Find Joy

Mostafa Ghanam RIP

As another light goes out I am reminded of the extent to which Cairo is a modern day Gotham in all its gory glory. It is dark, hopeless, scary, sad and beaming with negativity and injustice. This year, it has only been getting darker. We keep losing those whom are the brightest and most full of life and light. So the rest of us, those opting to stay in the city, we owe it to ourselves and to their legacy to fight the darkness. We each need to find it within ourselves to shine bright, to become beacons of positivity, light and life. Dig deep… shine bright… Find the joy.. protect their legacies.

5th Floor Debates Series – Volume 1

Do you believe that competition is a prerequisite for progress?

That humanity will continue to develop and evolve in the absence of a self-serving mind-set or a perpetual desire to outdo?

Can a cooperative greater good themed mindset be the next big thing?

Would it be sustainable?

How would the change come about?

We would love to hear your thoughts!

The Namesake

Take your first impression and acknowledge that it is probably wrong. She is not the girl you see nor the girl you perceive. Take a moment and look beyond the facade of bravado and indifference. Give it a chance, she will smile, if you are really lucky she will let you in. If all you got was a shrug and a “3ady”, don’t give up, try harder, wait…. the best things in life are worth the wait. This is coming from the epitome of impatience. Yet trust me, you want to wait, you want to meet the girl beneath it all.

Pray, don’t judge, it isn’t an arrogant air. She isn’t snubbing you. Nor is she claiming to be too cool for school. She is merely taking you in, sizing you up, attempting to understand how much damage you are capable of inflicting and the extent to which you would be inclined to inflict damage. She is working overtime trying to avoid getting hurt, she isn’t about to take a chance on you or me.

It was inevitable, the tough girl act, you see our twisted society has given her no other options. Be tough or get trampled over. Be tough or get abused. Be tough or get cheated. Be tough or die. Be tough! So tough she had to become.

Incidentally, I have this quote running through my head:

“I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses. All of us are. Didn’t your father ever tell you that? Didn’t he?”

I am angry at her universe for not telling her enough, for not re-enforcing the message at every opportunity. She IS a princess. She is worthy. She is important. She is loved. She is perfect. She matters.

Moreover, she maintained the classiness and attitude of princesses against all odds. She remained clean, pure and genuine in a society that ostracized you for all of the above. She repeatedly lost all sense of security and stability. Life as she knew it was constantly being torn from under her feet and radically altered before being thrown back into her lap. Even the constants in her life held that change against her, defined it as a shortcoming, accepted it as an unchangeable reality, sought to bury her spirit under these faulty realizations. The fallacy of realism, of protection.

She decided she didn’t need them. She could be a nation of 1, closed up from all the madness. She embraced the tasks at hand diligently, striving every day to be independent… to be bigger… better… smarter… stronger… tougher. She didn’t need them. She could take care of herself. All she had to do was work harder and embrace life without them.

Yet a decade later it will fully hit her… the extent to which she is exhausted, the scale of what she has attempted to take on, the futility of doing so in a society like ours. I have tremendous amounts of respect to who she is and what she has done. Yet I fear that in seeking to be independent she has excused them from their roles, given them a guilt-free way out. I feel she ought to call them on their bull shit and have them own up to their responsibilities. Perhaps then she would feel less strained, less tired, less abandoned and more pampered. Perhaps then society would give her a break because she would be better conforming to their norms.

May she get to be treated the way she deserves to be treated. May we miraculously mature as a society. May she realize that she is a princess, that she is loved, that she is worthy, and that she doesn’t have to do it all on her own.

Farwell to Batman

This is for me. I would have loved to claim that it was for him. Or for all of you. Yet this is for me. To cope. To believe. To survive.

Bassem Sabry is dead.

You have all heard. The tragic news has spread across social media like wildfire and has depressed friends, fans and loved ones across the globe.

Yet most of the formal news is talking about the political activist. Yet as I sit here, a mere citizen of the world, I mourn the man, the beautiful soul that he was.

Bassem Sabry was one of the finest men you would ever meet. Fact.

Since 2001 Bassem has been a staple of our faculty walls and of our beloved “Retro”. The cafe’s most frequent patrons knew him by sight if not in person. We all practically lived there. I shall probably be demanding they put up a Batman poster in his honour.

To understand the constant Batman references, read Dahshan’s stunning piece here.

Bassem was the eternal optimist. He was born with a thirst for knowledge and an impeccable internal compass. He was always seeking enlightenment and truth. Moreover, he was constantly going out of his way to make sure that this was never an individual pursuit. That the light was always shared. That his growing wisdom and knowledge base was simplified and shared with the masses through multiple real-life and digital media forums. Socrates cafe, his blog, his article-writing, his facebook groups…

Moreover, he moved so seamlessly through multiple circles, being a constant beacon of positivity and awesomeness in all of them. Ever the intellectual, the cinema producer, the batman enthusiast, the geek, the blogger, the writer, the politician, the activist, the philosopher, the Latin dancer, the kick-ass guitarist, the friend, THE dude.

Those of you who knew him personally would understand the magnitude of our collective loss. We have all reached out to each other over the last 12 hours with condolences and support.

Those of you who didn’t have followed his noble attempts at making the world a better place. At being the voice of reason amidst all the madness. At being his own man.

His pursuit for greatness and happiness was relentless. Moreover, he sought to define and simplify that happiness and empower the masses to seek it out and to find it.

I leave you with the man himself:

Update: I feel compelled to ask you to read about him through his eyes. What it meant to him to turn 30 and all the life lessons he wanted to share with the world. Check it out here. 

لكي الله يا مصر

 

Made To Order

At the end of 2006, Time magazine declared the reader, the individual, the average Joe; the Man of the Year. It was a testament to the overwhelming growth in user-generated content that took the world by storm during that year. Social media platforms were empowering individuals, like me and you around the globe to become overnight sensations; citizen journalists, artists, writers and educators. Individuals worldwide were creating content and news and contributing through the available platforms (blogging websites, YouTube, twitter, Facebook, Flickr) at the same frequency as they we were consuming it. We were becoming increasingly aware of our individuality, our opinions and our need to be heard.

This egocentric attitude and massive need for customization and uniqueness forced companies worldwide to abandon their standard off the shelf products. Corporates around the world no longer had the luxury once afforded to Ford to claim that their customers “could have the car in any colour as long as it is black”. This was a new day and age and the customer was king. Moreover, this customer (existing and prospective) sought to be actively involved in product and service design, positioning and delivery.

This led to the rise of mass customization; corporates had to find a way to break down their final product into modular components that could be assembled in different ways to avail each customer the opportunity to customize and build their own unique product. This enabled corporates to massively expand their product offering as they would now make to order. Henceforth, by allowing the customer to select specifications and alternatives from a list of options, the corporate could now claim to offer countless product possibilities.

I still recall spending hours on the Dell website dreaming up and virtually assembling and building super laptops. Yet this concept, which most associate with high technology products and manufacturing, has migrated into the retail food business here in Cairo. Food and beverage manufacturers and retailers are realizing the need to interface more aggressively and dynamically with their customer. Hence we, as end users, are increasingly allowed, furthermore invited, to build our own salads, sandwiches, pastas, pizzas and even drinks all over Cairo at outlets such as TBS, Saladero, Marly’s Kitchen and countless others.

This is of great importance due to the weight of the food sector in Egypt. For according to the Central Authority for Public Mobility & Statistics the average Egyptian family spends 39.9% of their annual expenditure on food and drinks. That is almost twice the amount spent on housing and almost six folds the amount spent on healthcare. The majority of this food and beverage expenditure is eaten up by proteins, grains and vegetables. This has reflected on the retail side, where according to the general authority for investment, 47% of all retail generated sales come from food and drink outlets. Furthermore, from a manufacturing point of view, agribusiness and food and beverage manufacturing constitutes 27.5% of all manufacturing production in Egypt. Hence it was probably inevitable that all budding and successful business models would be attractive expansion strategies for those operating in the agribusiness and food and beverage segments.

Meanwhile, this global phenomenon of massive customization has been working in tandem with yet another customer-centric phenomenon; manufacturers are investing heavily in forward integration endeavors. Corporates in Cairo are seeing the benefit of operation in proximity to the end consumer, where feedback is instantaneous and real consumption statistics can be measured and analyzed. Agribusiness manufacturers are opting to integrate forward by establishing dedicated retail outlets, such as the case with regard to Wadi Food or Koki; or through setting up restaurant chains.

Shady Mokhtar of Swiss Choice is one such example. The young entrepreneur started out with an idea to bridge a gap in the Egyptian market for delicacies. He observed as the existing agribusiness manufactures of meat, chicken and fish catered their limited list of identified products to the retail and HORECA (HOtels, REstaurants and CAtering) segments. He too had come to the realization of the importance of customization. Armed with that belief, Swiss Choice embarked upon the journey of becoming the first manufacturer in Egypt that allows its customer base an extensive amount of tailoring with regard to the products. Swiss Choice indulged their customer base by inviting each customer to request that Swiss Choice manufacture his/her own unique and proprietary recipe for different sausages, salamis and pepperonis. This granted Mokhtar the instantaneous advantage of having an almost infinite product list. Mokhtar’s customers appreciated the variety and customization, moreover, several sought to stream-line their Egypt offering with their global recipes in order to ensure a unified customer experience everywhere around the world. This gave birth to Swiss Choice second selling proposition, the exclusivity in particular products granted to customers whom are very keen on maintaining the uniqueness and confidentiality of their recipes and product preferences.

Mokhtar’s business model made him an attractive partner to some other creative young individuals. He was approached with the idea of mass customization restaurant chains to capitalize on the Swiss Choice success in customized products. This newly formed partnership ventured into the restaurant industry by creating three unique local brands: Top Dawgs for American style hot dogs, Ali Baba Doner Kebab for Turkish shawerma and finally Mr. Wok for Chinese take-out (mainly Noodles). All three ventures were built on the concept of mass customization where the dish or sandwich is built using an assembly line set-up. For instance, at Top Dawgs you are free to select the bread, sausage, toppings and condiments. Mr.Wok allows you to design your own Noodles dish with a selection of Noodles, protein, vegetables and sauce.

When asked to evaluate the experience Mokhtar seemed rather pleased with the preliminary results. “Our drive”, he said, “came from the belief that there is great unmet potential in the food and beverage industry in Egypt. Hence, my partners and I decided to opt for 3 restaurant types that have not been previously tested in Egypt”. His view rings very true, since whilst mass customization is invading the restaurant business in Egypt, his three selections could greatly be considered Blue Ocean (a dive into an unsaturated market where he would have a first mover advantage) or at the least uniquely positioned.

Another key advantage or attribute of the experience that Mokhtar values greatly is the learning he and his partners have gained. Mokhtar and his partners had decided against purchasing franchising rights of famous global brands, opting instead to build their own brand. This was both challenging and cost effective, as this saved them the initial large investment and financial outlay associated with the franchising contract, moreover it gave them free reign with regard to creative aspects of the restaurants. When building your own brand you have the luxury of being able to design your own logo, setting, atmosphere and menu; more significantly it allows you to customize your offering to suit the dynamic tastes of the Egyptian consumer. Hence came the realization that for a local brand to be successful mass customization was the way forward, customer insight and involvement were instrumental to success and to the ability to compete, succeed, grow and scale the operation.

This business model has resulted in a very steep learning curve for Mokhtar and the team. “We are able to get on the spot feedback from the clients on the products we would normally sell to retailers and get limited or delayed feedback on”. This ability to interact with the customer and get first hand feedback on consumption preferences of the product, frequency of consumption, preferred complimentary products and finally comments on flavor, size, quality and variety enable the young entrepreneur to improve the Swiss Choice products in their manufacturing phases.

I wondered if these successful mass customization restaurants in Zamalek and Mohandseen have had an impact on Swiss Choice’s business to business sales by virtue of brand associations; given that Mokhtar’s restaurants proudly bear a “Powered by Swiss Choice” emblem.  “It is too soon to say”, says Mokhtar, “logic would claim that the affiliation would enable us to leverage the brand and sell more. Yet the restaurants are localized to one area of the city and have not been in operation long enough for me to draw accurate inferences about their impact on business.”

The largest challenge of shifting from being solely a manufacturer and distributor, to being the retailer at which the customer can consume the product is the risk of failure. “Our competitive advantage as Swiss Choice is our ability to customize our production lines to suit changing customer requirements; this means that should we discontinue a product or start a new one, minor changes have to be made to the production floor.” Mokhtar continued, “In the restaurant business on the other hand, you invest in a location, brand, concept, staff and marketing; then if the restaurant doesn’t take-off as planned in 6 months’ time, you would have to scrap the entire investment and start over”. “There are no quick fixes in a business-to-customer or retail setting” Mokhtar concluded.

Yet, given his own experience, Mokhtar expects that more and more agribusiness manufacturers will focus on integrating forward along their value chains in order to maximize their margins and in order to gain the advantages of customer interaction. “At the end, accurate and detailed customer insight is the real advantage.”

Originally written for Business Today

صندوق دعم مصر 306306

Updated! Since Nerro asked. Here is my take on http://www.youm7.com/News.asp?NewsID=1149794

While I think it is nice that the business community is excited about contributing I have some concerns about the format.

1. As far as I can tell, it is a privately set up fund. I am yet to hear any commentary from the transitional government in that regard (if you’ve heard anything please share it in the comments & I’d be more than happy to update the post). So I am not quite sure how the dynamics will work in terms of spending that money.

2. I am a bit on the paranoid side, I don’t like investing in “elfankoush”. Some transparency is in order. This would have been a much better initiative (in my opinion) if instead of setting up a fund they identified 3 flagship projects. Then each of these projects would have had a definitive objective, OWNER, plan and targeted start up costs. I am modelling this after the success of the 57357 hospital. People felt encouraged to donate because they associated it with a real project with tangible results.

3. While I believe in quick wins, spending this money on consumption rather than investment activities would be such a shame. It would be like flushing the money down the drain, one time usage only. I would really like the spending criteria to be linked to SUSTAINABILITY and RETURN ON INVESTMENT. The people are digging out of their own savings, the least you could do for them is assure them that they are teaching you to fish rather than feeding you that day. Moreover, I am biased towards any endeavor that results in job creation since it drives towards greater sustainability and prosperity through the consumption multiplier.

4. I am all for healthcare & education, but it isn’t the time yet. These need far more sophisticated & well orchestrated reform plans.

5. The ability of the nation to export or attract foreign expenditure is key moving forward. So extra points if the project tackles logistics, tourism or enables us to export.

6. I would suggest projects along the lines of:

  • Renewable energy power generation facility
  • Revamping the railway system
  • A metro system
  • A chain of publicly owned bakeries ensuring good quality affordable bread around the nation
  • Production facilities
  • A Tourism related project

Those are my thoughts ya Nerro. The project suggestions draws on popular support expressed by fellow economists on my FB wall.

Update:

Naguib Sawiras echoed these very views during his ONTv interview here: http://youtu.be/PFC7M4pO-Qo?t=21m58s

Random Economic Musings

I am writing this because I bumped into the very talented Tarek at an entrepreneurship forum and he asked for my 2 cents on things. The following lines are not based on any scientific nor quantitative analysis and are instead the musings of a former economist.

  • In the following months the foreign exchange situation will continue to worsen. Banks are currently rationing their disbursement of funds to basic commodities and absolute necessities. It is not unimaginable that soon we will have extremely limited access to imported products. Black markets are likely to emerge. Prices of imported products are expected to rise dramatically. This can currently be observed in the prices of vehicles, furniture and clothing.
  • With regard to expenditure; we had been experiencing an expenditure boom inspired by the sense of uncertainty and the double-digit inflation. Individuals sought to hedge against the rising prices and worsening pound value by spending. This initial boom is now dying out as more and more individuals face uncertainty regarding their income levels and job security.
  • Corporates are feeling the full weight of a cash crunch. Their imported (or locally purchased for that matter) components are more expensive than usual, foreign currency is hard to come by and terms of payments with suppliers (especially abroad) have worsened considerably. Banks should be offering a way out to these companies through financing their working capital and providing them with extended facilities and bridge financing to tide them through these rough times. Yet I am unsure of the risk appetite the banks seem to be displaying these days. It would seem that it is increasingly tougher to find affordable & timely finances.
  • My anxiety comes from the fact that it is the little guys who will be hit worst. Banks would have a lower appetite to finance a cash crunch for a smaller company or a start-up than it would be had the company been a large & established one. Hence those whom are most in need for financing are least likely to get it. Or would get it at disadvantageous rates.
  • As small companies shut down or fail to survive these turbulent times jobs are lost. This increase in unemployment as the job market shrinks is likely to have two opposing impacts. The first (the positive side) is a boom in entrepreneurship  Young men and women will abandon dreams of a stable job at a big name and will instead follow their bliss. Granted a lot of these projects will be in the food & beverage segments and others in trading (commission & delivery based projects), yet eventually more manufacturing based ideas are bound to emerge. The second trend (far less positive) would be the rise of crime and illegal activities as people strain to support their families.
  • Spending on media & advertising will fall as companies become more and more fraudulent with their spending. You must have noticed the rapidly growing number of empty billboards. This spells good news for my social media guru friends though as companies will shift towards more creative forms of advertising.

Tarek, this is off the top of my head. Will keep adding to it throughout the week as ideas pop up, or if people ask specific questions in the comments.

Cairo

This is not at all a recommendation to buy, quite the contrary, the book is an alarmingly disappointing read. Intrigued to buy by the fact that events unfold in our beloved Cairo only to discover that Somerville has spun the tale to unsuspecting readers such that Cairo is an “exotic” and dangerous primitive place with desert and villages and tribal gangs.

Yet among page after page of cliché and a less than charming attempt at an action packed adventure, were a couple of paragraphs I felt worthy of sharing with you. Kindly don’t interpret this as a book recommendation, I wholeheartedly regret the purchase.

“Cairo was on the surface a city of filth, chaos and ruins. But to those who were able to sink in to, Cairo was Al Kahira – The Triumphant, teeming with people, ebullient, enveloped in the past, kinetic, yielding, collapsing and constantly rebuilding itself out of the debris”.

His description of driving in Cairo hits too close to home not to share, it was the only part of the book where he had me smiling of a whole page 🙂

Farouk drove his car as if the brakes had not only failed but long ago been ripped from the vehicle and replaced with only a horn. His response to all oncoming obstacles – camels, schoolchildren, bicycles, donkey carts, the infirm hobbling across the road – was to accelerate towards them, honking and cursing, merciless in his impatience. But he would demonstrate monk-like tranquillity behind trucks blocking narrow streets or with leisurely workers smoking and slowly moving split-bamboo cages containing chickens or piles of bricks.

The greatest enemy of all was that many-headed monster the Other Driver, with his murderous incompetence, psychotic competitiveness and profound visual impairment. Such cars were passed with unceasing incantations. In case of extreme provocation there was an escalating scale of response. Driving past and staring like a wrathful Hindu God was the least severe. Throwing both hands heavenward was the next level. The most serious and frequent reprisal was to wind down the window and articulate the anatomy of the offending driver’s mother. It was always the absent mothers who took the punishment. Fin wondered if, on some subtle level, they were actually responsible.

The Economics of Life

My TEDx day-view 🙂

I am indebted to the organising team for their passion and the attendees at the BA for making my day in my city by the sea unforgettable. Your individual feedback was heart warming and extremely touching.

For those interested in the actual slides, they are downloadable here: The Economics of Life – Inji Amr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Economic Awareness Videos

Ever since I’d seen the Crisis of Credit awareness video & I have been obsessing about & dreaming of doing a series of similar videos in Arabic explaining economic concepts to the non-economists & making the newspaper headlines relevant to the average citizen. I’ve been in the search for a cooperative & collaborative cartoonist for quite some time. At the end an awesome young man, the 14 year old son of a good friend offered to do it. The video below is our very first attempt. This was done much earlier this Summer but it had taken me this long to get around to uploading it as there was a chance it would be day-viewed at the last TEDxAlexandriaU. Hence, I apologise if it comes across as untimely given the current state of the stock market.

I am uploading this pilot for feedback. Ahmed & I would love your feedback on content, ease of understanding, language, audio speed, visuals, animation etc. Basically any kind of feedback you throw our way would be HIGHLY appreciated.

Thanks.

P.S. I would like to commend the awesome work being done by the Qabila team, more so that their work is now starting to take on a socio-economic flavour.

Ahmed Said, your energy & professionalism far exceed most adults I know & it is your effort & dedication that made this possible

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

You know your job is taking over your brain when the most memorable quote from a murder mystery is one about the economy. Here you go:

The idea that Sweden’s economy is headed for a crash is nonsense. . . .You have to distinguish between two things–the Swedish economy and the Swedish stock market. The Swedish economy is the sum of all the goods and services that are produced in this country every day. There are telephones from Ericsson, cars from Volvo, chickens from Scan, and shipments from Kiruna to Skovde. That’s the Swedish economy, and it’s just as strong or weak today as it was a week ago. . . .The Stock Exchange is something very different. There is no economy and no production of goods and services. There are only fantasies in which people form one hour to the next decide that this or that company is worth so many billions, more or less. It doesn’t have a thing to do with reality or with the Swedish economy. . . .It only means that a bunch of heavy speculators are now moving their shareholdings from Swedish companies to German ones. So it’s the financial gnomes that some tough reporter should identify and expose as traitors. They’re the ones who are systematically and perhaps deliberately damaging the Swedish economy in order to satisfy the profit interests of their clients.”

I’ve been screaming the same about our economy, couldn’t believe when I saw the views in print. Good book overall, quite the entertaining read.

The Million Dollar Question

So the twitter timeline yesterday and my budget awareness session the day before were filled with one question.

Where do the Suez Canal revenues go?

They don’t appear anywhere on the budget. So I took the question to the Ministry of Finance. Their responses are as follows:

Suez canal revenues are balance of payments revenues, they are not recorded in the budget as they are national revenues rather than government revenues. Taxes on these revenues on the other hand do enter the budget and appear in it. Natural gas exports (and all exports for that matter) will also be recorded in the balance of payments and not the budget. Finally, all public sector enterprises and their budgets are by definition off-budget & will not appear in the 2011/2012 budget.

Ok boys and girls, hope this answers the collective curiosity, albeit I bet all of you are still wondering what the Suez canal revenues get spent on and who’s pocket they end up in.

Government Budget Awareness Session

To whom it may concern, I’m giving an economic awareness session on Sunday the 26th at Tahrir Lounge (5 El Bostan Street, Goethe building downtown) at 6 pm.

The session is entitled “Egyptian government budget, jargon, values and possible implications”.

Session is targeting the non-economists and will basically be an introduction to the concept of budgeting, the various items and highlighting interesting choices in the last MOF budget proposal.

Session will be given in Arabic.

Jan 25 Told In Song

I’ve FBed it, tweeted it and blasted it in my own car stereo and those of friends. Only thing remaining is blogging it, so here it is, lyrics and all 🙂

غنائية يوم ما الشعب إتغير

غناء فاطمة سعيد
موسيقى مصطفى الحلوانى
كلمات مصطفي أبوجمرة

كنا بنشوف الطريق مفيهوش طريق
و السما فوقنا رصاصى والامل ميت غريق
كنا فاقدين الهوية والحياة زي الممات
كنا ساكتين كلنا جوا السكات
كنا و كان و ده زمان

و في صبح اخضر ملوش مثيل
لما التقينا فى ميدانها الأسمر الاصيل
لما اتفاجئنا اننا بنحب بعض
و نموت لبعض
يومها الهلال حضن الصليب
يوم ما اشتعل فينا اللهيب
و كان اللى كان

يومها ألشعب اتغير
فك لسانه و اصبح سيد
يومها خرجنا نقول مش نافع
إحنا الشعب المصرى و صوتنا الطالع

يومها انطلقت ثورة فى مصر
ثورة تحرر ثورة تقرر ثورة تعيد ترتيب القصر
شعبنا واقف يرفض يسقط يطرد

قطعوا جميع الاتصالات
غموا عيون الفضائيات
حطوا السم فى قلب الزاد
يومها العالم صلى و شافنا
بنقبض علي دبحنا و علي سرقنا
و علي كدب فى بيان القصر
ثورة ثورة حتى النصر
ثورة فى كل شوارع مصر

بدم ولادها النازف اخضر
عزم شبابها الوقف صامد واحد راصد ماجد حالف
حالف لازم ينقذ مصر

و يومها العالم سقف واقف
والنيل زغرد عارف
ان خلاص الديب استسلم
وان الشرفا و روح الشهدا
حيملوا القصر
تحيا مصر

Egypt 2011/2012 Budget

So Zeinboia gives me the heads up about an invitation from the ministry of finance to discuss the new budget proposal with Dr. Samir Radwan and his advisers. Apparently invitation was made to some of the youth coalitions and some of the twitter economists. I had whined on twitter all morning about wanting to attend and has lost all hope, then an hour before the event the perpetually awesome TravellerW comes to the rescue and my name is at the door.

I race through Cairo traffic to the IDSC building downtown. Naturally, anything that can go wrong goes wrong, cabbie gets lost, doesn’t have change and to top it all off we get into an accident on El Kasr El3einy street and he can’t continue. I walk the remainder of the way and arrive 30 minutes late only to discover that his excellency has even worse timing than I and we end up waiting for him for another 30 minutes.

Meeting is attended by Dr. Radwan, his deputy for international relations, the deputy director for Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies (I’m not positive of his reason for being there, yet he acted like an advisor to the minister would), five IMF representatives, two of which were Egyptian, and us youth (word used VERY loosely).

While I must say, I LOVE the initiative, the format needs major tweaking, I don’t feel the group was representative of the nation at large at all, nor were most of those attending experts on the issues. Also the way the discussions were conducted lacked any sort of organisation. Why the IMF was privy to the discussions is also beyond me.

Dr. Samir opens by telling us that this draft is currently being discussed with all the different groups, that he’d met the business community earlier that day and that all views will be looked into and possibly incorporated and that the final budget should be issued by Monday. He goes on to say:

that in the absence of a people’s assembly the budget approval will be obtained from the SCAF.

He then takes us through the document outlining how he sees it, this goes on for 30 minutes. He stresses income & wages, converting fiscal policy into a tool to guarantee social justice and continuity as his three main pillars and focus areas. He then talked in depth about his plans to reform the public wage structure, his plans to centralise all SME support in a new entity which will also manage a 200 million US$ Saudi Arabia grant, and finally his plans for reforming the taxation structure in Egypt.

I will not bore you with the details cause it would serve you well to go through the document which they’ve been kind enough to share on the ministry website and which I’ve linked to in the previous paragraph. Instead I will highlight some areas some of the attendees and I found troubling. Worth noting, if you are expecting his responses you are in to for a disappointment. You see, he HEARD us, he took notes, he nodded and made jokes when appropriate, yet he then rushed off to another meeting thanking us for our time.

  • TravellerW made a very valid point regarding the new tax bracket, an extra 5% will be charged to all those earning more than 10 million LE a year, sounds fair, no? Only it applies to both individuals and corporates, so basically a large group of medium sized corporates will be attached to another object by an inclined plane, wrapped helically around an axis (BBT reference).
  • A renewable energy engineer pointed out that the budget is built on a very unrealistic assumption that a barrel of oil will cost $100.
  • Budget has 2 billion LE allocated to training youth. When pushed for clarification Dr. Samir says that the plan is to have corporates agree to take them on for on-the-job training for 6 months during which the Ministry of Finance will pay their salaries from that 2 billion LE fund, with the hope that at the end of 6 months the corporates will hire them. Not only do I think this is a bad plan, I think it is naively optimistic and lacks long term vision. I actually asked him to kindly stop crowding out the NGOs and civil society and step up and do what only the government can do. Rather than train, leave the training to us and you instead focus on job creation, invest in projects and hire those individuals.
  • Budget proposal has a very vague item regarding upping the investments in the field of R&D. I would have preferred to see some sort of incentive scheme to drive the private sector to innovate, I’m sceptic of the fact that pumping funds into government R&D will change much. I say this because I’ve seen brilliant ideas get completely shelved at the National Research Institute because those heading it don’t see the business viability of these ideas.
  • Education and health spending grew at below the average growth of budget spending. Spending on education in the new budget is only 11% and the spending on health is only 5%.
  • 13.5 billion LE have been earmarked to EGPC (Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation) (which for some reason suddenly has no web presence) for restructuring purposes to assist it in reform efforts. This is alarming to say the least. EGPC is a money making establishment and one of the government’s most prominent revenue centres. It is also an inefficient institution, so as attendees pointed out, wouldn’t it be better to reform it first rather than toss money at it. Especially that the opportunity cost of these funds is extremely high right now. Dr. Samir’s explanation was that these funds are going to ensure that no shortage in Solar and Butane gas occur, yet this contradicts with another item 2 pages down regarding increasing subsidies to oil products by 31.3 billion pounds.
  • Attendees asked repeatedly about the 63 billion in special funds or private funds صناديق خاصة but we were given a roundabout answer and didn’t come out with much.
I also couldn’t resist the opportunity to complain about how difficult the government is making the lives of those working in the micro-finance field in Egypt. Some of those attending pitched in and even suggested dismantling the SFD all together. Enough with the rosy plans and the technical assistance, SMEs need better access to finance, it is that simple, please do something about it.
Also made it a point to stress that if we stand any chance to attract any investment for those PPP projects the Ministry of Finance is pitching, they’ll have to do a much better job of studying these projects and providing investors with real and tangible indicators to assist them in making the investment decision. It is hilarious really, projects have no declared return on investment nor payback periods for that matter.

All in all, while I appreciate the initiative, I really think he should have taken more time to answer the questions and more thought needs to be put into that budget.

Egyptian Economy : What I would do

I’ve been asked to offer my 2 cents quite a bit, so here, all my cents in one post. I am not claiming there is an absolute truth when it comes to economics, yet this post is about what I would do if I were calling the shots to steer this economy to a safe harbour.

  • Ease of Doing Business: The economy is going through a tough time, fresh graduates can’t find a job, several of the really big businessmen are in jail or are facing the danger of being jailed, companies are downsizing and cutting costs to stay afloat. In this environment opportunities get born and the brave and entrepreneurial aim to capitalise on these opportunities. Yet the current legislative and regulatory environment makes their life hell. So if I were the policy maker I would make starting a business the easiest thing on the planet, slash down the time required to 24 hours and cut all the unnecessary red tape. Objective is to encourage people to do business, to generate output and to create employment. Moreover, those starting a business are doing it in unstable times, so whatever incentives you can throw their way would go a long way.
  • Trials: You don’t quite follow why there is still so much dissatisfaction in the Egyptian streets? It is because Egyptians don’t feel vindicated, they feel trials are being dragged out and retribution is not swift. Those in charge should expedite these trials, repossess all unlawful and illegal gains (with interest); take back lands, operating licenses, factories, cash and whatever else was extorted or obtained through abuse of power. Then, let all those who have been steam-rolled over the years have a shot at taking them to the cleaners, install a speedy system by which they could be sued and let justice take its course.
  • Attract investments: A couple of months ago a guest at CAC asked me why we were focusing so much on the fear of driving away investments when Lebanon was doing just great despite all the unrest. CNN Ben was quick to point out that most FDI flowing into Lebanon came from Lebanese origins and all the entrepreneurial Lebanese around the globe. Yet fact remains, we stand a shot at attracting FDI amongst all this madness. The trick is to stop dividing internally and show a united front. If I were the policy maker I would start selling licenses, the right to operate here in Egypt, especially in areas that in the past were monopolised either by the government or by some of the names in Porto Torah. I would give foreign investors a shot at buying a license to operate and offer private sector transport and logistics within Egypt. Imagine a second railway service, a private sector bus company, and privately designed and operated cargo ports.
  • Cost of funds: Interest rates in Egypt are on the rise, while as a depositor that is great news (despite the fact that it still a good solid 2% lower than inflation so the value of my money is still declining), it does not sound too promising to investors. The cost of funds is an integral part of the investment decision. Steps should be taken to reduce the cost of funds and to improve the access to finance to enable businesses in Egypt to operate smoothly and to enjoy enhanced liquidity.
  • Food safety: We are down around 8 billion dollars in foreign reserves and doomsday sayers will have you believe we are rapidly running out and soon won’t have enough reserves to cover our imports of basic necessities. That may well be true, but rather than zone in on that fact, efforts should be orchestrated and directed towards achieving some sort of internal independence with regard to food. Or, in the short-term, get foreign assistance in the form of supplies that will last the season until we can re-plan our approach to agriculture.
  • Prioritize policies: I can say this one with a great deal of personal interest and passion vested into it. For the past couple of months I’ve dreamed of having the likes of http://www.kiva.org operate in Egypt. Yet this dream has been made difficult by the strict (and sometimes excessively rigid) money laundering regulations and restrictions on transfer of funds. So I can’t help but wonder, what is more important at this particular moment in time? Potential money laundering versus potential inflow of funds to finance SMEs around the republic. This is one example, I’m sure there are others which are hindering a speedier economic recovery.
  • Wages: If enforcing a minimum wage is proving that difficult, a maximum wage should level the playing field a bit. As in this case the person making the measly wage will be relatively better off as the gap is bridged. I would take the time to revise all public sector and government wages and salaries (whether formal government contracts or under the table OUDA ones). I would slash down the ridiculous ones to meet the maximum wage criteria and I would channel those excess funds to better uses. Moreover, I would do all of this with a great deal of transparency.
  • Transparency: I would extend that transparency to all aspects of government economic policy in the coming period. I belive we have had enough “constructive ambiguity”, some old-fashioned constructive clarity would be nice. The people should get a say regarding the tax structure, the government budget and how any incoming aid money should be spent. A say we get through the People’s Assembly, yet a say we only get if information stops being asymmetric and we all have a fair chance of knowing where things stand.
Then again, that’s just me.

AYB – Association For Sustainable Development

Following the Jan 25th revolution and the explosion of civil society initiatives and social activism, I have taken a personal interest in improving the information availability and transparency in the market regarding operational NGOs and initiatives. To this end, this blog post is the first of a series of posts shedding light on successful existing initiatives and NGOs that you may opt to join rather than re-invent the wheel whenever possible.

Alashanek Ya Balady (AYB) started out as a student initiative at the AUC in 2002. Raghda El Ibrashi, the founder, even at that young age, recognized the need for real development rather than charity. AYB grew inside the university, and two years later they obtained the license to open branches in other universities around the nation through a franchise model. To date they have branches in 15 universities around Egypt. In 2005 AYB was institutionalized as an NGO.

Recognizing unemployment as the greatest ailment of Egypt, and as one of the key causes of poverty and slow growth, AYB’s main area of focus has been economic development. Their model has two tracks, the formal employment track and the entrepreneurial track. Their strategy has been developed over the years and fueled by statistics about the real needs of the market. For example, according to the Egypt 2010 Human Development Report “over a third (36%) of youth aged 18 to 29 have been tracked into vocational and technical secondary schools. This group does not usually join higher education institutions and suffices with technical secondary completion certificates.” Moreover, most of those unemployed are living below the poverty line. At the current unemployment ratios and a labour force of around 26 million, the dependency rate is 4:1 (4 unemployed to every working member of the labour force). Ninety per cent of those unemployed are youth.

Accordingly, AYB are targeting youth in poor areas and those who are without higher degrees. Beneficiaries of AYB programs can be divided into two groups. The first group consists of those who can be trained and rehabilitated to join formal employment. The second group consists of people with almost no educational background, who nevertheless have promising entrepreneurial skills.

In the first track AYB bridges the gap between a person’s current skill set and the required skill set. They provide specialized training programs tailored to each industry and job, and aims at improving the job skills and job knowledge of the candidates. Their target is to help those individuals find employment at established institutions and ensure they earn a fair wage. This is done in partnership with a growing list of local and multinational players.

In the second track, AYB assists individuals through a micro-lending and technical assistance setup. Interested applicants are required to prepare a feasibility study and be ready to manage the project. Loan brackets are either from 350 to 2500 LE (Egyptian Pounds) or 3000 to 10000 LE. AYB finances these micro-entrepreneurs and consults them throughout the loan period (10 to 12 months).

AYB specializes in the following loan types:
• Manufacturing loan (e.g. mechanic, carpets).
• Productive loan (e.g. dairy and breeding).
• Consumer goods (e.g. maintenance services, mini-marts or specialized retailers).
• Agricultural products (e.g. farming and agro-industries).

The loan cycle is portrayed in the diagram below:

If you find the work of AYB interesting, there are various areas where you can volunteer. You can donate money to the funding pool for micro-loans. Or, if you have the time and technical expertise to spare, you can volunteer your assistance in project consultancy and/or provide training. Another method by which you could pitch in would be to ask the HR at the company you work with to announce their recruiting needs: your employer could become a candidate for those graduating from AYB’s first track. You could also volunteer your time in the actual NGO – AYB prides itself on being a youth organization and always welcomes the contribution of young enthusiastic individuals.

You can read more about AYB, their initiatives and their success stories at http://www.ayb-sd.org/

This post was originally featured on the Goethe Institut Li-lak Transit blog 🙂

Check it out here http://blog.goethe.de/transit/index.php?user_language=en

Harassmap

For those of you interested in awareness and gender issues, there is a Harassmap team brainstorming session this Saturday.

The organising team is honoured to invite you for a meeting at Rebecca Chiao’s place next Saturday 26th of March 2011. The meeting agenda will include discussing marketing strategies for Harassmap, new slogans & new approach…etc.

Attending will be highly appreciated in order to brainstorm and come up with new & unique ideas that would help us to reach our target audience in the current phase.

Anyone interested in helping is welcome to attend.

The meeting will be at 1pm at the 4th, Osman Ebn Affan street, off Geziret El-Arab st. the last floor.

Looking forward seeing you next Saturday.

Stock Market Kaman we Kaman

For those of you adamant on investing in the stock market, some words of advise from one of the most prestigious economics and financial economics professors at the AUC. (I don’t have explicit permission to cite her name, so out of respect opting to maintain her anonymity).

While she agrees that at the end this is a symbolic gesture that serves more to foster the feeling of patriotism and solidarity than to actually have an economic impact, yet she had some guidelines to share:

  • If you are going to invest do it through a credible channel.
  • Don’t attempt to pick the stocks yourself.
  • Invest through a fund, select one managed by a reputable institution.
  • Contemplate purchasing bonds سندات or treasury bills أذون خزانة these are primary market borrowing tools that corporates and governments use to raise funds. These funds go directly to the company in question or to the Egyptian government.
  • If you are going to be selecting the stocks yourself, do so based on fundamental rather than technical analysis. Enter as a long term investor and hence be more interested in the profitability of the company than the volatility of the stock.

Best of luck to you all.