Google is funding a startup that could change the way Cairo residents navigate the city's infamous traffic.
Egypt’s televised presidential debate earlier this month, widely lauded as an indicator of democracy’s triumph in the region, was delayed when one candidate was reportedly caught in traffic. On Twitter, CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman offered one of the night’s most winning observations: “No matter who is running [for president], #cairotraffic always wins.”
For those who haven’t been to Cairo, traffic may seem like a trifle. But in a sprawling megalopolis with a population approaching 20 million, residents schedule everything from workdays to weddings around traffic jams that stretch for miles and ensnare drivers for hours at a time.
That may explain why a Google-sponsored competition seeking Egypt's most promising startup business tapped an anti-traffic app over competitors like Recyclobekia, a company with plans to recycle e-waste like old cell phones; Wireless Stars, whose mobile app is modeled on FourSquare and has 150,000 users (and counting) from Ghana to Pakistan; and GroupStream, a storytelling platform inspired by Egypt’s revolution, whose CEO plans to open a San Francisco office in the coming months.
While those startups made it to the finale of the Ebda2 competition, the panel of judges from Egypt’s leading businesses and universities awarded the prize—plus $200,000 in seed money—to Bey2ollak, a company whose free crowdsourcing app allows Egyptians to report on and avoid traffic.
Bey2ollak allows drivers and passengers to use smartphones to report whether specific roads and bridges in Cairo and Alexandria are clear, clogged, or impassable. The company is also making a version for tablets and PCs.
“Bey2ollak is based on a very simple insight: that there is always someone on the street who knows how horrible [traffic] is or how well it is flowing,” says co-founder Gamal el din Sadek. “It’s always been one-to-one communication, but the information is relevant to everyone. We created a community that is one-to-many.”
Bey2ollak is an Arabic term for “it is being said.” El din says he and his co-founders chose the name in order to evoke the way in which frustrated drivers sometimes alert those around them to road conditions by rolling the window down and shouting.
The app uses casual, funny language that appeals to young users who choose from a list of options like “sweet,” to indicate traffic is light or “no hope,” which means stay off the roads at all costs. And Bey2ollak has found another niche in post-revolution Egypt, where protests and marches are frequent.: Users can alert travelers—and be alerted—to “khattar” or “danger” if protesters and security forces are clashing in the streets.
The technology is simple and adaptable, Sadek says. When fuel shortages in Egypt caused a panic late last year, it took Bey2ollak programmers just a few hours to create a feature that displays the locations of gas stations. The move earned the company positive writeups in the Egyptian press, a coup for a company that has, until now, relied primarily on word-of-mouth marketing.
Named for the Arabic word meaning ‘start,’ the Ebda2 competition began in September 2011 with 4,000 entrants. Over the course of nine months, entrepreneurs were put through a punishing schedule of refining and defending their business plans, appealing to investors, and calculating operating budgets down to a fraction of a cent. Along the way, they were mentored by experts in finance, private equity, and marketing.
“The problem [in Egypt] has always been that the brains and the ideas are there,” says Fady Ramzy, country manager of Interact Egypt, who served as a mentor, “but the young business owners didn’t know how to monetize them.”
Ramzy says it wasn’t just innovative use of technology and positive social impact that gave Bey2ollak a leg up in the competition, but the fact that the company recently attracted advertising dollars from Coca-Cola, which judges viewed as concrete evidence the startup can make money.
Starting a new business is particularly difficult in Egypt, where the official unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent, and the actual number is widely believed to be much higher. Around 85 percent of the unemployed are under the age of 30. In the past, business owners with ties to the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak had advantages that ordinary Egyptians did not. That has changed.
“Entrepreneurship is the solution,” says Gamal el din Sadek, smiling to acknowledge his cheeky play on “Islam is the solution,” the well-known slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group of Egyptian origin that now commands nearly half of the seats in the country’s democratically elected parliament.
The timing of the Ebda2 competition suggests that Google appreciates Sadek’s point of view. Google didn’t choose the winner, but executives say their interest in Egypt and the region has intensified since protests swept the Arab world in 2011, toppling strongmen like Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine el Abedine Ben Ali and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. The competition wouldn’t have taken place if not for the Egyptian revolution, company officials say.
“Egypt is a sweetheart of Google,” says Mohammad Gawdat, vice president of emerging markets for Google in South and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. “We’re fascinated by it. We’re not interested in starting revolutions. We have no position. But we know that if you empower people with enough information and knowledge, they will make the right choice.”
The contest winners were announced in a ceremony ]on the roof of Cairo’s lavish Fairmont hotel, which boasts stunning views of the Nile River and overlooks some of the city’s busiest roads and bridges. As the evening drew to a close, several hundred people milled around, high above the city. A few used the vantage point to look out over Cairo, trying to get an idea of how bad traffic might be. Not everyone bothered with the view. The information they needed was already there, on their phones.