Our annual list of the innovators and game-changers in Egypt. Whatever their field, these are the people challenging the status quo, breaking new ground and daring to think different.
Words by Dalia Awad and Farah Hosny
As this roller coaster of a year comes to a close, it's hard not to take a moment to reflect on the dazzling highs and painful lows 2017 had to offer Egypt. In what has become an annual tradition, CairoScene has spent the last days of the tumultuous year scouring the big city and beyond in a bid to highlight the Egyptians who have stood their ground, risen to the challenge and achieved their dreams in 2017 - and the whole country is better for it. These are the innovators and game-changers, whatever their field; they're challenging the status quo, breaking new ground, and daring to think different. These are the most impactful and inspiring Egyptians of 2017...
Guinness World Record-Holder
“I like the idea that humans are capable of anything,” says Helmy ElSaeed. And he is possibly the living embodiment of his belief, shattering the Guinness World Record this year for crossing the European continent by bicycle in the fastest time ever recorded, while simultaneously raising awareness for child autism. “We did it in 29 days, 5 hours and 25 minutes, beating the previous record by 12 hours,” says ElSaeed, who trained for over a year to break the record.
Adventurous since the outset, El-Saeed’s 2017 European crossing is only his latest endeavour to test the very edges of human resilience. He first crossed Europe by bike in 2014 – just for kicks, and he’s already cycled across Southeast Asia, and crossed the Finmark plateau and the Arctic on cross-country skies.
bringing home that Guinness World Record for my country was definitely my proudest moment this year
The endurance athlete is fueled by an insatiable sense of wanderlust and an unwavering affirmation in human strength – but those are constantly tested, especially during his latest journey. “We’d done our calculations and it turned out that we would not have made Guinness World Record if we carried on our current timeline. We had to face that we might not break the record,” he says, “That was probably lowest point of the journey.”
But they persevered past the hardship. “We decided to push ourselves really hard and do those last 500 kilometres in one shot without sleeping – or actually, napping in Chinese restaurants,” he laughs. “It was worth it; bringing home that Guinness World Record for my country was definitely my proudest moment this year.”
Next year, his undying restlessness will take him around his home country, as he aims to cross Egypt on foot. “Every challenge I take on combines my love for travel and my love for the capability of human potential.”
AMR MANSI & BUSHRA
Co-Founders of ElGouna Film Festival
Up until this year, Bushra was known as a starlet; an onscreen darling with accolades to her name and a stellar voice to boot. That is, until she became the architect of the mammoth, colossally successful tour de force that was the first ever ElGouna Film Festival, which took place in September.
As the story goes, the now co-founder and COO of the festival approached renowned events coordinator Amr Mansi, and Egypt’s foremost businessman Naguib Sawiris with the concept, and the rest was history. “We’d dreamed about having a film festival in Gouna for so long and I knew there were so many filmmakers out there who shared that dream – so I devoted a year and a half of my life to making it a reality,” she says.
During the festival’s five-day run, film industry professionals, stars, and cinephiles alike descended upon the picturesque seaside resort of El Gouna and the festival’s positive impact – driven by the theme of Cinema for Humanity – echoed internationally.
The massive undertaking was of course, not without its own set of challenges. “There were definitely a lot of moments of panic, stress, lack of stability, and difference of opinion,” she says, “But in the end we managed to always stay composed and put our egos aside to accomplish the mission.”
The trio plan on hosting a second edition of the festival in 2018.
“It was New Year’s Eve 2008 that I visited El Gouna for the first time,” says Amr Mansi. Little did he know then that his contribution to the Red Sea Resort would get international acclaim. A former top 50-ranking player himself, he saw El Gouna as the perfect place to host an international squash tournament. Fast forward a few years, and the Gouna Squash Open is now among the top 10 tournaments in the world, and this year, the savvy events expert added a women’s tournament to the mix. “Also I found El Gouna as the perfect place for the international players wellbeing,” says the founder and CEO of I-Events.
Of course, something of this scale didn’t happen overnight. “Back then I was just a squash player, I had no capital to implement any of my ideas,” Mansi says, explaining that he spent months to get Orascom, Egypt’s Tourism Authority, and various governing bodies on board.
This year, the Gouna Squash Open aired on 90 international sports channels – but it wasn’t his and his events company’s only feat in 2017. “I also can’t stop mentioning the success of El Gouna Film Festival, and the huge impact and buzz it caused,” he says with a smile. "At some point everyone, thought that I’m only responsible for organising athletic events, but the festival proved that, as a company, we’re capable of developing much bigger projects.”
It was perhaps the effervescent combination of her young age; the victory of getting such a coveted permit after wading through two years of red tape in a system notorious for its bureaucracy; and the fact that she was an Egyptian woman in a field dominated either by men or foreigners. That she had been given the grant for her dig from National Geographic was just the cherry on top.
I was expecting to get rejected because it happened a million times before
“I was expecting to get rejected because it happened a million times before, but I finally got the call saying the committee approved of my project – that was really exciting,” Shawki recounts.
As for being a woman in her field, she refuses to acknowledge that as an obstacle. “While I’m digging the majority of my team is male, but I get a lot of respect once they see what I’m doing. They want to know more about their own towns and villages, so we kind of teach them and they teach us.”
Instead, the challenges lay in keeping archeological sites intact, safe from encroachment and looting, and in forging way forward for yourself. “Early on in my career, I was getting a lot of rejection and it used to really affect me. People I really look up to in my field kept telling me ‘you just need to suck it up and get tougher skin, and it will be worth it in the end’ - so that’s what I did,” she says.
“I applied for a hundred different grants before I got this one. You should always keep applying for any opportunity and keep pushing yourself.”
Founder and CEO of Vezeeta
Many a skeptic will tell you there’s no hope for Egypt’s healthcare systems but, like the most tenacious entrepreneurs, Amir Barsoum doesn’t take no for an answer. Vezeeta – a digital medical platform that connects patients with doctors, based on real availability – launched in 2014, and it’s no surprise that the software has been dubbed a true disruption to the healthcare industry: it’s already serving 100,000 patients monthly, and has signed up nearly 4,000 doctors.
“The biggest accomplishment in 2017 was the start of solving the pain of very long waiting times in clinics in Egypt,” says Barsoum. “This pain is solved in two ways; the first is making sure that patients show up. We introduced pre-visit payment so we’ve made sure that the show up rate is 100%. The second way is to make sure that the doctors turn up on time. We’re working on that.”
You can change directions; that’s absolutely fine. I’d say this is my biggest piece of advice
Having sealed a $5 million investment at the start of 2017, interest in Vezeeta keeps growing. “We’re proud to be the recipient of the first investment made in Egypt by the USA’s Endeavor Capital,” continues Barsoum, about the $500,000 injection that propelled Vezeeta’s expansion into Jordan and Lebanon earlier this year. “Just two months after launching in Jordan, we bumped into a real Vezeeta user there who loved our product – that was a great moment.”
Despite its massive growth, Vezeeta’s founder explains that being agile is still important: “You can change directions; that’s absolutely fine. I’d say this is my biggest piece of advice. I guess if we didn’t do the right pivot, at the right point in time I wouldn’t think that Vezeeta would have been what it is today.
Founder Keif Type Foundry and Creator of ‘Cairo’ Font
There’s perhaps nothing more ubiquitous yet underrated than a font – unless, of course, you’re a designer. And if you are a designer, you’ll know there’s a huge need for more Arabic fonts. Mohamed Gaber, self-taught graphic designer and creator of Kief Type Foundry, knows a thing or two about ubiquity: “The proudest moment of 2017 for me was when I saw [my] Cairo Font ranking as the most used Arabic typography on Google Fonts, reaching over 90 million views a week and used on around two million websites,” he explains.
I didn’t want to come out with something mediocre, especially as it’s an open source font, representing open knowledge
A big believer in knowledge and resource sharing, 31-year-old Gaber created the Cairo Font as an open source product, letting anyone access the source files to adapt and use as they please. After months of work and several beta versions, Cairo Font came to life, putting Egyptian type design on the map.
“I didn’t want to come out with something mediocre, especially as it’s an open source font, representing open knowledge; I don’t want to be promoting that open source means cheap and not up to the highest qualities,” says Gaber.
Despite dubbing his most successful project Cairo, the designer, with nine years of experience under his belt, admits he has a complicated relationship with the capital. “It’s a love-hate relationship. I’m inspired by the city and at the same time stressed by it,” he says.
“I struggled to be taken seriously,” says Jayda Hany, “The footwear industry in Egypt is very male-dominated and it’s traditionally based on a few prominent families. I was a newcomer, a girl, and alone with no connections in the industry. It was difficult for me to be accepted but eventually I earned their respect.”
The footwear designer got her start a little over a year ago, entering the sartorial scene with absurdly futuristic, mind-bending, gravity-defying shoe designs but she didn’t truly rise to prominence until, in an unusual turn of events, BMW customised a car based on one of her shoes for New York Fashion Tech Week 2017.
There is a whole new type of awareness towards the arts and the fashion industry in in Egypt now
“It was so overwhelming – in a good way! – and it was the first time my parents were with me at an international exhibition so it was just a blessed moment for me,” says the 28-year-old.
She is arguably one of the most successful Egyptians in the field of fashion this year, but the industry in its entirety has over the past five years gone from one which was fledgling and featured few local designers to one which sees a new – talented – designer emerge every few months. “There is a whole new type of awareness towards the arts and the fashion industry in in Egypt now,” says Hany who aims to open her flagship store in 2018. “It makes me proud of my decision to move back once I finished my Masters’ Degree in the UK to manufacture and produce here, and to actually start my career from in my country first.”
MOHAMED TAHER & AHMED FATHY
Founders of Ballerinas of Cairo
“Shooting in the streets of Cairo is the real challenge – you can’t just grab your camera and casually photograph a ballerina dancing. Everyone will be like ‘What are you shooting?' 'Do you have a permission to do this?’”
Despite the issues Mohamed Taher and Ahmed Fathy, the founders of visual platform Ballerinas of Cairo, faced – and still face – the photographic and directorial duo were undeterred as they sought to spread street art in a city where it is distinctly uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, to do so.
Ballerinas of Cairo shows the great contrast between two kinds of beauties; the sentimental art of ballet and the harsh architecture of Cairo
They were the first to truly capture ballet in the streets; it was mesmerising and went viral. There was an instantaneous response to their work – featuring ballerinas twirling across traffic-jammed roads, pirouetting in public markets – from inside Egypt, and globally. “One of our greatest achievements this past year was the fact that BBC made a documentary that featured our project,” says Taher, “This is what moved Ballerinas of Cairo from just a local project to a project with international recognition.”
The project started with the drive to reclaim the streets not only for women, but as a canvas for art, and to depict the dichotomy between Cairo and ballet; it’s chaos versus composure, grit versus grace. “Ballerinas of Cairo shows the great contrast between two kinds of beauties; the sentimental art of ballet and the harsh architecture of Cairo,” says Fathy. “They’re both beautiful in their own way but they are very unlike each other.”
The duo and their troupe of transfixing ballerinas are learning how to deal with the difficulties of shooting. “My advice to anyone who wants to create street art is to have thick skin, because it’s a harsh environment. Otherwise you won’t be able to present your art to the world.”
Member of Parliament, Author of Without Prior Warning
In Egypt, when a public figure is going through a personal struggle, it’s all kept very hush-hush. Anissa Hassouna shattered that notion this year when she not only went public with her diagnosis of cancer, but even wrote a book Without Prior Warning documenting her ongoing journey.
The prominent Member of Parliament and former executive director of the Magdi Yacoub Foundation confesses she was hesitant about going public at first, but her daughter convinced her. “She said ‘you have to have the courage to come clean and talk about it – it will encourage other people to do the same’,” says Hassouna.
With cancer, the privilege – if you can call it that – is that you know how much time you have left, so why not use that time wisely?
“So this is a goal that I work towards; to try to create something that could help other people, give them hope to fight and continue. I'm still undergoing treatment but I thought maybe later I won’t get the chance to write the book so I decided to make use of the time I have left and write it now.”
Born to a former Minister of Justice, public service runs in Hassouna’s blood and she continues working tirelessly in her capacity as MP to raise awareness about cancer and to amend a medical insurance law to provide free medical checkups for women who cannot afford it.
At the end of the day, despite her many achievements and various accolades to her name, family is her focal point. “With cancer, the privilege – if you can call it that – is that you know how much time you have left, so why not use that time wisely?” she questions. “The real essence of life is the people that you love and who love you back; spend as much time with them as you can, and don’t waste time not letting them know you love them."
MOHAMED EL SHAHED
Curator and Founder of Cairobserver
When Egyptian’s think about their country’s presence in the lauded British Museum, mummies and colonialism tend to come to mind. Mohamed ElShahed, architect, urbanist and collector, has set about changing that stereotype this year as the lead curator of the Modern Egypt Project, currently on display in London. “There are ten objects on display from 20th century Egypt, like a typewriter, a radio and various printed materials. And they are sitting in a display case in the same room as the Rosetta Stone,” says the researcher and writer.
There are ten objects on display from 20th century Egypt and they are sitting in a display case in the same room as the Rosetta Stone
His success in curating hasn’t come out of nowhere – the design-obsessed 36-year-old is the founder of Cairobserver, an online and printed periodical, focused on Egyptian architecture. 60-some issues later, the academic curated Cairo Now! at Dubai Design Week – a proud display of contemporary Egyptian design talent - which he worked on concurrently with the British Museum exhibition. “The aftermath this year has been being invited to numerous museums and institutions to give lectures about how these two projects communicated to each other in terms of the history of design in Egypt. So it’s been a really busy year!”
Looking to 2018, the researcher plans to publish a few books that have been in the works for a couple of years, as well as his dissertation. “A city guide for Alexandria, filled with beautiful photography and an architectural guide on modernist architecture in Cairo,” he teases.
AMR BASSIOUNY & ADEL EL SHENTENAWY
Founder and co-founder of Egyptian Hydrofarms
What if 90 percent of your land was desert and your country was running out of water? And what if the solution was as simple – and possibly ironic – as diverting to growing everything in water, as opposed to soil?
“Hydroponics solves a lot of the problems we have with farming,” says Amr Bassiouny, the founder and CEO of Egyptian Hydrofams, along with co-founder and COO Adel El Shentenawy. “Because you’re growing in water, you can basically grow anywhere. You’re not constrained by the quality of the soil, you can grow off-season, and it saves 90 percent water in a region suffering from water scarcity.”
Hydroponics saves 90 percent water in a region suffering from water scarcity
The notion was conceptualized in 2011, when Bassiouny, who was running a survival training school in Sinai at the time, was struck with the thought; ‘How can I farm in the desert?’ and dove into discovering how to make it hydroponics a reality. “Hydroponics was still new in Egypt, so no one had the knowhow. Whenever we faced any problem or challenge we had to figure it out ourselves,” El Shentenawy recounts.
Now, their farm epitomises the potential for hydroponics in the country; they own one acre of land, which produces 1,000 units (500 kg) – the same amount you would get from 8-10 acres of land that were traditionally farmed.
As they close out the year, the duo are shifting their focus. “2017 was about completing the first stage – knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. Right now is starting to become a consulting company which sells the knowhow itself.” In a country where arable land is a rarity, hydroponics may just be less of a mirage and more of a miracle for its agriculture industry. “You increase your productivity while using less resources; this should be the future of farming,” says El Shentenawy.
In the past year, global beauty standards have been challenged in a big way, slowly but surely widening the scope beyond the stereotypical 'blond, blue-eyed Caucasian.'
And almost ironically, Egypt, though a nation where the majority have darker and features, still continues to revere the 'light-skinned, light-haired, big-boobed' combo when it comes to female stars. But this year, when young actress Asmaa Aboulyazid burst onto the scene with television drama Haza El Massa', the internet was abuzz with a flurry of comments about how talented and gorgeous the relatively dark-skinned actress was and how she was finally more representative of reality when it comes to Egyptian beauty.
Maybe it had just been engraved in our minds for a long time that beauty had one set standard; white, blonde, green eyes
“Redefining the standards of beauty is not something I did,” says Aboulyazid. “Maybe it had just been engraved in our minds for a long time that beauty had one set standard; white, blonde, green eyes and I just happened to have a different, or new look for the world of television.”
For her though, the fact that she was able to break into television still remains her biggest victory of 2017 and the praise she received for her heartfelt portrayal of her character Tokka.
“My proudest accomplishment of 2017 is that I was able to set foot on the path I had planned for myself,” says the actress, who got her start in theatre. And her career seems to be on the brink of taking off; she’s filming a movie with director Karim El Shennay starring Ahmed Fishawy, Ruby, Mohamed Mamdouh, and Ahmed Malek, set to be released in 2018.
“You just have to really believe in your dream, and you’ll eventually get there one way or another. Even if the whole world tells you it will never happen, don’t believe them; it will happen.“
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my freediving career was learning to swim,” says Passant Adel with a laugh.
This year, the 32-year-old single mom, who now lives in Dahab, completed her freediving instructor course, becoming the first ever Arab female instructor, and the only female depth instructor in the Middle East and North Africa. Three years ago, she was afraid of getting in the water.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced in my freediving career was learning to swim. I was an aquaphobe
“I was an aquaphobe; my biggest fear was being unable to breathe underwater. I started freediving to prove to myself that my fears are meaningless,” she says.
She spent weeks acclimating to simply being in the water, and then learning to swim so she could eventually dive. “I never got out of the water again,” she laughs. “Before, I could never just stop my mind, and now once I’m in the water it just happens - nothing else exists; it’s beautiful.” She went on to set 3 Egyptian national records as well as one African one.
This year, Adel, along with much of the Dahab freediving community, was rocked by the death of Stephen Keenan, a freediver who lost his life saving someone on a dive. “He had introduced me to the sport and was always encouraging me to go for records. I almost gave it up after he died,” she says, “But I overcame it; because he was the one who pushed me to learn and compete and I reminded myself that if I do it now, I do it for him – for his memory.”
And it is her determination to not allow her fears to rule her that drives her to continue. “As humans we are afraid of so many things, but if you give in to the fear you can’t do anything.”
Certified Food Critic and Founder of The Sexy Food
“One of my childhood dreams was to go to Italy, study and become a chef there,” says Amr Helmy, who’s just wrapped up a 23-country food tour of the world. Somehow, during his year-long travels, he’s also achieved his dream, having completed a Masters in Food Innovation at Italy’s University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.
As Egypt’s first and only certified Food Critic, Helmy is best known for his influential and engaging food reviews, amassing around 350,000 followers on his various social media platforms, most prominently The Sexy Food Facebook page.
One of my childhood dreams was to go to Italy, study and become a chef there
“Being a food critic has guidelines that are different than a food reviewer or a food blogger; a food critic has to be a chef, a journalist, and a person with taste,” explains Helmy, who is indeed all of the above. With a background in media and communications and over four years of culinary courses under his belt, the 27-year-old member of the French Culinary Institute combines his expertise in both fields to create real impact in the world of dining, whether he’s posting about a grilled fish stand in Zamalek or a Michelin Starred restaurant in Barcelona.
His highlight of the year? Pitching a Middle Eastern cooking course – complete with business model – to the prestigious Academia Barilla; Italy’s foremost culinary school. “The best moment was when Mrs. Barilla herself gave great feedback about the presentation, and decided to move forward with the project.”
DR. AHMAD AL KABBANY
Founder of VRapeutic
As one of the world’s quickest growing industries, MedTech (medical technology) is starting to find its way to Egypt, propelled by innovators who want to make a difference. Founder and CEO of VRapeutic, Dr. Ahmad Al-Kabbany is lucky enough to have seen the difference his research and software has made within the same year he launched. “The best moment for me in 2017 was when one of my colleagues called me, crying,” he says, holding back the years himself. “He revealed to me that his child was autistic, and was deeply appreciative of what VRapeutic is doing. It made it all worthwhile.”
The first research-based software company of its kind in Egypt, VRapeutic specialises in creating therapeutic virtual reality content, currently focusing on autism. By using technology to simulate an unlimited number of scenes and situations, the content he and his team create is designed to help autistic children normalise situations that would usually leave them uncomfortable.
The best moment for me in 2017 was when one of my colleagues called me, crying. He revealed to me that his child was autistic, and was deeply appreciative of what VRapeutic is doing.
The VRapeutic team are not just content with creating products, though; this year Al-Kabbany also created a community of like-minded innovators, establishing the first Augmented and Virtual Reality meetup in Egypt. Based in Alexandria, the community has been designed with industry advancement in mind: “We work on three different axes; the first one is capacity building through training, the second is raising awareness, and finally, networking between investors and entrepreneurs in the field.”
Actress & Cancer Survivor
There’s perhaps nothing more frightening than the word cancer. However, there’s nothing more inspiring the words cancer survivor.
“I had horrible thoughts going through my mind; that I am still too young, that I don’t want to die,” says Yasmine Ghaith about her diagnosis. Instead of retreating, the aspiring starlet reframed her illness into an opportunity to campaign and speak publicly about her journey, encouraging more women across the Egypt to think positively in the face of the crippling disease. “I left all those negative thoughts behind when I decided that I want to live; that was my choice,” she explains and it’s no surprise that someone as bubbly, positive and outspoken as Ghaith was quickly noticed by casting directors.
I had horrible thoughts going through my mind; that I am still too young, that I don’t want to die
“The thing I am proud of the most in 2017 was that moment the producer called me and told me that he wants me to be part of the series Halawit El Donia,” Ghaith says about her big break alongside superstar Hend Sabry in a Ramadan role that close mirrored her own unique experience with cancer.
“It wasn’t easy at all, especially since I’d never acted before. But I started to affirm and I told myself: ‘I am a very good actress; I am a very confident actress.’ And then I started to become that.”
Her first role landed her rave reviews, as viewers were not used to seeing cancer being tackled positively. “Watching myself on TV for the first time was very weird actually! I was trying something new that I thought I would never be able to do. And here we are, I did it; and I think I succeeded.”
Founder of Ma3ana NGO
Though Egypt is not short on NGOs and charitable organisations which address a myriad of issues across the spectrum, it is noticeably devoid of any which address homelessness – except one; Ma3ana: The Organisation for Rescuing Humans.
“I stumbled upon an old man on the streets who was basically dying and we tried to help him but we couldn’t find any organization across all of Egypt that provided this kind of help. At that moment, we decided to create this project specifically designed to help save the homeless,” says founder Mahmoud Wahid of his NGO, who this year became the first ever officially licensed homeless shelter in Egypt’s history.
It’s so important for me to find a way to help people, to serve my community, and to make Egypt a better place
While many NGOs in Egypt do address the issue of street children, none existed which aided older generations. “No one takes care of these people; because they are above 18, the state announces that they are able to care for themselves,” Wahid explains.
The organisation currently functions via a network, often working through a Facebook group, where users send photos of homeless people along with their location so that the organisation may head directly to them. But in 2018, Ma3ana plans to launch more homeless shelters across the nation where they can accept walk-ins at any time, no questions asked.
“It’s so important for me to find a way to help people, to serve my community, and to make Egypt a better place. These are the values I prize above everything,” says Wahid.
Just when we thought that Arabic pop was on the out, an irresistible powerhouse of a track smacked us in the face and forced us to pay attention. “At the beginning of 2017 I had a realisation… Not to care about instant wins and [instead] to cultivate,” says Abu, the man behind Talat Da’at, a duet with the iconic Yousra that’s racked up over 60 million YouTube since its release in October. Having ditched his corporate career for a life in music back in 2012, it was indeed this careful cultivation – of skills, of songs and of spirit – that helped catapult his latest release to the top this year.
At the beginning of 2017 I had a realisation… Not to care about instant wins and [instead] to cultivate
With a star-studded video clip, a catchy melody and a lightness that’s captured the hearts of Arab music lovers ("If you're just sitting there and the song plays, you'll find your entire body moving to it because it's such a sweet and spontaneous story," said Yousra in a CairoScene interview, earlier this year), you might think the success of the song would go to the singer/songwriter’s head.
Instead, the charming yet humble musician sees success a different way. “My number one greatest accomplishment this year is that I got married, and I married the girl I love,” explains Abu, with an endearing glance at his ring finger. “My second, of course, is Talat Da’at!”
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Photography by Ahmed Najeeb