The entrepreneurs behind Kiliim, Moneyfellows, and Blink took the top prizes in the competition's three categories, bringing home over $100,000.
MIT’s Enterprise Forum Arab startup competition is our region’s annual search for the brightest minds in business and innovation. After nearly four months of judging and deliberation, the competition came to a close last Thursday, April 27th, where 79 finalists competed for the three main awards, all of which were snagged by Egyptian visionaries. Their startups, Kiliim, Moneyfellows, and Blink, took the top prizes in all their three categories - social entrepreneurship track, startup track, and ideas track – bringing home a total of $115,000.
The winning company for the social entrepreneurship track was Kiliim, founded by Ibrahim Shams, a corporate-man-turned-entrepreneur, and his wife Noha El Taher, a graphic designer. Kilim are the traditional colourful, flat-woven rugs seen everywhere in Egypt; a craft suffering from years of hyper-capitalist competition, inexpensive labour, and cheap products from China. Aiming to assist craftsmen in their livelihoods, the startup pairs artisans from Fuwa, Kafr El Sheikh with the couple’s expertise in graphic design, business development, and social outreach.
“We saw that the industry was dying, mainly because these craftsmen marketed their products in touristic areas, but tourism started decreasing and they started leaving the craft,” Shams explains, adding that many of them began pursuing 'normal' careers like plumbing or taxi driving. The entrepreneurs aim is to revitalise the declining kilim industry through the partnership of technology and tradition, an effort that was awarded $50,000. “We’re trying to reverse that trend by using contemporary design to attract new interest,” he explains. “We’ve increased their incomes by about 40 percent a month, which is keeping them very motivated to work with us rather than keep using the obsolete designs they used to.”
Shams strongly believes in the future of Egyptian entrepreneurship: “I believe Egyptians have the resilience and the persistence, and everyone has been encouraged to step up their game,” he says. “The youth of Egypt felt there was hope after the revolution, but after the last few years, they’ve brought their motivation to business instead.”
Championing the ideas track was Blink, an application that aims to tackle road safety and decrease traffic fatalities. Founder Wael Noufal believes your cellphone could actually save your life. “Reducing first response times can decrease road deaths by 40 percent,” he explains.
His phone app runs automatically in the background as its user drives, using the phone’s motion sensors to determine if a car accident has occurred. And in case of one, the application sends a voice message to the driver asking if they are okay and, depending on the driver’s response, the app automatically notifies emergency medical services.
Noufal was awarded $15,000 and plans to use his earnings and networking contacts to bring Blink to the next level. But his MIT Enterprise Forum win was more than just a financial gain; he has already been approached by foreign governments, significant investors, and a major US-based car company. He envisions Blink being widely used worldwide by drivers and emergency responders alike.
The coveted position of startup track winner was earned by Moneyfellows, an initiative founded in late 2014 by Ahmed Wadi, who aims to provide members with interest-free credit, supported by the power of social networking. “Moneyfellows helps and provides a lot of people with access to affordable credit and helps them reach their saving goals in a much more convenient and easy way,” the entrepreneur explains.
The startup is a digital version of a rotating savings and credit account (ROSCA). Each member pays a specific amount of money to the pool each month for a predetermined number of months. Every month, one member of the pool will receive the full amount paid by everyone else. This setup functions like a savings account for the people being paid at the end of the cycle, and a short-term interest-free loan for those receiving the payout at the beginning. Moneyfellows is the modern answer to the widespread tradition of money circles.
“We also work towards providing a lot of people with other credit-scoring models that would hopefully be able to provide them with more financial services they wouldn't otherwise be able to access,” Wadi says. In a world where credit and interest options can be extremely predatory, Moneyfellows gives users the ability to literally take matters into their own hands by using nothing but their phones. This can be empowering. They already have 1,400 paying users located in the U.K. and Egypt, with heavier emphasis on the Egyptian user base.
Wadi’s win at the MIT competition has opened many doors to possibilities of future successes. The competition “helped with a lot of exposure to potential partners [such as] investors, banks, and regulators,” he says. And the $50,000 cash prize will certainly help in getting Moneyfellows off the ground. From surviving the 1864 Accelerator program last December to taking home the MIT conference’s most sought-after prize, Moneyfellows has already come a long way. We can’t wait to see where it’ll be in five years’ time.
Egypt’s entrepreneurship scene is alive and kicking. “I think the ecosystem has been growing rapidly for the last 3-4 years… people are bringing very high value ideas to the scene and it’s very motivating for the youth,” says Ibrahim Shams of Kiliim. The fact that Egypt’s great minds earned all three top spots at the MIT Enterprise Forum shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise.
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