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.

Bamyan Media

Seven boys, seven girls — the con­tes­tants of “El Mashrou3.”

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