and negotiations with a supplier in India.
Other runners- up are also making entrepreneurial waves. Omneya El-Kady began as a contestant with nothing but a dream. Now, with seed funding from Bamyan Media, she is designing recycling technologies focusing on agricultural waste and biogas, and is in contact with the Kenyan government to sell her greenwaste machines.
Bamyan’s global director of development, British former journalist Asim Haneef, loved how the contestants became role models and “mini-celebrities.”
“It was amazing to see the tears shed when one of the great underdogs of the series, T-shirt seller Mido, crashed out near the semi- finals after smashing all expectations and going all the way,” he said. “The show ended up beating Dancing with the Stars in the TV ratings-proving that people would switch on to a show about start-ups and young people achieving their dreams through business talent if it was fun and dramatic enough.”
But the series’ real value lay in introducing the idea of entrepreneurship to a wider number of people.
The year before the show hit TV screens, Bamyan toured regional cities to find contestants, and the attention made an impact in places such as Alexandria and Mansoura where few of the entrepreneurial networks present in Cairo have reached.
Elliot said groups of aspiring entrepreneurs subsequently set up “skills trading” networks. “It’s like, I’ll trade you a website if you give me 10 hours of pitching advice.”
However, working in Egypt is not easy for entrepreneurs-local or foreign-owing to the opaque bureaucracy and lack of state support for small businesses. Both Elliot and Haneef admit they’ve learned a lot, and will adapt the show accordingly.
Currently they’re trying to nail down the next round of funding from corporate sponsors. And they are full of ideas, from taking El Mashrou3 to other countries to developing new shows. Next up: The Real Maids of Cairo.
Seven boys, seven girls — the contestants of “El Mashrou3.”