SAKKARA, Egypt – When Um Abdullah, a farmer in this rural village, heard that a new agricultural organization had organized a date festival in a nearby village marketplace, she immediately climbed her date trees, picked a basketful of dates, and hurried to the market to take part.
Since that moment Um Abdullah has been working with the organization, Nawaya, on a variety of new agricultural practices to create higher-value products and increase her income.
Nawaya is a new entrepreneurial venture, started by two young Egyptian women, that is working with poor small-scale farmers in Egypt to, as an email I received said, “co-create self-reliant, bountiful and resilient Egyptian farming communities.”
The organization focuses on improved agricultural practices including organic inputs, sustainable soil management, improved agribusiness skills, and production of higher value-added products.
I spent a day with the two women co-founders, Laura Tabet, 28, and Sara El Sayed, 33, in the rural farming area of Abusir. Tabet and El Sayed, like many young Egyptians, were inspired and catalyzed by the spirit of the ‘January 25th Revolution’ in 2011, which toppled the government of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of autocratic rule.
Aurelia and Sarah walk through a field that they are doing organic farming experiments at the edge of Cairo, Egypt on February 12.
That revolution, initially led by young, secular, educated Egyptians, showed the world – but more pointedly showed these two women – that change was possible in a society that they viewed as ossified and rigid.
The massive street demonstrations of 2011 seemed to empower Egypt’s youth, including young women, many who suddenly felt liberated to create their own new directions. As a result, there is a new wave of entrepreneurial spirit among women that is rippling across Egypt.
The early phase of the protest movement was referred to as the 'Facebook Revolution' because so many of the young people were digital natives, and many of the subsequent entrepreneurial efforts are in the area of high tech and social networking. But there have also been some amazing startups in the area of sustainability and aimed at improving Egypt’s ancient farming techniques.
Over the past three years, as the political situation in Egypt has become more complicated, uncertain and at times violent, Tabek and El Sayed decided that they wanted to put politics aside and create their own way to help Egypt.
Both young women are passionate environmentalists with advanced degrees in environment-related fields.
Ezz tends to the piece of land that a group of organic farming entrepreneurs are doing tests on in Saqqara, Cairo, Egypt on February 12.
Their model is to work with self-selected groups of small farmers and to work together with them to determine what lines of new higher value production they need. The farmers then become part of an agricultural apprenticeship program and commit for a period of two years to implement the improved practices.
Nawaya uses a ‘trainer of trainers’ model where each farmer teaches 5 other farmers the improved methods they learn in the workshops.
This first group of farmers decided that they wanted to raise a higher value-added breed of chicken, which offered a relatively rapid way to realize increased revenues.
Um Abdullah proudly showed me her new chicken-raising venture. She had a couple hundred high quality ‘Bigawi’ purebred baby chicks in a large clean pen with organic feed and gas-fired heat lamps to protect the chicks from the cold night air.
‘Bigawi’ chickens were originally indigenous to this area and were considered one of the most flavorful, and high priced, breeds of chicken. However, traditional farming practices allowed chickens to run wild, foraging whatever they could by the side of the road and mix-breeding. So the breed was being diluted in its purity and its value, and the effort underway is aimed at reversing that trend.
Sarah checks on a special variety of Egyptian chicks that they are trying to make economically viable for farmers to grow in Saqqara, outside Cairo, Egypt on February 12.
Um Abdullah’s husband had left her and their three children five years ago. She was barely scraping by selling cheese and bread in the local market. Her children and extended family gathered around as she showed me her simple house.
Outside her house was a traditional brick and mud oven where she and her sister baked Egyptian flat bread.
They invited me to participate and encouraged me as I learned how to insert the dough into the wood-fired oven with a long stick.
We sat in a courtyard on straw mats under a tree and shared a meal together of roasted chicken that she slaughtered that morning, vegetables from her garden, and an incredibly delicious cheese she made from water buffalo milk. The cheese, called Gebna be Kheirha, means “cheese with all its goodness”. And, yes, I can definitely vouch that the product is living up to its name.
Um Abdullah told me that she had lost everything when her husband left. She lifted her hands to the sky and said, “I thought Laura and Sara came from above. My life now has hope.” Nawaya’s goals are ambitious with a vision to create successful small agribusiness entrepreneurs able to access high-end marketplaces. Seeing
Um Abdullah’s motivation and energy to be a success, it’s hard not to feel convinced that Nawaya will succeed.
It was eye opening to feel the spirit of the ‘revolution’ out in the countryside through these efforts in sustainable living and improved farming, but it is also possible to feel the current of entrepreneurial energy in the bustling city of Cairo where many digital startups are sprouting, and where angel investors are starting to alight on good ideas.
Take, for example, Mai Medhat, the 26-year old co-founder of the tech company, Eventtus, a social networking site for events. Medhat told me that “the revolution proved that our voices count. We can do it!”
She and her co-founder, Nihal Fares, are both computer engineers.
In a surprising contrast to the United States, 60 percent of the university graduates in computer engineering in Egypt are women. Medhat and Fares won first prize in a start-up weekend competition with their idea. They immediately quit their jobs and went to work creating Eventtus, bootstrapping the company with their own savings.
Not only does Eventtus register participants on their event organizing website and contain all relevant information such as agenda, speaker bios, etc, it is an innovative site for social networking around the event, facilitating meet-ups, discussion groups, and immediate polling on content.
By the time they raised their first round of angel financing of $172,000 from Vodaphone and Cairo Angels in September 2013, they were broke; Mai had just 26 Egyptian pounds left in her bank account.
Their progress during the first 2 ½ years since its founding has been impressive. They have organized over 9,000 events, and now are responsible for all Vodaphone events in the region. They were selected by Tech Women as one of the top female-led start-ups in the Middle East/North Africa region.
Medhat’s enthusiasm and motivation were infectious as she talked about staying at the office each night until midnight but never seemed to run out of energy.
I asked her if she and Fares faced any unusual obstacles as female entrepreneurs. She replied, “No, not at all. If anything it’s an advantage.”
She knows that their success is based on the quality and innovation of their product and their savvy business skills. They now want to raise a second round of financing of $1 million by the end of 2014 and already have significant investor interest.
Although Egypt’s once inspirational movement toward democracy now seems mired in political turmoil, the entrepreneurs who were inspired by the heady days of 2011 are moving ahead excitedly despite the political uncertainty.
Women entrepreneurs, such as the ones at Nawaya and Eventtus are assuming their rightful place in the growth of this new ecosystem that might represent the best hope for the youth of Egypt.
Linda Mason is the founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, now the largest provider of workplace childcare in the world, employing 24,000 people and caring for over 100,000 children worldwide. She is also Honorary Chair of Mercy Corps.
This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "Voices." The mission of "Voices" is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.