Luzette Jaimes

After the Revolution: Fostering Egypt’s Social Entrepreneurs, Generating an Inclusive Economy: A report from the 2012 Ashoka Innovation Network Forum

Calls for change swept in by the Arab Spring neither happened overnight, nor did they take place in a vacuum. As well as political, triggers for change are also economic and social. At Ashoka’s Arab World based in Egypt (including 64 Fellows in seven Middle-East and North African (MENA) countries with a combined population over seven million people) we’ve seen a 30 percent increase in the number of aspiring social innovators coming to us with new ideas for how to make positive and systemic social impact.

In late June 2012, Ashoka Arab World hosted its sixth annual Ashoka Innovation Network (AIN) Forum, convening over 70 participants including Egypt’s business entrepreneurs, corporate representatives interested in leveraging business’ role in social change, established and aspiring social entrepreneurs, young professionals from the business and civil sectors, community leaders and media. The excitement was evident as the forum filled with concerned stakeholders, and provided a safe space for these leaders from diverse sectors to air their challenges honestly, talk about their successes, and look for a shared path for collaboration and mutual support in the future.

This year’s Forum focused on “Corporate Engagement with Social Entrepreneurship,” the theme resulting from two major trends the revolutions in the region have spotlighted sharply:

1. A movement of a growing number of youth, women and social entrepreneurs looking for new, effective ways to make social chanÅge happen in light of the severe lack of opportunities (basic rights, education, income, infrastructure, employment) affecting the majority of Egyptians.

2. An increasingly struggling business sector recovering from the economic recession, employee strikes and the effects of political instability in the country. Business leaders have imprisoned due to their perceived cooperation with the last regime, and those who remain are urgently looking for better ways to expand their markets and new ways of doing business that both will be successful financial and address the social needs of Egyptian society.

While these specific challenges are seriously affecting the MENA region, they are part of a larger, global pattern of “business as usual” not succeeding. Even as our own frustrations mounted, we watched how in the U.S. and Europe, economic systems and traditional business models failed, raising anxiety about whole nations’ solvency and the future of the EC and Euro. We felt the aftershocks of a discredited and failing global finance industry, and while unemployment rates have always been high in our region, watching the largest markets struggle with record levels of unemployment magnified our own struggles for solutions. The Occupy Wall Street movements echoed our own realization that individuals from all walks of life are tired of living with failing economic systems and are searching for new ways to make a better life, a better future. Things have become so uncertain we have seen entrepreneurs creating alternative methods of payment, such as “time-banking,” or whole communities such as one in England developing its own currency, the Totnes Pound.

At this critical transition period in Egypt and the MENA region, we believed the 2012 AIN Forum was strategically important to inspire and create momentum for new initiatives that offer socio-economic opportunities and financial benefits for all.

Manal Samra, Ashoka’s Egypt country representative, opened the Forum by highlighting Ashoka’s role in scaling up social entrepreneurship in the region. He forcefully stated that in order to effectively address the many social, environmental and economic challenges in Egypt today, it is crucial to build a thriving social business bridge where both social and business sectors recognize and contribute their expertise.

“Social entrepreneurship creates a platform for stakeholders from across the sectors to explore synergies and work together to achieve common objectives, and at Ashoka Arab World, we provide such a platform to enable more innovations and collaboration between different sectors to bring about positive social change,” said Samra.

Tarek Mansour (pictured left), country senior partner, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Egypt, led an open question and answer period to create a discussion space that included the collective knowledge of the participants. Between presentations, participants were asked to share their perspectives on the social-business bridge in Egypt and strategies to further enhance it. These interactive breaks featured Omar Sodoudi, general manager of Egypt-based widely considered to be one of the Arab world’s largest online marketplace and auction sites; and Mohamed Hawary, founder and managing director of Andalucia Financial Consultancy and Investment. The forum ended with a facilitated networking session so participants could connect socially innovative ideas with other stakeholders present.

Guest speakers shared key successes and continuing challenges in building the social-business bridge in Egypt. They also aimed to shift Egypt from a charity-based response to poverty or lack of opportunity to a sustainable development mindset. Many were social-business innovations, such as Ashoka’s hybrid business solutions engaging social and civil sectors as equal partners with businesses.

Jean-Pierre Honein from Hilti explained its global and local grass-root interventions and integrating them with different levels of Hilti’s business, enabling its employees to connect with social change. In the Arab World, the Hilti Foundation is supporting the selection of new Ashoka Fellows (over 50 in the region to date) and scaling of their innovations. Hilti is supporting the expansion of several of Ashoka’s social entrepreneur programs to more Arab countries. With Hilti’s support, Ashoka Arab World has pioneered three Collaborative Platforms, online systems to enlist new partners, share ideas and information, promote the replication of effective models, provides technical support, encourages a stronger advocacy campaign, and identify unaddressed areas of need.

Pictured above from from the left: Raghda El Ebrashi (PhD, Founder and chairperson, “Alashanek Ya Balady” (AYB) Association for Sustainable Development; Jean-Pierre Honein (Partners Development Manager, Sub-Region Near East and East Africa, Hilti Corporation); and Ewelina Szopinska (Development Officer, Ashoka Arab World).

Raghda El Ebrashi, social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow, shared her work addressing the high unemployment and poverty rates in Egypt. She founded Alashanek Ya Baladi (AYB) in 2002, and she at the forum shared her strategy and innovations to bring over 10 million Egyptian citizens above the poverty line by 2020. Her approach addresses the youth population and the shortage of qualified people with market-relevant skills with approaches she refined after years of detailed market study, needs assessment and targeted training programs for employment or small enterprise development. She also works to connect potential employees with employers. El Ebrashi’s work is an excellent example of social entrepreneurship, systemic impact and the value it provides to diverse stakeholders.

El Ebrashi’s work is targeting some of the most underprivileged communities and key Egyptian industries. She is particularly passionate about changing false perceptions and finding joint solutions. She said, “When we create social and economic value [among youth or women], we alter stereotypes in these communities and in the way employers see and identify employees to hire.”

Ashoka Arab World’s Development Officer Ewelina Szopinska gave those participating practical information on pathways for engaging with Ashoka and social entrepreneurship for businesses and corporations. She gave examples of current partnerships focusing on Egypt and the MENA region, including the ones with Google, Danone, and Boehringer Ingelheim (BI). Google is working together with Ashoka to advance access to “Information For All,” sponsoring Ashoka’s global innovation competitions on citizen media and accelerating how technology supports social entrepreneurship. Danone and Ashoka are building social-business ventures in several MENA countries. In Egypt, Danone employees work with social entrepreneurs for market expansion, creating new jobs and health programs in rural Egypt. Boehringer Ingelheim is partnering with Ashoka on “Making More Health” across the globe by sourcing and growing leading social innovations in the health field.

Szopinska shared Ashoka’s recommendations from the process of building lasting, mutually beneficial collaborations between social entrepreneurs and business sector. She said:

  1. It is critical to acknowledge different areas of expertise, accept differences and capitalize where alignment exists.
  2. Innovation can never be 100 percent planned. Flexibility and willingness to change is important, especially as you move from the design to the implementation phase.
  3. Invest time to explore background, position, strengths and limitations of the partnering organization and the sector it represents.
  4. Keep the right balance between leading and following.
  5. The social and business sectors often speak different languages although they use similar words. Aligning on language requires time, active listening and attention.

The 2012 AIN Forum was a welcome step to coalesce leaders who want to make a difference in the region to meet, hear new ideas and build alliances across sectors. Ashoka Arab World believes that with corporations and Fellows, local businesses and people willing to work hard to address social problems while making the region economically sound, we have the unique opportunity for businesses to engage with the citizen sector for mutual advantage. Our ability to harness the power of collaboration among sectors and to innovate new ways of doing inclusive businesses with triple bottom lines WILL be critical to support Egypt’s and the region’s path to a better future.

Luzette Jaimes is based in Cairo where she manages Ashoka Arab World operations. Find out more on about Ashoka Arab World on their Facebook page, at Twitter @AshokaArabWorld, or by contacting Luzette Jaimes by email at