مع السلامة

Our in country time is nearly at its end…The team finished out the trip with another trip out to New Cairo to meet with GE this morning. They rolled out the red carpet for the team, with presentations by the CEO of Northeast Africa, the head of MENAT Legal, and representatives from Healthcare, Transportation, and Energy. Following the presentations, we headed back to the CRS office in regular Cairo for our final presentation.

We presented to representatives of CRS Egypt, as well as the Regional Director and other advisers for the Middle East and North Africa. As requested, the team provided CRS with a number of potential strategies to help reduce the burden of unemployment, focusing in the agriculture sector. As we head back to the states, we will continue to hone in on just one of the strategies with the help of CRS in country.

Following the final presentation, we finished off our experience with a felucca ride on the Nile at sunset. It’s so much quieter on the water than anywhere in the city and the timing of the ride was perfect. 

After 13 days and more than 2,000km traveled in country, 60+ hours sitting in traffic, and unending thoughts about how to solve a terribly important and difficult problem, we’re all pretty exhausted. The full impact of this experience probably won’t hit until we’re back at home and well rested but I’m sure that it will be one that will stay with each of us for the rest of our lives. A big thank you to everyone at CRS both here in Egypt and at home for all the hard work and support of our efforts! Also thank you especially to the donors who help make it possible to send nearly 30 people from Notre Dame to the far reaches of the globe in the pursuit of learning and service!

On the ground in Chicago in less than 24 hours…Go Irish!

Almost the End & Just the Beginning

Team Egypt’s field visit is almost at its end; we leave tomorrow night to fly back to Chicago.  So, this might be our final post on the travel blog!

However, the work is just beginning.  As our posts have reflected for the past two weeks, the Team has meet with different people and organizations, in NGOs, education, and the public and private sectors.

Our meetings today were some of the most important and influential: USAID and the Freedom and Justice Party (the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood).  USAID is a major source of funding for CRS in some of its current programs, such as a very successful Cash-for-Work initiative, as well as a potential source of funding for future projects.  USAID is also one of the best aid organizations in the agriculture sector, doing everything from irrigation to credit and training. The FJP is the leading party in the Egyptian parliament (with 47.5% of the seats in the Lower House), and will most likely shape the future of Egypt.

The Q&A sessions during these meetings were insightful and help to shape our in-country presentation to CRS tomorrow.  We are really excited to have this conversation with CRS tomorrow, of our findings on the problems facing Egypt and some of our ideas on how CRS can effect them.  We then hope to take feedback from this conversation back to class and work on our final recommendations!

Tastes Like Chicken…

While half of our team visited production facilities and NGOs in Upper Egypt (Assiut), Cory, Joe and I remained in Cairo to hold down the fort.  We spent the last three days conducting interviews with NGOs and chicken farmers, visiting a juice and jam processing plant, and a holding a focus group with women entrepreneurs (who are quite rare in Egypt).  As has been echoed constantly throughout the trip – we’re continuing to learn A LOT…

Cory & Joe dressed and ready for our tour of Vitrac's juice and jam plant

Note the women are holding ND pins - they were really thankful for their little gifts (despite initially thinking we gave them one earring...)

The most interesting part of our last three days has definitely been our visit to the chicken farms.  Chicken farms, we’ve since learned, are not the most glamourous of places – our interviews were conducted in the presence of noisy squawking and scratching with the delicious smell of chicken ‘waste’ wafting past our noses.  The farmers, however, were very generous about providing information (through a translator) about the challenges they are facing and changes that have occurred in the industry since the revolution – low barriers to entry, expired medicines, high cost of importing feed, and little oversight provide farmers with a grim outlook on the future.

holy chickens.

Cory, chicken farmer, and Rosalie, our CRS hero (and translator)

baby chicks! so so many!

Tomorrow our team is reunited just in time for some of our most anticipated meetings of our trip – USAID and the Freedom and Justice Party.  More to come…


(from yesterday)

Yesterday morning, Rob, Manasi, and I headed south to Assiut in Upper Egypt. That’s where we met our Egyptian grandmother. Nagwa Abdalla is the head of the Assiut Business Women’s Association who has ceaselessly facilitated us and stuffed us with food. We met first for lunch and later were treated to a wealth of traditional Egyptian desserts (including some of the best baklava I’ve ever had), and then she refused to let us leave the office without taking fresh falafel for the road. Today featured more of the same with tours at a juice bottler, a biscuit manufacturer, and an ice cream manufacturer, all before another generous Egyptian lunch.


Don’t get the wrong impression. Grandma Nagwa is no pushover; she’s the power in the room. We’ve been rolling into every meeting 11 deep and they’ve all pretty much gone the same way. We start asking questions with Hani translating for us and sooner or later, the entire  conversation switches into Arabic and it’s all about Nagwa’s wasta. She always takes care of us, but then she’s off wheeling and dealing and building relationships. It’s easy to see why NBWA’s micro-finance arm has over 20,000 clients, including over 17,000 women.

Nagwa (second from the left) doing her thing

This trip has also reinforced that Egyptians love their ringtone. I’m not sure anyone here knows how to put their phones on silent. One of my favorite moments of the Assiut trip so far was in a meeting where a face-melting guitar riff started peeling out of someone’s phone, only to have the secretary of the board of NBWA, who is old enough to be my grandma, answer her phone…

Tomorrow (Today), we’ll finish up our meetings down south and head back to Cairo (probably loaded down with snacks courtesy of our new grandma!)

The Power of Thinking Big

Over the past couple of days, we have seen the entrepreneurial spirit of Egyptians, be it selling oranges from a cart on the corner, hocking small packets of tissues everywhere, or swindling MBAs.  We’ve also seen the truly mundane and hard work that people are capable of even while earning almost nothing.  The main problem that we’ve come across is SCALE.

There are, of course, a few Egyptian entrepreneurs that have made it big: Orascom and Sekem (as two examples).   But most Egyptian entrepreneurs think small.  In several meetings we have asked why people don’t think to pool resources so that they can access   different markets or why they don’t want to sell to more people than just their village.  And we are answered with curious looks and shrugging.

Last night, I was pondering just this. I came from a developing country from a family of farmers.  How did I get to think so BIG?

My father’s grandfather was a farm owner, growing mostly rice, yucca, bananas, and coconuts.  But he told all of his grandchildren that he did not want them to be just farmers.  He made every one of them (including my father, who was a petulant child and skipped school often) attend school.  My great-grandfather’s vehement belief that there was something more out there for all of his grandchildren and progeny is how I got to think so big.  My dad graduated from a great university; received degrees in law, business, and accountancy; moved to the United States; and forced me to read The Power of Thinking Big at the age of 10.

I think this same story is true for a lot of other people: on the Egypt team, in the BOTFL class, and people succeeding and “living the American Dream.”  It takes only one person to start thinking big, shoving that in others’ faces, and start a domino effect of people that dream of something bigger than simply the small comfort that they currently have.

Trading in the Taxis for Camels

Our first two days to relax and day 1 we headed for the sandy slopes of the Giza plateau and the last remaining of the original Seven Wonders of the World.  It’s amazing and a little worrisome to see just how close Cairo has encroached upon one of the world’s greatest historic sites.  Even more impressive than the pyramids themselves are the uncanny ability of the locals to separate educated MBAs from their money at almost every opportunity.  What can we say….it’s the cost of doing business.

Seeing the pyramids up-close for the first time is a great experience.  It’s hard to imagine these monuments were the tallest man-made structures on Earth until the Lincoln Cathedral was completed almost 3800 years later.  We found an “official” guide almost immediately who walked us around the Great Pyramid and over to the tombs of the Pyramid engineers.  Many of the heiro-glyphs on the walls still had the original coloring.

Our tribute to one the worst ever 80’s music videos.

So not to be one-upped now or in the future by any of the other BOTFL teams, we decided to rent a caravan of camels for a treck into the desert to view the necropolis from a distance. Bets were made on who would be the first to fall off their trusted steeds, but sadly, no one did, despite a few close calls.

Joe, Manasi, Ed, Meg, Cory. Up front we got Poncho (Rob) and Lefty (Joe).

We spent Friday evening with one of our CRS colleagues and a few of her friends, enjoying dinner and drinks at one of the few bars this country has to offer.

Saturday was a full tourist day.  We spent the morning at the Egyptian museum – which houses over 120,000 items, including a number from King Tut’s tomb.  Despite the lack of organization and little description on each item, we were all in awe of the detail and thought taken in each piece dating all the way back to 1300 BC!  Next, we visited both the Hanging Church and Saint Sergius Church in Coptic Cairo which is a stronghold for Christianity in Egypt and spent the afternoon haggling with Egyptians at Khan el-Khalili, the great market of Cairo.  We are all back relaxing this evening before our team splits up tomorrow – with half of us remaining in Cairo while the others head to Upper Egypt to visit some local farmers…


Look ma…I ate all my vegetables

Greetings from Cairo gang,

While other teams are toughing it out with there five star breakfasts and their fancy-pants dinners, team egypt is taking it to the streets of Cairo.  We kicked off today at with a 6am team meeting, 2 hardboiled eggs, and some cheese.  By 7am we were on the road to Sekem Farms in the team van, which has become our home away from home away from home.

Understanding Egyptian traffic requires a certain familiarity with big city life, real big city life.  There are 20 million people in Cario, they all have cars, and they all think that you are in their way.  We’ve been pretty lucky to spend on average about 5.5 hours in traffic per day, pretty reasonable considering mostly all our driving is around the city (insert sarcasm here).  We have realized that it truly impacts the speed of business and have factored it into our problem.  Needless to say, its quite the hassle but interesting nonetheless – the variety of car horns make the radio obsolete.

When we arrived at Sekem Farms, we were greeted by several employees and were given an unbelievable tour of the facility.  Sekem Farms is a real success story in Egypt.  Its a massive organic farm that is a leader in CSR practices within the region.  The Sekem Group provides healthcare and education for employees and their children.  They also have theaters and other forms of entertainment available to employees as well.  Their holistic approach to employment has really set the standard in Egypt.  As a company they are wildly successful, exporting to the EU and US, providing high quality produce and other items.  We were lucky enough to sample some produce right from the ground during our tour.  They offered Stevia, Egyptian Rocket (which we were told was very useful), fennel, celery, and even fresh broccoli – they all tasted amazing, and I don’t know if you know this but I’m not one for veggies.

Then we met with CARE after a 2.5 hour drive that normally takes 15 minutes according to our driver.  CARE is another leading CSR NGO in the region, and surprisingly enough they focus on agriculture.  They are helping implement a great program that like Danone (Dannon for us with a country code of #1) with local dairy producers.  It was a great experience.

Tomorrow is real big day for team Egypt…we’re sleeping in for one.  We have a 9am departure to Giza and the pyramids.  To celebrate, our stellar photographer/reporter/hero Ed “the honey badger” Cohen took us out for a traditional Egyptian dinner.  Everything on the menu looked awesome, particularly the beef leg with rice that Joe Sweeney and I ordered.  Well, turns out beef kneecap isn’t as tasty as it sounds…lesson learned – next time I’m splurging and ordering the stuffed pigeon.




Team Egypt kept up its busy schedule of meetings and traffic today. Our morning started with this brilliant example of transportation in the agriculture sector:

Yep. That’s raw meat in the trunk. Apparently it’s not at all an unusual sight in Egypt. It’s possibly also why the whole team subconsciously chose to eat chicken for both lunch and dinner.

Our first meeting of the day was a prime example of a key difficulty facing business operations in Egypt. We arrived at the Egyptian Junior Businessmen’s Association about 30 minutes late due to traffic only to find that the person we were supposed to meet with was also stuck in traffic. We managed to find a stand in at the office and managed a quick meeting before heading back into traffic to head off to our next meetings. The team split for the afternoon with half the group visiting the Population Council and the other half heading off to American University of Cairo for a meeting with one of the Assistant Deans of the Business program.

I was part of the AUC delegation, which turned out to be one of the most informative meetings we’ve had so far this week. Not only did we receive a terrific rundown on the challenges facing education in Egypt, we also were given an in depth analysis into many of the business problems we are addressing in our project. He supported our idea that high unemployment is due to a combination of lack of opportunities, lack of proper training, and lack of communication. We had been hoping to pin it down to one of the three, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case. We also asked his opinion on using co-ops in the agricultural sector and got very positive feedback on the potential impact in Egypt and the general efficacy of the model. As we are providing a basket of recommendations for strategy and projects to CRS Egypt, some form of co-op model to bring small agribusinesses together will almost surely be one of them. We’ll have the chance to dive deeper into this recommendation in our site visits early next week.

The trip to AUC was also eye opening in regards to the income disparity in Egypt. It was a stark contrast from our trips to the slums yesterday. The New Cairo area near AUC looks like a typical affluent American suburb complete with McMansions and glass-walled corporate offices. The AUC campus was built all at once and has only been in use for about 3 years so it is beautiful and sparkling.  


Tomorrow is another full day of meetings including the Social Fund for Development, the Food and Agriculture Organization (UN), the Egyptian European Organization for Training and Development, and a sociopolitical interview with a top academic. All of our meetings have helped to give the team insight and perspective on the challenges in Egypt, but I think our site visit yesterday really spoke to the heart of our purpose here. In the slums, CRS is helping people work and bring dignity to their communities. When they started clearing trash and rubble so that children wouldn’t have to walk on the train tracks to get to school, the community pitched in with neighbors bringing the workers tea throughout the day and a local business providing access to water for the project. When CRS provided a group of women a machine and enough material to produce plastic overshoes for 10 days, they used their own contacts and made new ones so that they could continue producing and selling long after the 10 days were up. Now, they produce in two locations with close to 50 women and also produce full length plastic gloves, in addition to the shoes. While the total number of people involved in these projects is small in comparison to the unemployment problem in the country at large, it provides a small snapshot of what the dignity of work brings to people and how CRS actively makes a difference in their communities. Hopefully our final recommendations to CRS will help expand their good work into the agriculture sector and serve more Egyptians.


P.S. Go Irish, Beat Huskies!

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Today’s meetings and discussions revolved around the concept of “the entrepreneurial spirit.”  What is it? Is it a cultural thing? Can it be taught? Do Egyptians have it?

At most of the meetings we had there was some discussion about how Egyptians did not have the entrepreneurial spirit and that the concept of “entrepreneurship” is new to Egypt.  The team thought that this was quite depressing.  Upon reflection we came up with the following thoughts:

  1. The entrepreneurial spirit is something that is inherent in people; it is not something that can be taught.
  2. Egyptians do have the entrepreneurial spirit, as witnessed by the vast number of fruit vendors, independent taxi drivers, and Coca-Cola cart dispensaries.
  3. The major barrier to the large-scale, formal entrepreneurship are: 1) creating scale, 2) obtaining credit (difficult to do because of lack of credit and inability to get guarantee backing), 3) barriers to legalization (getting permits, paying taxes, etc.).

But we find that these problems are more tangible and can be addressed either by the team (in our recommendations) or CRS and their partners in a large-scale way.  Things such as finance, marketing, and sales can be taught.  Problems such as legalization and obtaining credit can be overcome through innovative solutions.

We met with three different organizations today: the Egypt Works projects (a CRS-USAID cash for work program which has multiple projects, two of which were 1) a public work/construction project in Qeba’a and 2) a production project [made up of women making overshoes and medical gloves]); the American Chamber of Commerce: Egypt; and Nahdet el Mahrousa (Twitter: @NahdetMahrousa).

These three organizations gave us great insight in trying to narrow down our problem as well as to brainstorm some solutions.  More on that later!  Ila al-liqa’!