Ahmed al-Alfi is taking a leap of faith. He is personally financing a project to create a hub for technology startups in the heart of downtown Cairo, one of Egypt’s most volatile flashpoints.
It is located in the middle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a street now synonymous with bloody battles, where martyrs’ murals are whitewashed by authorities only to be repainted by activists.
It is also a street that, for decades leading up to the revolution, was a famous university crossing, linking the American University in Cairo’s main and Greek campuses, a space living off the vibrancy of a large student body and vivid intellectual processes.
It is a street where competing sentiments and memories effortlessly climb to a fever pitch.
Being a savvy businessman, Alfi’s leap of faith is well studied and, if initial sentiments are anything to go by, likely to succeed. For one, it will be housed in what is arguably one of the most coveted pieces of real estate in the capital, AUC’s former Greek Campus.
Founder of Egyptian venture capital firm Sawari Ventures, Alfi has a discerning eye for potential and a track record of supporting promising startups. Sawari’s startup accelerator Flat6Labs has graduated more than 30 companies out of six cycles in two years.
The lab is a micro-model of the hub he hopes to create on a larger scale, one not exclusive to Sawari, Flat6 or their alumni. Office space will be available for rent to the entire ecosystem of startups, accelerators, incubators, investors, multinational companies and businesses that offer supporting services to it — from food and beverages to express mail and legal services.
Due to sheer geography, the project cannot be divorced from its revolutionary and tumultuous surroundings. But it is the hope and sense of possibility created by January 25 that Alfi hopes to capture. The tumult is perhaps reflected only in as much as risky business ventures often tend to run along bumpy paths and into stumbling blocks.
Alfi saw the abandoned Greek Campus for the first time in February last year, he told Mada Masr. Instantly, he had the idea of turning it into a startup hub by transforming what were once classrooms in the historic buildings into office spaces for tech-oriented companies and services.
Talks began with AUC a week later. Alfi partnered up with a veteran of the real estate sector, Tarek Ali Taha, who will act as CEO of what will be called The GrEEK Campus. Eventually, they reached a deal to draw up a 10-year lease agreement with AUC.
In this time, Egypt saw the removal of a president and violent protests that weighed heavily on an economy that has been staggering since the 2011 uprising. Unlike other local and foreign investors, however, entrepreneurs have not forced themselves into wait-and-see mode.
“I’m not worried about the location. Security will improve over time,” Alfi said. “This is a long-term project. We can wait or we can start working as things improve. We will find a way to get here and find a way to do our work.”
While at times the location can seem barely accessible due to the unpredictable goings on in downtown Cairo, it is also what makes this project such a potentially worthwhile investment. It is easy to reach from various governorates thanks to nearby train and metro stations, bus stops and other means of public transportation. All the city’s major roads pour into the congested crossroads that is Tahrir Square.
“Entrepreneurs don’t let anything stop them, legal or otherwise,” Alfi said at the conference announcing Rise Up Egypt, a summit taking place at The GrEEK Campus on November 24-25. The summit will bring together entrepreneurs, investors and experts in panels, workshops, pitch opportunities and a trade fair. It is meant to create links in the chain that makes up the entrepreneurial ecosystem, a sample of what The GrEEK Campus is setting out to do in a more cohesive and sustainable manner.
The campus itself comprises 25,000 square meters of space, and can hold an estimated 2000-3000 people, according to Alfi. He’s already receiving about three to four inquiries a day.
The rent is priced in dollars per square meter, a practical move since he has to pay the lease in the hard currency. Neither dollar amount was disclosed, and Alfi only says that the rent prices are “competitive.”
The upshot, he says, is that you don’t pay for wasted space as you would when renting an apartment in a residential building. There, companies would indirectly pay for space such as balconies, terraces, hallways and the area around the elevator. The same applies for spaces that can be shared, such as bathrooms, kitchens, meeting rooms, and so on.
Different office spaces are available on campus, from renting a desk in a co-working space on one floor of what used to be the AUC Library, to one or multiple classrooms that can be set up as offices.
Some renovation work will be carried out to the infrastructure in terms of electricity, air conditioning and high-speed internet. But Alfi feels strongly about keeping the integrity of the buildings intact.
And for the sake of heritage, the name was kept, with the letter ‘r’ in a smaller and faded font so that it reads “The GEEK Campus” from afar.
AUC graduates, myself included, who studied at the old campus before the university moved to New Cairo, will feel a wave of nostalgia in the courtyard and around the empty hallways that once bustled with students.
Some may be resistant to the idea of transforming an academic institution into offices for companies. However, Alfi sees this as the future: As e-learning becomes more commonplace, academic institutions can be turned into hubs for research, development and innovation.
Starting up at the time of revolutions
It’s not all about startups. The hub will also host representative offices of well-established multinational technology companies, who will hopefully be tempted to house their innovation divisions on campus.
While connecting and networking with established companies is a dream for entrepreneurs, this proximity raises a concern that the work of smaller start-ups may be engulfed by the big players, harming some infant and vulnerable industries.
Alaa Abd El Fattah is an activist and developer whose two worlds often intermix. He is the founder of Motoon, a new company setting out to create a community of activist-oriented techies that want to tackle social, environmental and political issues as well as policies such as access to information.
He criticizes general tech entrepreneur and startup-oriented activity for falling into the trap of gearing propositions toward getting the attention of bigger companies, building products on the existing platforms of established enterprises. In this way, the industry finds itself locked into Android or iOS platforms.
But he adds that this is not the hub’s fault: young startups have to be aware of this dynamic and constantly challenge it. It’s too early to judge what kind of developments will come out of a tech park in the center of the capital, he says, adding that this in itself is “exciting.”
With the capacity and resources available at The GrEEK Campus, the probability of developers and techies engaging in social issues is higher there than, say, in the far-off and isolated sparkling offices of Smart Village.
An upside to being in downtown is that entrepreneurs will be immersed in everyday problems and come into direct contact with the challenges facing citizens. “It may be that the presence of revolutionary surroundings will change the approach to fit our new context,” Abd El Fattah says.
For a tech park to be successful, it has to create its own internal culture and that is depends on how the facilities are priced, who is present, and who is investing, he adds.
Hussein Khalifa, co-founder of GyroLabs, a startup that graduated from the first cycle of Flat6Labs, says having these companies in one centralized location is ideal. He recalls his time at the accelerator, telling Mada Masr that founders of different companies sat in the same space and helped each other by sharing contacts and ideas.
They took advantage of the time they had with visiting experts and industry insiders from companies like Google, for example. But after the cycle, each startup goes its separate way to look for an office.
“The idea is to bring as many accelerators and startups and experts to one place. Keeping the connections is important, that’s a big part of the startup community,” he says.
The campus as hub, in this context, is an ideal setting for young companies — and for investors, it becomes a veritable market of options.
“There isn’t a fear of bigger companies stealing ideas because we have become their competition. We’ve managed to disrupt their industries,” he says.
Residents of the campus who spoke to Mada Masr are pleased to welcome a new neighbor on a street that has seen more businesses closing down than opening.
They are looking for ways to cooperate with incoming tenants, and ways of turning things around for this neighborhood whose residents and shop owners have had to live with the smell of tear gas and the sight of clashes for days on end.
Inside, the abandoned courtyard is once again buzzing with activity and conversations are constantly happening with Alfi, who has set up a temporary office in the seating area of what was once the student cafeteria, his music playing in the background.
Karim Shafei, chairman of Al Ismaelia for Real Estate, says the idea behind The GrEEK Campus is “smart and focused” and offers a good solution for small enterprises.
Shafei’s company follows a different model but with one core similarity: refurbishing precious but unused spaces and making them available for different purposes.
Ismaelia now own 20 historic buildings in downtown, having bought up rent-controlled contracts from tenants of old, locked-up apartments. One prominent example is the Cinema Radio building where Bassem Youssef hosts his popular satirical show Al-Bernameg. The building has been partially restored but renovations are still ongoing.
“If you’re opening an office, instead of having to bus employees to Smart Village, it is easier for them to come to work here. New companies can either go into a purpose-built office building, which is expensive, or rent an apartment in a residential building that does not service the needs of companies,” he said. “There’s also more parking spaces than in Zamalek or Mohandiseen.”
Some spaces Shafei’s company restores are given to artists, and he’s interested to see more boutique-like operations opening up around town, movie theaters working again, and small and medium hotels being built.
“A lot of what we’re investing in is arts and culture to bring life back to downtown. We do this because we believe it has to be a place for all segments of society, and one activity that is non-discriminatory is the arts,” he said.
The challenge for The GrEEK Campus will be to create a space that is as inclusive as it is vibrant.