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MENA Travels and RiseUp Egypt

Garrett Johnson

Senior Integration Manager, 1776

Last weekend, I represented 1776 at RiseUp Egypt 2015, the largest tech conference in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In its third year running, the summit convened over 4,000 students, entrepreneurs, and ecosystem builders at the Greek Campus in downtown Cairo.

RiseUp Egypt took place just blocks from Tahrir Square, the site of the Arab Spring demonstrations in January 2011 and all major Egyptian civic activity since. In the three years since the founding of the Greek Campus in a vacant courtyard library, an area once known for civil unrest is evolving into a thriving startup community. Led by visionary leader Ahmed El Alfi of Sawari Ventures and the regional Flat6Labs accelerator, the Greek Campus has become the center of gravity for the Cairo ecosystem.

At RiseUp Egypt, the hazy streets of downtown Cairo were overflowing with hope and energy for a new wave of progress in the region. The program was well-organized, inclusive, and dynamic, featuring a multi-track agenda of workshops, panels and keynotes on emerging trends in MENA, industry-specific discussions, and pitch competitions (including the Uber Pitch ’N Ride event in limos cruising around the city). From dozens of educational workshops, “Meet the Ecosystem” sessions with community leaders from Morocco to the U.A.E., and keynotes like “The Next Steve Jobs lives in Cairo” from Elmira Bayrasli, there was fascinating and valuable content for all.

But RiseUp Egypt was not just a regional affair. Spurred by the incredible rate of startup activity in the area and the leadership of Chris Schroeder, venture investor and author of Startup Rising – the Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East, major tech companies and leaders from all over the world came to Cairo to partake in the program. Representatives from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Uber, and TechCrunch spoke on panels examining regional trends, and leaders from 500 Startups and Y Combinator shared their insights with attentive crowds as well.

Startups from all over MENA set up booths and took the stage in several pitch competitions. Standouts included SolarizEgypt, a solar panel company that has partnered with the Ministry of Energy and has earned 5% of market share in the rapidly growing Egyptian industry, and The Wellness Log, a customized personal training platform with curated sessions, statistics, and goal-setting for health-conscious techies. Even local startups contributed to the success of the event — fintech gateway provider Payfort created a portal for ticketing, and event management platform Eventtus built an app to connect attendees. As startups get involved with events like RiseUp Egypt, their time in the spotlight showcases the impact of technology on daily life.

Despite the many promising ideas at the conference, challenges remain for startups in the region — and the event faced that topic head-on. Talks noted that while political instability often ignites creativity, unrest can easily derail a young company’s precious growth. A fragmented network and limited access to capital in MENA deepen the complexities of building a business. Logistical obstacles make collecting payments outside of initial markets — much less coordinating shipping across potentially tense or unregulated borders — difficult for startups.

Still, the budding entrepreneurial movement in the region has begun to come into its own as ecosystems develop, startups gain traction, and international events become more prevalent. In the coming months, 1776 will be working with Flat6Labs and other key partners on a slate of Challenge Cup events, which are startup pitch competitions all over the globe, in Cairo, Beirut, Dubai, and other hubs in MENA. At Challenge Cup Cairo on Dec. 28 and many other local events, the most promising startups in education, health, energy, and other civic sectors will win a trip to Washington, D.C., where they will compete against their counterparts from Boise to Bangalore for prizes and funding at the Challenge Cup Global Finals in June 2016.

After many years of political frustration and economic hardship, the citizens of the region have asserted their right to self-determination and have sought to disrupt the status quo. While these young democracies and nascent startup ecosystems are feeling the growing pains in their pursuit of progress, the burgeoning energy, shared language and global spotlight at events like RiseUp Egypt and Challenge Cup create the potential for impressive velocity. In regions like MENA, entrepreneurship is more than just an aspiration — it’s a means of survival, an uphill, gritty battle peppered with roadblocks and potholes with only the elusive mirage of an end in sight.

In an ancient age, Egypt was the wonder of the known world — and perhaps the first startup to ever hit it big. For the better part of 3,000 years, its civilization invented technology that formed the foundation of the classical era. The memory of that tradition echoed in Cairo last week, a resounding signal of the possibilities to come in the evolving region.

In a globalized world where opportunity transcends geography, the power of entrepreneurship is inspiring all those who are willing to brave the journey. And I met a lot of brave people in Cairo.

Garrett Johnson

Senior Integration Manager, 1776

Garrett is the manager of the Startup Federation at 1776, a network of the world's top incubators that together create a global ecosystem for entrepreneurs. Prior to his current role, he worked on the…