Innovation beats objection, an Egyptian revolutionary company showcase

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In 2013, Bloomberg published an article titled “After Years of Unrest, Egypt’s Startup Ecosystem Is Booming” in which the journalists wrote: “Contradicting Egypt’s image as a country at a standstill after almost three years of political upheaval, the proliferation of enterprises reflects a nation looking for new ways to subsist amid the worst economic slump in two decades and record unemployment.” 

The article mentions four young people who came up with an idea to convert farmers‘ water pumps from running on diesel to solar energy.  

“A lot of people like us, young people, became risk takers after the revolution because they realized they had nothing to lose,” as the article quoted Ahmed Zahran, a 37-year-old economics graduate who co-founded Karmsolar with Yumna Madi, Xavier AuClaire and Randa Fahmy. “People used to laugh at our product, but the fact that someone took a chance on us shows we’re part of the cleaning of old money and old ideas with new, smart money,” Zahran added. He explained that after partnering with Princeton-based WorldWater & Solar Technologies to develop its pumps, KarmSolar turned to building Egypt’s first farm compound to rely entirely on solar energy, which included a housing and living area for 500 workers.

The company raised 13 million pounds from private investors in its startup and quadrupled the size of its workforce over one year.

In October 2017, KarmSolar managed to win a power purchase agreement (PPA) with two subsidiaries of major food exporter Dakahlia Group for two solar projects totalling 23.5MW.

The US$23 million projects at Menya and Wadi Natroun will provide Dakahlia South Valley Poultry and Dakahlia Wadi El Natroun Agriculture with 75% of their energy needs over 30 years, according to a PV-Tech published report.

“This is a critical milestone in the brief history of KarmSolar. KarmPower, our subsidiary, is going to become, through this deal, the largest private sector solar energy provider in the country. Not only that, but it will provide the power at a lower cost than the government.” Zahran was quoted in the report. With this milestone Ahmed and Yumna are materialising what they hoped for in 2012 when they won second place at the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Business Plan Competition.

In a video interview for Wamda TV, Ahmed and Yumna said that that they were hoping to provide a commercially viable solution that could compete against conventional sources of energy and push the region towards its most abundant power resource, solar energy, in order to reduce the cost of food production.

The group’s innovative dream didn’t just stop at its preliminary vision because they also formed a subsidiary company called Karmbuild, which aims to offer a different vision for real estate development & architecture in Egypt.

They are reformulating a progressive architectural expression using abstract, artistic and intellectual interpretations of strongly embedded historical and modern cultural influences, whilst combining it with solar energy.

They have started an environmentally conscious project in Sahl Hashish, in the east of Egypt.

In an interview on ONTV in 2014, Zahran said their challenge was not just finding the technical solutions for solar energy applications as they have always been in Egypt; the real challenge they faced was in the commercial aspect of it.

They had to create an economical design for their solution to make sure it was viable and applicable for consumers. “Solar solutions are environmentally friendly and abundant but this was not enough, we had to make it cheaper, easier and more practical to use,” Zahran said. He added that the co-founders all used to work for one company before resigning to pursue their vision.  “We focused on getting smart money,” he said, which means not getting silent investors but getting investors who can contribute with their knowledge and experience; explaining why all their investors were on the company’s board of directors.

“This really helped us define efficient key performance indicators and management strategy. Having a first client who believed in our innovation helped us overcome the obstacle of not having a foreign company or a deep pocket investor guarding our back,” Zahran concluded proudly.

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