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Egyptian Entrepreneurs Hope Technology, Google Funding, Will Spur Economy

Adel Youssef (middle) and the team behind the IntaFeen application, Cairo, Egypt, March 20, 2012.
Adel Youssef (middle) and the team behind the IntaFeen application, Cairo, Egypt, March 20, 2012.
Noel King

The Egyptian revolution sent the country’s economy into a tailspin. Egypt was already plagued by high unemployment, particularly among those under the age of 30. Amid ongoing unrest, foreign investors have put projects on hold. Once-reliable industries like tourism are struggling. But several dozen technology entrepreneurs think they have what it takes to spur job creation, despite political uncertainty. They are taking part in a competition sponsored by Google, which will award a $200,000 prize to one business.

In a conference room at the elegant Fairmont Hotel in Cairo, two young men are playing a fierce game of table tennis. Around them, youthful entrepreneurs slouch in bean bag chairs, pecking furiously at their laptops. Hundreds of Egyptians are jammed into small booths around the perimeter of the room. Each one is ready to explain how his or her tech business has the potential to be the next big thing.

"With IntaFeen,you can share your location with friends and family on the go. Whether you are in a restaurant, watching a movie, eating ice cream, in a park, you share this information with your friends and family," said Adel Youssef, the founder and CEO (chief executive officer) of Wireless Stars. He said spent five years working in the United States but moved back to Egypt because he saw unexploited opportunity. He and his team have created a mobile application called IntaFeen. It’s a location-based social network. Users write reviews of restaurants and movies.

They earn “badges” for places where they check in frequently. Youssef says the idea is based on the popular “Foursquare” application, but has a different cultural sensibility. "If you see the badges of Foursquare they are designed for U.S. culture or West culture. My favorite badge is gym rat. A gym rat in the U.S. is someone who is actively working in the gym. If you see someone here and you give him this badge, that is insulting," he said.

About 110,000 people from Egypt to Ghana to Pakistan have downloaded the IntaFeen app.  

Organizers say the point of the competition is not just for Egypt’s young techies to show off, but to address one of Egypt’s most pressing problems: unemployment. Egypt’s official unemployment rate is 12-point-4 percent, but many believe it to be much higher. Around 90 percent of the unemployed are young, under the age of 30.  But can tech companies really create jobs?  

Maha Elbouennein, the head of communications for Google in the Middle East and North Africa, said "These are 50 companies that didn't exist six months ago. In order to be participating in the program, they have to be registered, legal entities. This isn't a business plan competition. So the evidence in itself, that 50 companies exist today that didn't six months ago is evidence enough about how it’s helping the economy and it’s growing. It’s creating jobs."

Elbouennein says, of course, Google has its own financial interests in the region. "Google basically wants people to live on the Internet," he said.

If technology businesses get bigger in Egypt, inevitably, so will Google.

Some of the entrepreneurs have set their sights beyond North Africa and the Middle East.  Yasmin Elayat is the CEO of Groupstream, a storytelling platform that lets users interact with one another by adding photos, tweets and blog posts into an online “stream.” Groupstream is going to launch in the United States, first.  "The idea started when we noticed that during the Egyptian revolution, Egyptians were documenting our country’s history in real time on social media and Facebook and Twitter and on photos and videos on cell phones and cameras," she said.

Elayat turned that initial spark of an idea into a crowd-sourced documentary project called 18 Days in Egypt. But she says she soon realized that the same technology could be useful for those who did not have anything quite so dramatic as a revolution to document. "It doesn't even have to be news. I see my cousin, she’s like 11 and her whole life is on social media. She doesn't even know what it feels like to hold a photograph anymore," she said.

Google has narrowed a list of 4,000 entrants down to 20 businesses and will pick a winner in May. But win or lose, many of the entrepreneurs share the same hope: that Egypt’s youth, which have been at the forefront of so much political change and upheaval in the last year-and-a-half might now become the leaders of a technological revolution.

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