Surmounting the countless hurdles and getting the better of the numerous obstacles that litter the road to entrepreneurial success in Egypt’s conservative rural south is no easy feat even for those that have the socio-economic advantage on their side.
But a woman venturing into what is primarily considered a male-dominated field with nerves of steel, and rocking the establishment by disrupting deep-seated practices to trigger environmental change and far-reaching social impact, is nothing short of exceptional and even somewhat unheard of.
And that’s the narrative for Alshaimaa Omar, a 28-year-old chemical engineer who hails from the rural city of Sohag and who, against the odds, is pulling down all the stops to effect change in her community.
Alshaimaa took on quite a task when she set out to defy gender stereotypes in her community by opting to tread a path many women her age would instead take a pass on, or perhaps let themselves be coaxed into taking a pass on.
Her initial idea was to create renewable energy from agricultural waste gathered from farmlands in her locale to cater to the energy needs of her immediate community. Today, she is the proud Founder of Biomax; a startup that now has operations in 12 cities and is carving a niche for itself in the area of transforming agricultural waste into biogas. The company has since scaled up its operations to include larger farms in urban areas and the production of organic fertilizers.
Her hometown, Sohag, is located some 500 kilometers south of Cairo, the Egyptian capital. In the serenity of this rural community where the Nile is at its quietest, and the calmness is in stark contrast with the chaos that has become the hallmark of the overpopulated capital city, agriculture constitutes the livelihood of the locals as it is the predominant source of income for people living in the community. And it was from within this seemingly cutoff community that Alshaimaa got her inspiration and set about bringing her idea to life.
The young Chemical Engineering graduate of Alminia University came upon something of a breakthrough when she perfected a process that is efficient at converting waste from farmlands and cattle into renewable energy. And she was not going to settle for a feature on a local TV Show or a speech at a Science Fair for kids.
She decided to put her idea to work, and that was to mark the beginning of an eventful journey that has dealt her both cherries and rutabagas in almost equal measure. But it did come right in the end.
When the female entrepreneur delivered a talk at Techne Drifts; an entrepreneurial roadshow that is known to tour parts of Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta to empowering, motivating, and inspiring entrepreneurs in some of the remotest cities in Egypt, she let the audience in on how it all began.
Alshaimaa kicked off her enterprise by dealing with local farmers. She had to make countless trips to villages, some of them very remote, to discuss her idea with the farmers who possessed the resource – which was ironical, ‘waste’, in this case.
Ignorant of the wealth that could be generated from the agricultural and cattle waste that was being churned out on a regular, these farmers were pretty cool with discarding the substances however they deemed fit.
The Biomax Founder’s proposal came across as ridiculous and improbable initially, and these farmers can be forgiven for their ignorance given that they didn’t have much by way of education or exposure. So Alshaimaa had her work cut out for her in making a group of old-time farmers understand that the wastes they had been discarding since time immemorial could be of far more value.
She enticed them with prospects of being able to make more income, generate gas that can be used for domestic purposes, and replace the chemical fertilizers they had become accustomed to with organic ones which could do a better job.
Now, you would be tempted to think anyone would jump at the idea of creating value off something that has never been of any use to them, but getting those farmers on board was by no means a cake walk.
The farmers were not exactly enchanted by the idea initially, and it was not because it was a bad one. They were lukewarm and lackadaisical at first – somewhat unwilling to cooperate – albeit, for a different reason; one hinged on gender.
Egypt has some somewhat conservative rural societies, and Upper Egypt is one of them. In such areas, it is uncommon and even slightly unheard of, for farmers to do business with women, and yet very young ones at that. This unmentioned factor was what mainly spurred their insipid reception of Shaimaa’s proposal which was by no means a bad one.
But determined to follow through on her idea, Alshaimaa pressed on. She had resolved to bring her vision to fruition, and if it meant that she had to be implacable and relentless, she was determined to roll up her sleeves and get to work. And that’s precisely what she did – worked them until they budged. Her efforts paid off in the end as she was able to break from the stereotype and get a lot of people to believe in her vision and work with her.
But that wasn’t the only spanner that almost ruined her works as she did face some family pressure too. As a young woman in her mid-twenties in a typical rural Egyptian setting, venturing into business was never really going to go down well with her folks.
Her family was not pleased with the path she had chosen, and they were pretty vocal against it, especially as she had to make trips to distant places. There were many occasions in which she had to leave in the wee hours of the morning and return late at night. This incensed her folks even further.
At times, the pressure from them was too much and quitting seemed like the best option, but her passion for chasing her vision ensured that stopping was never an option for her. Her parents eventually came around when they saw that she could not be deterred and her efforts were yielding fruits.
Through dogged persistence, she has seen her brainchild, Biomax, grow and expand across 12 cities in Egypt. The startup also claims to rake in up to EGP 200 K (nearly USD 12 K) in annual revenue on a yearly basis. And all these by collecting organic waste and processing it into biogas which can be used for a variety of purposes, and organic fertilizer which is known to increase productivity for farmers in addition to being eco-friendly.
Alshaimaa Omar was 24-years-old and fresh out of college when she took advantage of a project launched by the Egyptian Ministry of Environment to kick-start her journey. By leveraging the training afforded by the program, she got started on establishing her company, but it was going to be a while before the idea morphed into an actual business. But in spite of the challenges, she prevailed.
Although she has now gotten some financial support from Egypt’s Ministry of Environment, in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), she was hampered by the difficulties associated with her country’s centralized economy. This meant that she found it very difficult to get any starting aid since not very many organizations look in the direction of entrepreneurs in remote cities like Sohag.
At Techne Drifts, she also revealed that it was difficult to get the company up and running initially as help did not come from any association. Thus, creating awareness about the project itself proved a Herculean Task. She, however, hinted at the major turning point is when she had a stint in the Delta region. It was during this time in the coastal cities that doors opened, and her project got significant traction. This success spurred her on and led her to expand.
Alshaimaa’s unbeatable drive, stamina, and tenacity are quite evident but digging a little bit deeper would reveal an individual who is also passionate about preserving nature and conserving the environment in a country where those details are not given enough attention.
At the core of the inspiration which triggered the idea behind Biomax is the need to stop waste from degrading the environment. And that motivation has seen her create a company that transforms garbage into something that is of benefit to both people and the environment.
By turning waste into energy, Alshaimaa and the rest of the team at Biomax are preserving the environment, contributing their quota towards curbing climate change, and tackling global warming which has become a worrying environmental concern. And by also creating wealth in the process, it’s a win-win.
Image Courtesy: Yousef Adel Emad | M04 Networks