x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Visionary entrepreneurs rise to the challenge in Egypt

The Life: Hany Al Sonbaty, the managing director of Cairo's Sawari Ventures, discusses how the revolution has affected entrepreneurship.

Hany Al Sonbaty, centre left, says "it was difficult to raise funds while Egypt was going through transformation". David Degner / Getty Images
Hany Al Sonbaty, centre left, says "it was difficult to raise funds while Egypt was going through transformation". David Degner / Getty Images

Hany Al Sonbaty, a co-founder and managing partner of Sawari Ventures, a venture capital firm based in Cairo, discusses how Egypt's unrest waylaid entrepreneurs.


Did the revolution delay your business?

In 2009, I left my job with EFG and, with [Ahmed El] Alfi who had been my boss for one year at EFG, set up Sawari Ventures. Before the revolution we were poised to raise a US$100 million (Dh367.3m) fund that would be regionally focused. We had a press release written up and ready to go. It was very difficult to raise funds while Egypt was going through this transformation. It put us back two years. But we haven't wasted time. We have used our own capital to invest and we got involved in [start-up incubator] Flat6Labs. The transition phase seems to be over. We have an elected president, a new constitution and will soon have a new parliament. All the boxes are ticked so it's a good time to relaunch the fund. But it will have a different twist. Flat6Labs will be more about expanding regionally and the fund will be Egypt-focused. The single most important thing for a VC [venture capital] firm is how the partners work together and we can demonstrate that.


And has the revolution affected entrepreneurship in Egypt?

Yeah. The two biggest threats from the revolution regarding entrepreneurship is that some [entrepreneurs] are more politically sensitive than others and that has consumed a bit of their bandwidth. Entrepreneurs are also a sensitive breed and if they sense things are getting worse, there are less individual freedoms in a civil sense, they will leave. The world is open to talented people.


You invested in Vimov, which created the most popular paid-for weather app - Weather HD, downloaded more than 5 million times. Why is it so popular?

They [the creators] tapped into something that people wanted and came up with something that was beautifully designed. The iPad did not have a native weather app. They designed one quickly and didn't complicate it - they didn't have the money or time for that luxury. It's our highest-profile investment. We measure success by the money made. I always say the best investment is the one I haven't made yet.


Hillary Clinton met you last July. Was that important?

She was supposed to visit Flat6Labs but there was a security scare so she met with us at the American ambassador's residence. She would have had much more fun if she had visited here. It was an external validation for the people who work at Flat6Labs - for us, the entrepreneurs and the alumni. It's something to be on the radar of one of the most powerful people in the world. And in the context of her visit to Egypt, she visited the president on Saturday, and the field marshal on Sunday, then us. Her visit provided a narrative to the other side of Egypt's story: that there are young men and women benefiting from living in a more open society and innovation can flourish.