A student army gets Egypt to work

Raghda El Ebrashi, founder of AYB

Young people can solve society’s problems. And here’s the proof. In 2002 at age 18 Raghda El Ebrashi started a student crusade which has grown into Egypt’s first employment agency for the underprivileged. Alashanek Ya Balady for Sustainable Development (AYB-SD) now works with 1000 students across Egypt to provide training, coaching and employment opportunities to thousands of people a year. Starting out young hasn’t made her journey easy but Raghda has weathered every storm and remains certain about her ultimate goal: to end poverty in Egypt and beyond that, the world.

We arrived in Egypt within weeks of the revolution that toppled President Mubarak’s 30 year military rule over the state. More developed than any other country we’d travelled through, the extent to which the tourist trappings can create a smoke screen to conceal a country’s challenges is amazing. Unemployment, for example, is a major issue for young people. With 81 million inhabitants, Egypt is the Arab world’s most heavily populated country and also one of its youngest: two thirds of the population are under 30.[1] This under 30s age group makes up 90% of the country’s unemployed, totalling over 8 million young people out of work.[2]

Like so many developing nations, the contrast between rich and poor in Egypt is stark and the interaction between those at either end of this spectrum is almost non-existent. Born into a privileged family, Raghda El Ebrashi didn’t experience anything outside her well-to-do lifestyle in Cairo until a school trip took her to Sharkeya, a region 100 kilometres from the capital with much lower standards of living. It was here that she met a total stranger who changed the course of her life.

Raghda was 12 when she met Om Fathy, an old mother who invited Raghda into her own home. To Raghda’s horror she found just a tiny room with no roof, set in the middle of a field. “Where is the air conditioner?” she enquired out of innocence. Then Om Fathy introduced Raghda to her children, explaining that she rarely had all seven boys in the home at the same time as its limited space meant they had to sleep in shifts. Despite the lack of material possessions, Raghda was charmed by this unfamiliar world, shocked to find it in many ways richer than her own.

Clearly a feisty young teenager with well-formed views, she returned to Cairo with an ultimatum. Unless she was allowed to visit Om Fathy and her children every week, she would refuse to go to school. After one week of playing truant, her parents buckled and up to the age of 16, she spent every waking hour waiting for the weekends when she would go back to Sharkeya. “It was there I learnt the meaning of fun”, she beamed.

As well as having hours of fun, Raghda also realised she had a capacity to make a difference. Simple things like teaching Om Fathy’s boys how to write using sticks in the sand made her realise that she could help underprivileged Egyptians to live a more sustainable and dignified life. So she set about developing her own interventions, including literacy classes and art lessons for people in poor communities. Just to clarify, Raghda was doing this between the ages of 12 and16. Puzzled at how Raghda made this work, we challenged her: “Did people take you seriously?” we asked. “No of course not”, she replied smiling.

When Raghda entered university at age 16 (the age at which most enter the university system in Egypt), her vision was clear but her challenges remained the same. “By the age of 16 I wanted to run something on my own. I wanted a national academy where young students could contribute to community development. I wanted to revive the youth to do something for Egypt. But it was not permitted for a 16-year-old to open an NGO and become the CEO.”

The walls of the AYB-SD offices in Cairo are adorned with quirky quotes that sum up their ethos, such as, “successes come in cans, failure in can’ts”.  True to this motto, Raghda has never let bureaucracy deter her. As a fresher she went out to universities across Cairo, asking fellow students to volunteer their skills by running training courses for the underprivileged. Focusing on the capabilities needed to get people into employment, such as English and IT, students came on board in their droves. Soon she had 100 young people dedicated to playing their part in a workforce the like of which had never been seen before.

Students being students, they weren’t quiet about their work and you might well ask “why should they be?” But when you live in a world surrounded by watchful eyes, it pays to be inconspicuous and sadly, in the minds of a controlling state, those who speak out must be silenced. “Let’s just say we had a long term relationship with the State Security”, Raghda said coyly. Right from the start, the government tried its hardest to close down AYB-SD, but Raghda refused to succumb to their intimidating tactics.

After a long period of tension, Raghda was thrown a lifeline by a sympathetic minister. He invited AYB-SD to manage a project distributing food and shelter to 10,000 people in a deeply deprived area of Cairo. If she pulled it off, the permission she needed to run AYB-SD would be granted. Innocent and unprepared, Raghda rallied her students to the challenge and, although they just about finished the job, she admits it was a massive shambles. Unsurprisingly, Raghda was left feeling totally defeated: “I have to tell you the truth. I decided to let it go. I decided I would volunteer for other NGOs because I couldn’t see how we’d ever get the permissions.”

However, the project was judged as being far from a failure, and the minister, satisfied with AYB-SD’s aims, signed a stack of papers which granted them the status they needed to operate without interrogation. This allowed Raghda to take her vision nationwide and in 2002 she launched a campaign at ten universities across the country and began to formally franchise her model. With guidance from the Cairo HQ, affiliated student groups started to take root around Egypt, all focused on delivering training to support underprivileged people trying to get into work.

Interestingly, most social entrepreneurs we’ve met have admitted that they’d almost chucked in the towel at some point. These aren’t people who give up without a fight but when you look at the size of some of their challenges, it’s easy to see how they could appear insurmountable. When people give themselves the freedom to fail it shouldn’t be scorned; it can take more courage to quit than to carry on. In this case, however, Raghda had managed to triumph over a hugely bureaucratic state, a battle which many others in her situation have failed to win.

It’s hard to understand how she found the time, but Raghda did manage to leave university with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. By now somewhat skilled at multi-tasking she decided to run AYB-SD as a volunteer and work a full-time career on the side (amazingly, this is still what Raghda does today). Carving a career path was harder for Raghda than she had imagined and her first real job, selling soap for a multinational conglomerate, turned out not to be her bag. “I couldn’t stand it. I lied for money”, she laughed.  But she finally found her feet in lecturing and also embarked on a PhD, becoming the first Egyptian ever to write a thesis on social entrepreneurship.

This further period of study led Raghda to start questioning AYB-SD. “We asked ourselves questions like ‘will someone with better computer skills really be able to get a job and escape the cycle of poverty?’ No. The answer to every big question like this was no. It was a shock.” So Raghda went back to basics. Starting with the telecoms industry, she made enquires about the skills and capabilities they really needed. The Sales Manager of a multinational telecoms company working in Egypt made their requirements very clear: “Why on earth do I need him to know English? He’s working in areas where people don’t speak English. I need a salesperson to know sales.”

Knowing that this telecoms company was keen to grow their rural presence, Raghda negotiated a deal. She would train up ten people from poor communities in sales and subsidise their wages if the company gave her new recruits a chance. Subsidising the wage was a matter of principle, as Ragdha deemed the company’s £30 per month salary unacceptably low. Though apprehensive, the company agreed to give it a go and were thrilled when the AYB-SD’s trainees outperformed everyone’s expectations. Now a key partner for AYB-SD, in 2009 the company requested 400 more sales people and agreed to pay a salary of £75 per month plus commission. Result.

This model has now become the norm for AYB-SD. Using their network of student franchises (now totalling ten across the country), they review industry needs and train people from marginalised communities in the skills required. Training topics include administration, hospitality, textiles, housekeeping, nannying, sales and much more. They then match people to jobs, negotiate fair contracts and provide ongoing coaching support. In 2010/11 they placed 2,000 people in employment, partnering with an impressive list of private sector brands like Pepsi, Vodafone, Aramex, Shell, Nissan, Samsung and others.

To complement this, AYB-SD is also committed to nurturing entrepreneurship. For people interested in starting their own small businesses, they provide training in areas like pottery, textiles, mechanics, and mobile phone maintenance. They then offer loans, alongside ongoing capacity building advice, to help people start up and scale up their enterprises. This approach makes them considerably more holistic than many microfinance projects and to date they have given out 1000 loans to deserving individuals who might not otherwise have been offered this chance.

But for Raghda this is just the tip of the iceberg. With 44% of the Egyptian population earning under $2 per day[3], she believes AYB-SD must think big. In fact just days before we visited AYB-SD, they launched their Foq El Khat (meaning ‘Above the Line’) campaign with the goal of empowering ten million Egyptians to rise above the poverty line by the year 2020. This is brave and bold but so too is Raghda, and her list of backers demonstrates just how many people believe she can deliver. She has been hailed an ‘Arab World Social Innovator’ (by Synergos), a ‘Young Global Leader’ (by the Schwabb Foundation and World Economic Forum) and has been ranked in numerous polls as one of the most influential social entrepreneurs in Egypt and the wider world.

When it comes to funding her vision, Raghda’s done well to spread her revenue over a portfolio of different income streams. She describes three core ways in which AYB-SD raises money: firstly, ‘Mission Centric Money’ – income from companies which pay for their employment services; secondly, ‘Mission Related Money’ – income generated through their own social businesses, including a private training firm which works in both the public and private sectors; and finally, ‘Mission Unrelated Money’ – money raised through business ventures that capitalise on their skills but have nothing to do with their cause, for example an in-house design company which does branding and graphic design for a range of clients.

Spreading her income in this way has helped Raghda not to get too bogged down in the stress of fundraising. Instead, she loses sleep over the big issues. “I have challenges all over the organisation every day but they are trivial if compared to our main target: the alleviation of poverty”, she said. To us, this sums up Raghda’s style. Constantly preoccupied by the needs of others, she recently refused a stipend offered through her Ashoka award, asking them instead to donate the money to someone else more in need of the support.

When Raghda told us this, we laughed out loud. She’s the first social entrepreneur we’ve met mad enough to give away money. But Raghda is very principled about creating a ‘people organisation’ which relies on itself and not on her being at the helm. “If I die tomorrow and one of the staff resigns because I died, that means I failed”, she told us. Whilst this is an admirable aspiration, we would suggest that both AYB-SD and Egypt need Raghda as much as ever. Having just overthrown dictatorial rule, Egypt is a country where visionaries like Raghda will be needed to shape a better future, where the people come first and political dictatorships are laid to rest.

For more info visit:

AYB-SD: www.ayb-sd.org

  Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011