A Cairo Startup Aims to Modernize the City's Street-Merchant Infrastructure

Flashy "formal" kiosks sponsored by Coca-Cola and Red Bull will replace some traditional vendors. Will they be embraced by modern Egyptians?

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An Egyptian street vendor reads a newspaper while waiting for customers in downtown Cairo, Egypt (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Over the past six decades, Cairo’s streets have slowly been eaten away by a bustling industry. Originally birthed out of a government-sponsored program to employ ex-convicts, vendors manning kiosks full of soda, cigarettes, and cheap consumer goods have overwhelmed Egypt's largest city. At times, the country's much maligned Interior Ministry has retaliated by forcing informal kiosk operators to close shop, threatening arrest if they don’t comply.

Tayssir Ibrahim, however, looked at the untenable situation unfolding on his city’s streets with optimism. To him, the kiosk sector was far more than the security risk and source of traffic Egypt’s bureaucracy often reduced it to. The businesses could be modernized and remain in the hands of Egyptian families, Ibrahim thought. The model just needed a face-lift.

Multinational corporations will foot the bill for these formal kiosks. (Tayssir Ibrahim/Tatweer)
Cairo's current kiosks have significantly grown in size and number in recent decades.
(Tayssir Ibrahim/Tatweer)

“I saw the kiosks as the most underdeveloped challenge in Egypt,” Ibrahim says. By October, Ibrahim and a team of three other entrepreneurs are expected to roll out the most modern street-side kiosks Cairo has ever seen. The project, launched through their startup, Tatweer (“uplift” in Arabic), aims to install up to 600 stationary kiosks within the next four years. Each with an estimated value of $10,000, the kiosks even come equipped with flat-screen TVs and built-in refrigerators. And they’re going to be given to Cairo’s street vendors for free. According to Ibrahim, “there’s zero risk” for the city’s kiosk operators.

Corporations eager to maneuver deeper into Middle Eastern markets, like Coca-Cola and Red Bull, two companies that have already signed on, will pay for the flashy new street outlets. In exchange, Coca-Cola’s logo will shine from their painted façades, replacing the dusty umbrellas that currently dominate kiosk exteriors. Red Bull, meanwhile, will get exclusive advertisement rights on eye-level refrigerators adjacent to the kiosks' windows. Additionally, the flat-screen TV will entice consumers with advertisements for the two products.

Some think the project might be too good to be true. A 2010 study by the Egyptian Entrepreneurial Business Forum underscores that Egypt’s business class is often averse to changes in their enterprise. The study states that a “hand-holding culture” numbs innovative spirit, adding that “entrepreneurship is a word unheard of to most of the Egyptian public.” Moreover, informal-economics specialist Ragui Assaad, who is unfamiliar with Tatweer’s project specifically, says that previous urban-policy initiatives in Cairo have left supposed beneficiaries even more marginalized. “When you try to make a big upgrade like that, you sometimes end up pushing out the very people you’re trying to help,” he says.

Ayman Ismail, however, founder of American University in Cairo’s Venture Lab, a startup incubator that's financially backing Tatweer’s kiosk project, believes this is an effort able to connect with Cairo’s average business operator.

“Those guys are savvy, and if you offer them good value, they’ll do it,” Ismail says, referring to the kiosk vendors. “If you offer them a kiosk that’s worth $10,000 for free, that’s a substantial amount of money for anywhere, not just Egypt.”

The city’s kiosks already rely on and cater to modern technology, he says. Recently, small kiosks started carrying "Fakka" cards—small “top-ups” used by Egyptians to power the data on their smartphones. Egypt was also one of the first Arab countries to endorse mobile money applications to buy goods, a move that minimizes reliance on hard currency. Improving the infrastructure of the kiosk itself, Ismail says, is the last step to modernizing the sector.

“Those guys are sitting in their kiosks playing their androids or iPads, and they understand the digital economy,” Ismail says. “They’re more sophisticated than we give them credit for.”

The streets of Cairo, however, have been an epicenter of political turmoil recently, which has repeatedly disrupted Tayssir Ibrahim’s plans. He first presented the idea to the government of military strongman Hosni Mubarak four years ago. A year later, in 2011, Mubarak’s government was swept away in the Arab Spring and eventually replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, a green light was given by the new government to install a prototype kiosk. That agreement ultimately dissolved, however, when the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrown in July 2013. Now, after pitching the idea to three different governments in just three years, Ibrahim will finally see the modern kiosk he's long dreamed of on Cairo’s streets.

“If all goes according to plan, we’ll install five kiosks in the Maadi area of Cairo,” he says, followed quickly by the saying “Inshallah”—“God willing.”

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