Rise Up Cairo empowers Egyptians while looking abroad

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The second full day of this year’s Rise Up Summit just off Cairo’s Tahrir Square started slowly; participants trickled into the quad, taking time to linger at the many booths that ringed the space. By the end of the day however, the energy and size of the gathering had grown to rival that of the previous two nights. It was a lively end to an energetic few days full of substantive industry analysis and operational insights.

Tuesday began with Wael Rizk, a serial entrepreneur and founder of RizkAuto, taking the main stage in the outdoor courtyard of the Greek Campus. The setting, in downtown Cairo, seemed to be an ideal space for the discussion focused on failure and perseverance. In the 19 years Rizk spent as an automotive entrepreneur, he failed twice to build a commercially viable vehicle. Those experiences set him on his current path; he seeks to build an electric vehicle company and is raising $54 million USD to that end.

Speaking to an attentive audience, he offered the following advice: “I spent a long time trying and failing. And I still haven’t fully succeeded. But the lesson I learned along the way is that you cannot succeed alone. Go to experts. Go to funders. Find partners. Here, the Rise Up Summit is giving you a huge opportunity to make these connections.”

Several panel discussions – on community building, social enterprises, and crowdfunding – followed the morning’s keynote. The role of small and medium-sized enterprises in creating jobs repeatedly came up during the conversation on community building. Ahmed Zahran, cofounder of Karm Solar, drew an important distinction in the types of jobs that exist. “It is not enough to add jobs. It’s important to add valuable jobs. The jobs that enrich those who have them, make them independent, able to think for themselves, and enable them to work elsewhere not just where they got the job,” he said.

Noor Group CEO Basel Dalloul also shared an anecdote to underline his faith in Egyptian ingenuity. Noor Group is an Egyptian Internet Service Provider (ISP) and one of the conference’s large sponsors. As an ISP, Noor has historically relied on large and expensive Cisco hardware. Dalloul posed a challenge to Noor engineers: build similar hardware inexpensively while reducing the product dimensions. According to Dalloul, they succeeded spectacularly in doing so. The new Noor hardware is priced at one-tenth the price of the corresponding Cisco product, and it weighs substantially less.

Last year’s inaugural event – and to a lesser extent this year’s as well – were focused on (re)introducing the idea of entrepreneurship to Egyptian potential entrepreneurs as well as investors. But as the event matures alongside entrepreneurship in Egypt, organizers are increasingly looking beyond Egypt’s borders for next steps. The entrepreneurial powerhouses of sub-Saharan Africa in particular are on the radar of Egypt’s organizers.

Founder Abdelhameed Sharara told Wamda he wanted to make the two-year-old event an annual hub for entrepreneurs and investors in Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe.

His plan is to bring together the startup scenes from the three continents for one big event in Cairo. Extending the invitation to African countries is the “obvious” next step, after this year’s summit attracted delegations from Rwanda, Tunisia, and Morocco.

Sharara, an Egyptian who spent his first four years growing up in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, says he’ll be sounding out contacts in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, and maybe even Mozambique over the next year.

Rise Up founders Sharara, Mohamed Mansour, Gehad Hussein, and Con O'Donnell have already begun to shift the summit from an Egypt-focused event to one with a regional audience. This year they successfully pulled in some of the biggest names in the Middle East startup scene as well as a handful of European venture capital funds.

These figures included Hala Fadel, founder of the MIT Arab Enterprise Forum, Aramex founder and Wamda chairman Fadi Ghandour, and the American founder of 500 Startups Dave McClure, as well as delegations from 17 countries.  

The European investor delegations were Venture Scout from Denmark, London-based Playfair Capital and Hoxton Ventures, and Istanbul’s 3TS Capital. The latter three sent representatives to Startup MENA’s one-day pitch and mentor session, where five Egyptian startups – Iqraaly, Speakol, Wall Street Chamber, Zex, and Instabug – competed for a €2000 prize.


Winner Zex, founder and CEO Moataz Kotb (right), Ahmed Medhat hardware design and deployment, platform dev and security.

Playfair Capital’s Entrepreneur in Residence Ishaan Malhi said the group hadn’t previously looked at Egyptian companies, and the only reason why he was in Egypt was because of the Investor Lounge invitation.

Malhi told Wamda that although he wasn’t “blown away” by the early stage investment opportunities he’d seen on Tuesday, there were definitely some companies he’d be keeping an eye on.

It was also the first time in Cairo for Hoxton Ventures partner Rob Kniaz as a potential investor, rather than a holidaymaker. He was pleased by the number of companies that were clearly thinking of global markets, such as mobile app bug detector Instabug, whose client list includes eBay and social debating platform Speakol.

Both Malhi and Kniaz said regional and global ambitions were key elements they’d look for in the Egyptian startups in order to invest.

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