Startup Weekend Assiut Breaks Barriers in Upper Egypt

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Assiut held its first StartUp Weekend (SW) last weekend on a Nile boat-hotel facing the picturesque view of the old town.  There was a lot riding on the event as this was not only the first of its kind in Assiut, but also in Upper Egypt. 

I’ve been to most SWs in Egypt, but this was the first I’d been asked to act as a coach.  Coaching is always a privilege, and it helped me to see SW in a different light than usual.

There was a lot of buzz throughout the event, and the energy levels were consistently high.  Nearly 200 people attended and close to 30 pitched at the end.  Around 40% of the attendees had a medical background, which is very unusual, and there was also a strong female presence, which in itself blew away some of the wrongly held stereotypes about Southern Egypt. 

There were a reasonable spread of ages, the bulk were youth and the event likely set a new Egyptian record for the three youngest attendees; the three participants were still in secondary school, the youngest was in the first year!

This variety of backgrounds is a testament to the outreach work of lead organisers Mohamed Soliman and Fatma Ali.  “We handed out fliers in Assiut University and went to most of the local churches and mosques to spread the word,” Fatma explains.  Which goes to show that, even in the age of social media, good old-fashioned legwork can still yield strong results in the right circumstances.

Most participants were eager to learn from the coaches, although some were almost too eager, pivoting with every bit of conflicting coaching advice they received.  But that in itself was a great practical learning experience for all to learn how to filter incoming information.

Several of the ideas were repeated from previous events, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as these events are more a learning experience than a factory for innovative ideas. Indeed many times a startup has merely to add a local focus to an existing idea to have a viable business, and a local focus was definitely a theme throughout. Here are the top winners:

  • 1st place and 25,000 EGP (around US $3,800) went to Spotivty; a website that helps users find new spots and activities to fill their leisure time.
  • 2nd place went to WhereIsMyGas; a crowd-sourced app for users to locate the nearest petrol station that isn’t empty.
  • 3rd place went to the female-led E-Brova; a website that allows women to input an image of themselves to see  how different outfits would look on them virtually without having to physically go to the stores.

The event ended with excitement, almost a storm in a teacup, even though one coach tweeted that he thought the event had been the “worst in MENA”, all because the organising team had lost a little control in the last few hours of the event. He's well respected in the community and in his position of influence now encouraging social entrpreneurship he should think long and hard about his public statements, especially if they can be damaging to an area that has historically been neglected. None of the other coaches I spoke with agreed with his statement however, and everyone else left the event on a big high.

The organisers were already planning another SW towards the end of the year, looking to put in place a structured follow-up meet-up plan to sustain the positive spirit.  This idea is something the more experienced event organisers in Cairo and Alexandria would do well to copy.

The organisers managed to open the eyes of the locals to the power and freedom to create positive change that comes with entrepreneurship. And that’s what this event was really about; changing paradigms in a region of Egypt that is normally forgotten by the rest of the country. In this respect, SW Assiut scored full marks, and I for one hope to be privileged enough to be invited back to the next one.

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