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The CairoScene IMPACT LIST 2021

Presenting our seventh annual Impact List featuring some of the most inspirational, innovative and impactful Egyptians of the year.

Cairo Scene

The CairoScene IMPACT LIST 2021

My what a difference a year makes. As the world shifted from an understanding of the pandemic as an apocalyptic event, to one in which COVID will act as a sort of bullying backdrop to our lives - one we must constantly be vigilant of while forging on - it seems Egypt has decided that not only must the show go on, but it is in fact going to put on quite the show.

Our annual Impact list has always been a showcase of inspirational Egyptians across industries, but this year many of those Egyptians made serious noise beyond our borders, drawing the world’s attention specifically to our creativity and ingenuity.

From epic events such as the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade and the Forever is Now exhibit at the Pyramids of Giza, to the individuals in film, music and sports whose talent and work were recognised globally, we seem to have reached an inflection point in our national narrative. We no longer need to look to the outside world for inspiration. Change is happening and it’s coming from within.

Of course oftentimes the most impactful change happens beyond the showboating, deep in the grassroots where it’s all grit and little glory. As always it was important for us to showcase those unsung heroes - from the woman who has worked tirelessly to dismantle destructive taboos around adoption to the pair who have created invaluable frameworks to empower the differently abled.

Speaking of ‘change’, the urgent discourse around climate change continues to crescendo. Not so long ago few would have imagined that Egypt would lend its voice to the conversation, let alone play such a pivotal role by hosting global environmental negotiations. With the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 27) to the UNFCCC taking place in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2022, Egypt’s Minister of Environment Dr. Yasmine Fouad lends her own voice to our Impact List during a year that saw her launch a myriad of important initiatives designed to make Egypt greener while inspiring Egyptians to better appreciate and protect the epic natural beauty of this country we call home.

As we say every year, this list is obviously by no means comprehensive. It is just a very small sampling of the extraordinary Egyptians who we hope together represent a new type of transformational creative energy fuelling the future.

YASMINE FOUAD [Minister of Environment] | For Paving the Way to Egypt's Sustainable Future

For years, nay decades, a small segment of Egyptians decried the state of our environment, hoping, willing for someone to step forward and take on the daunting task of making Egypt a more environmentally-friendly place, to safeguard its future.

Enter Minister of Environment Yasmine Fouad. With more than two decades of experience working in government, UN organisations and NGOs, she has gained a wealth of expertise and know-how that have given her a clear vision of a more eco-friendly, sustainable Egypt, an Egypt that openly discusses and confronts climate change and other environmental challenges.

Appointed in 2018, Fouad wasted little time in rolling up her sleeves and setting forth the numerous incredible campaigns that have begun educating and raising awareness on everything from protecting Egypt’s natural reserves, to working to eliminate the country’s reliance on single-use plastic bags. Her efforts have had a knock-on effect in tourism, with the ECO EGYPT campaign she helped build and launch also serving to showcase some of Egypt’s lesser explored areas around its natural reserves. She has also played a crucial role in leading the development of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, in her capacity as the President of the 14th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP14), a role that ties into arguably the biggest coup of her tenure so far: Egypt hosting COP27 in 2022.

It’s a sign of progress, a sign that the winds of change are blowing through this new Egypt - a sign that the whole world is watching and expecting.

MENNA SHALABY [Actress] | For Being the First Egyptian Actress Nominated for an International Emmy Award

In the last three years, we’ve seen more and more Egyptians break through the ceiling of local industries tomake their mark on the global stage, none more so than in the case of film and television.

This year, it was Menna Shalaby who landed on radars for her memorable role in Egyptian crime series, ‘Every Week Has a Friday’, in which she shared the screen with the likes of Asser Yassin and Sawsan Badr. In her starring role as a woman with a mysterious past who finds herself living with a mentally-challenged man, she commanded the spotlight, impressing the The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and earning the first International Emmy Award nomination for an Egyptian and Arab, while representing the country’s burgeoning creative industries at the world’s foremost awards for television.

Beyond her own individual achievement, the nomination has sent waves back home, building on previous success stories including Rami Malek’s Oscar win and Amir El Masry’s universal acclaim for his breakout role ‘Limbo’. Her nomination has inspired not only a new generation of actors and creatives, but invigorated the stars of today, showing that Egyptian creativity and art can have a voice on the global stage.

HESHAM NAZIH [Music Composer] | For Telling Egypt's Story to the World Through Music

Music has always been ingrained in Egyptian cinema, and some of the most revered songs amongst the masses first came to light in film. Over the last two decades, though, one man has dominated the field. Think of any hit song that came from a film in that time and it almost certainly came from the mind of one Hesham Nazih.

Having taken his first steps into the field in the mid-to-late nineties, Nazih has gone on to score some of the country’s biggest and most popular films - think everything from Ahmed El Sakka's 2004 action thriller, ‘Tito', and ‘Hysteria’ starring the late Ahmed Zaki, to recent films like 'The Blue Elephant' and its sequel, as well as box office hit, ‘Awlad Rizk’.

His incredible career came to a culmination this year, however, when he was tasked with his most difficult project yet: scoring the spectacular Pharaohs' Golden Parade, an event that drew a truly global audience, as 22 royal mummies were transported from the Egyptian Museum to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in a spectacular display of Ancient Egyptian history and contemporary Egyptian ingenuity. The music was arguably his magnum opus, a project completely unique to anything he had done before, a moment in time that will live forever.  

For many, that’s enough to mark a great year, but November brought another momentous accolade in that Nazih was honoured at this year’s Arabic Music Festival in November - a rarity for a festival that has, for over 30 years, focused on practitioners of classical Arab music. For a composer like Nazih, a film and TV composer, to gain that recognition is unprecedented and only feeds into his transcendence of the field.

RASHA MEKKY [YallaKafala] | For Shifting the Narrative Around Adoption

There’s a public misunderstanding around the legal and religious implications of becoming a full-time guardian of a non-biological child in Egypt, which has only served to inflict further anguish on the estimated 1.7 million orphans in Egypt today.

One institution, however, has been working tirelessly to dispel the confusion: YallaKafala. The NGO was founded by Rasha Mekky, who became an adoptive mother at the age of 45 and has since been telling her own journey of ‘kafala’ in an effort to encourage others to follow suit and dispel the confusion between the western understanding of ‘adoption’ and ‘kafala’, which is fully sanctioned by Islam.

This year, with the support of other other ‘kafala’ mothers, Mekky has made incredible strides in breaking down the barriers and dissipating the taboos that have for far too long plagued Egypt’s most disadvantaged children. There’s now a conversation happening around the issue and that impact has, for example, manifested in a YallaKafala adoption open day for potential parents and children to meet - something that would have been unheard of a few short years ago. She's under no illusions that there’s still a long way to go - but she speaks lovingly and proudly of her relationship with her son, Moustafa, and she fights for the children who have no one to fight for them.

NADINE ABDELGHAFFAR [Art D'Egypte] | For Drawing the World’s Gaze to Egypt

Few would have thought that the world’s imagination could be ignited by a single art exhibit. Let alone one in Egypt. But in October of this year, the world’s leading publications and millions on social media were talking about the Forever is Now exhibition at the Great Pyramids of Giza. This curatorial extravaganza - which attracted over 500,000 visitors in a few short weeks - featured incredible installations by 10 of the world’s most acclaimed contemporary artists including the superstar likes of JR and Lorenzo Quinn. 

It was all the incredible work of art aficionado Nadine Abdelghaffar and her team at Art D'Egypte, the initiative she created to raise the profile of Egyptian contemporary art while telling the story of Egypt’s past, present and future through art. It’s a journey that began in 2017 when Art D’Egypte brought together 16 Egyptian artists to display their work at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir in a spectacular showcase of old and new, the classic and the contemporary. One year later, Abdelghaffar curated the work of 28 artists for another spectacular exhibition at Al Manial Palace, before another 28 artists had their works displayed one year later across the historic spaces along Al-Muiz Street.

Beyond the spectacle, this and the previous exhibitions have not only reinvigorated Egypt’s contemporary art scene, they’ve served to reignite public interest in the country’s history and put the global spotlight firmly on Egypt.

MARIAM NAOUM [Screenwriter] | For Sparking the Mental Health Conversation

Born into a family of accomplished artists, it seems that Mariam Naoum was destined to follow suit. Like her novelist father, Naoum’s chosen weapon was the written word, but it was the power of those words being translated to the screen that unlocked her mind, and she now stands as one of the most acclaimed screenwriters in Egypt and the Middle East.

We can look back at a whole decade of impact by Naoum’s work, but 2021 has been a particularly memorable year thanks to two of her works for television: ‘Take Care of Zizi’ and season two of ‘Why Not 2’. They were universally applauded as two of the best shows of the year, but also won acclaim for tackling two topics that are rarely given headline space in Egypt.

Living with ADHD was a central plot point in ‘Take Care of Zizi’ and it triggered public conversation around the condition and other mental health topics in a completely unprecedented way. While it might be years before we see real tangible change, the series has gone a long way in dispelling myths around ADHD and opened the door to more discussions around mental health. ‘Why Not 2’ had a similar impact on public understanding of adoption or kafala, bringing the topic into Egypt’s zeitgeist.

Though she claims that she never sets out with the intention to ‘change things’, social impact has become something of a trademark for Naoum and she has consistently been a willing trailblazer, a maverick that dares to use her platform to open the eyes and expand the horizons of Egyptians.

SAWSAN MOURAD [Cairo Milano Design] | For Putting Egypt’s Design Scene on the Global Map

If there’s one collective epiphany that has dawned on us as Egyptians over the last decade, it’s that Om El Donia is home to an incredible wealth of untapped talent across the creative fields. The problem is that these talents need a chance, a platform to showcase their creativity to the world.

This year has seen one such platform come to the forefront, driven by the vision and ambition of one Sawsan Mourad, who has opened a whole new world of opportunity for local designers through Cairo Milano Design - a digital space launched in collaboration with Italian publication, Fuorisalone, which plays the role of official online guide of Milan Design Week and organises a series of satellite events during the world-famous event. As a platform, Cairo Milan Design aims to connect Cairo's immense local talent with counterparts not only in Milan, but with design scenes in other major cities across the region and Africa, while also paving the way to establish links between Milan and other cities. The platform is well on its way to establishing and fostering a unique, one-of-a-kind global network for design as art and as industry, its potential benefits and impact reaching beyond even Egypt. This has served to offer local designers opportunities at everything from collaborations to funding.

Mourad’s journey and impact reaches back much further than 2021 and this is a story that’s been two decades in-the-making. Cairo Milan Design is a project that falls under ElBeit, a leading Egyptian Arabic-language magazine specialising in all things interior design - a magazine that Mourad has helmed as Editor-in-Chief since its launch in 2000. Beyond the journalism and the storytelling, however, Mourad has forever been an advocate, a voice for Egypt’s design talent, using her position and platform to take Egyptian design into the future.

AHMED ELGENDY [Olympic Medalist] | For Inspiring Egypt’s Athletes

Ahmed ElGendy is the 21 year-old Egyptian athlete who entered the Tokyo Olympics’ Modern Pentathlon with little fanfare. Essentially he was there to make up the numbers. After the fencing, swimming, and riding events, he sat in 13th place, a whopping 50 points behind first-placed British athlete Joe Choong. This meant he started the final run 50 seconds behind him. He, in short, was out in the cold, with little hope of getting to that podium. In a remarkable turnaround, he made up that entire deficit, even leading the race at one point. Ultimately, he finished second - but only five seconds behind Choong. It was one of the biggest stories in an Olympics that was full of them. 

ElGendy left as the first ever athlete from Egypt and Africa to win a medal of any sort in the gruelling sport, returning home to a hero's welcome and with a well-deserved silver medal around his neck. Most importantly perhaps, he inspired a whole nation to pay attention to the sport while paving the way for a new generation of athletes.

TAREK NOJARA [El Batron] | For Leading Egypt's Underground Music Scene into the Mainstream

Five years ago, Tarek Nojara sat on the periphery of Egypt’s independent music scene, an outsider looking in. Now he sits at the centre of that scene, as one of the most influential and innovative entrepreneurs on Egypt’s independent music and media landscapes.

As the founder of progressive Cairo-based music label, El Batron, Nojara has taken Egypt’s underground music scene into the mainstream, paving the way for artists to do so on their terms. He has empowered underground artists, particularly in Egypt’s dynamic rap scene - rappers are no longer Egyptian music’s dirty little secret, they’re the new generation of stars, a voice for Egypt’s youth, they’re the reason music scenes around the region are looking at Egypt in envy.

Nojara is a man on a mission and that mission is to establish a sustainable, thriving music ecosystem - he’s turning it from a ‘scene’ into an ‘industry’, leveraging the clout of his other company, the prolific Nojara Productions. Through that company, Nojara and co. have produced everything from viral ads for multinationals, to music videos for the likes of Marwan Pablo, Lege-Cy and even pioneering Palestinian rapper, Shabjdeed.

Intention and ambition are, of course, nothing without execution - but what makes Nojara’s 2021 all the more impressive is that we’ve already begun to feel the impact of his crusade. From the launch of high-class event series, B-Nights, to bringing Pablo and Lege-Cy out of hiatus, to setting a new standard and framework for artist management, Nojara is leaving no stone unturned.

BASIL MOFTAH [Global Ventures] | For Being a Driving Force Behind Egypt's Entrepreneurial Boom in Impactful Tech

The boom in Egypt's entrepreneurial ecosystem over the last few years has been well-documented, and 2021 in particular has been a milestone year for homegrown startups. elmenus has continued its remarkable rise, gaining another multi-million investment led by a US-based hedge fund, while celebrity shout-out app, Minly, also raised an impressive $3.6 million and acquired a UAE-based rival. Elsewhere, trailblazing fintech, Paymob, scored $18.5 million in a year that has seen it strike unique partnerships from everyone from Uber to the American University in Cairo, each looking to apply the startup's innovative financial solutions in a variety of ways.

There are any number of reasons for this boom, chief amongst them the incredible pool of talent that is being cultivated in Egypt. Yet, the saying ‘it takes a village’ very much applies in this case, and there's one name that has been a common factor between these homegrown success stories: Global Ventures. Under the leadership of Egyptian venture capital veteran, Basil Moftah, and his partner, Noor Sweid, who steer the ship as General Partners, Global Ventures has funded and supported some of Egypt’s most innovative startups. 

An AUC graduate who landed in the world of venture capital almost by accident while working in the US, Moftah doesn’t only want to be part of this Egyptian renaissance. He wants to drive and fuel it by offering capital, mentorship and support to the entrepreneurs and startups utilising tech for real-world impact, whether is using innovation for financial inclusion or to streamline healthcare services. Moftah feels he has a role to play in helping startups take that next big step and break out of Egypt and the Middle East - and a new $100 million fund that has been raised from Saudi, UAE and US firms means that there’s more to come in 2022.

MAI GALAL [Costume Designer & Stylist] | For Parading Egypt's Creativity in Front of the World

On April 3rd, 2021, Egypt had the world's attention, as 22 royal mummies were transported from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir to their new home at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in Fustat in the most spectacular showcase of Ancient Egyptian history the world has ever seen.

The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade was one hell of a spectacle, a feast for the senses that also served to showcase Egypt’s present, in that it brought together the country’s top creatives to work towards this one, ambitious, unprecedented vision. From music, to choreography, to lighting design, all the creative fields were represented by the very best in the business and when it came to finding someone that could conceive and create the costumes that would tell one part of this grand story, Mai Galal was given this greatest of responsibilities, alongside another stylist, Khaled Azzam.

While all elements of the parade were hailed, the costume design came in for particular praise, as it was arguably the most challenging. It had to be modern, but draw its authenticity from history, and it did so with aplomb, without ever falling into a pit of gaudy cliches.

Away from mummies, she has also become one of the most in-demand stylists in the entertainment industry, this year styling everyone from Mona Zaki and Youssra, to Amir Karara and Ahmed Helmy, be it for the red carpet, TV or commercials. Overall, it’s been a stellar year for Galal, who now stands as the most celebrated stylist of her generation.

ALAA KARKOUTI & MAHER DIAB [MAD Solutions] | For Blazing a New Trail in the Arab Film Business

For decades, the film industry in Egypt was dominated and controlled by a powerful few - studios and producers with particular agendas and goals. Essentially, the power was in the hands of everyone but the actors and the filmmakers whose work shapes film as industry and art.

That was until MAD Solutions arrived in 2010 to not just disrupt the field, but to elevate it. Founded by Maher Diab and Alaa Karkouti, MAD Solutions is the first independent studio and fully integrated marketing and creative consultancy for the film and entertainment industries in Egypt and the Arab world. It’s a lofty, maybe even equivocal title and description of the firm, but one that has manifested in very tangible ways throughout 2021 on two main fronts…

The majority of Egyptian and Arab films that have screened or premiered at international festivals have done so under MAD Solutions’ distribution, feeding into one of the company’s main goals: showcasing local and regional film to the world. This year, ‘Bara El Manhag’ received its world premiere at the Red Sea Film Festival and ‘Amira’ won two awards at Venice Film Festival - success owed in large part to the MAD Solution’s marketing and distribution. Over the years, Karkouti and Diab have flown the flag for Egypt at over 20 film festivals, including Cannes, Berlinale, DIFF, ADFF and Toronto International Film Festival, while also taking part in summits, talks and workshops, all of which continue to attract more and more attention to Arab talent.

The second front comes in the world of PR, which was previously almost nonexistent in the local entertainment industry. MAD Solutions have changed the way the media and the public interact with actors and filmmakers, serving to elevate the industry and the men and women carrying it forward.

Karkouti and Diab’s ambitions know no limit and they’re mission to take the local and regional onto an international stage is set to experience a huge boost with the recent launch of an office in Lisbon, Portugal that will cement their presence in Europe and spread Egyptian and Arab cinema further across the world.

EL WAILI [Music Producer] | For Pioneering the New Sound of Egyptian Independent Music

No one can really put their finger on why, but the last few years have witnessed an incredible boom in Egypt’s independent music scene. From rap, to shaabi, to other sounds that defy the conventions of a genre, there’s been a new wave of stars seeping into the mainstream. These guys are no longer Egyptian music’s dirty little secret - they are the next generation of innovators creating the new sound of Egypt’s underground.

One man that has risen to the top in 2021 is Cairo-based producer, El Waili, a man who first pricked the ears of listeners with his unique psychedelic shaabi stylings. It’s this year, however, that has seen him come into his own, going from a bedroom musician to one of the most sought-after producers in Egypt and the Middle East.

Track after track, he has continued  to prove himself as a versatile, creative and original maker of music, a standing that has seen him collaborate with artists from all corners Egyptian and otherwise - something that landed him on the radars of two of the most prolific labels in the region. At home, he has joined the ranks of El Batron, a label founded by music entrepreneur, Tarek Nojara, where he stands alongside some of the country’s most popular rappers, like Lege-Cy and Ahmed Santa. He also signed a digital distribution deal with Saudi-based label, Wall of Sound, expanding his reach across the MIddle East.

This has all happened in an incredibly short space of time and his catalogue is still growing - but with his reputation soaring, even bigger things beckon for 2022.

RAMEZ MAHER & AMENA EL SAIE [Helm Foundation] l For Levelling the Playing Field for Egyptians Living with Disabilities

For too long, the 14 million-plus Egyptians with disabilities have been sidelined, made to feel unwelcome in the clockwork of daily life, denied the right to live full, prosperous lives.

Since 2014, however, Helm Foundation has been pushing back. Launched by Ramez Zaher and Amena El Saie, the NGO is built on two goals: two empower those living with disabilities and to educate organisations and work places on how to accommodate them. Helm's work goes well beyond awareness campaigns, however, with Zaher and El Saie striking right at the heart of the issue.

The NGO offers 360° business solutions including customised inclusion programmes and aiding talent sourcing and onboarding of employees with disabilities, acting as a much-needed link between them and employers. So far, Helm has struck over 1,000 partnerships, held over 5,000 corporate training programmes and completed over 1,000 accessibility audits.

This year, their good work rose to another level when they established a groundbreaking network of specialist centres across Egypt’s biggest universities to serve the needs of and support students with disabilities. The centres have been set up at the universities of Cairo, Ain Shams, Alexandria, Mansoura and Assiut, with more to come in 2022. Another huge milestone in 2021 came in the form of a $400K grant from Google that Helm will use to establish a programme to train thousands of Egyptians with disabilities in ICT and pave the way to the kind of job opportunities that were so often out of their reach.

Helm’s impact has long surpassed raising awareness and triggering conversation. Through these milestones and their tireless campaigning, the foundation’s impact is already being felt, and there are countless success stories that show exactly that.