Wael Fakharany, Google’sGOOG +0.44% regional manager in North Africa, speaks to The Wall Street Journal about the company’s vision for supporting tech startups that can help revolutionize the way people do business in Egypt and the wider region.
WSJ: Can you tell us about the fund that Google set up to support local startups and entrepreneurship in Egypt?
Mr. Fakharany: First of all, we’re a startup at heart, we’re a large company in terms of growth over the last 15 years. We started in a garage. We have a pot of money specifically for Egypt’s startups. In 2009, we established a fund worth $2.5 million. We have a deal with the government in which they spend $10 million promoting Egyptian products and services, primarily export, aviation and tourism. In return, we spend one fourth of the money they spent. We keep it in a pot to reinvest in the country.
Our first reinvestment was $200,000 spent on Ebda, or “Start with Google”. In a nine-month process, we filtered 14,000 students. We toured the country, went to 11 governorates in Egypt, narrowed them down to 200 students. We trained and mentored 50. Then, we incubated 20 for three months and gave the first $200,000 to Bey2ollak.
WSJ: What other startup incubators is Google currently funding?
Mr. Fakharany: We also fund “Library in Giza”. We have Flat6Labs, Sawari Ventures and the co-working space in the same building. We invested with them to basically create an environment where people can come with an idea, get incubated for six to seven weeks, get introduced to the stakeholders and then move out. The idea is to replicate this. I would love to have a Library Alexandria, a Library Assiut and so on.
WSJ: Many of the clients working with Google in Egypt are aviation and tourism companies. Is it possible that Google might shut its doors in Cairo because of the economic turmoil that hit the country after its second uprising in July?
Mr. Fakharany: Our business is very strong. We’ve been doing really well and 2013 was a very good year. We obviously work with clients, and some of them are in financial straits. If you look at how tourism is doing and how EgyptAir is doing, it’s a tough period for them. So, they slowed down on spending. Obviously some sectors are doing really well and the internet is doing well with them, but some sectors are not.
WSJ: Which sectors in Egypt would you say are faring well despite the troubled economy?
Mr. Fakharany: Retail, in general, and fast-moving consumer goods are very strong. I think automotive is very strong. Travel and tourism are not doing very well in Egypt. Technology is doing well. Most of the sectors are doing well, except for those trying to sell a product or service to a foreigner.
WSJ: In September 2012, the Egyptian government submitted a request to remove “Innocence of Muslims”, a controversial movie about Islam, from YouTube. As Egypt transitions through its democratic process, are you at all concerned about censorship?
Mr. Fakharany: We actually had a court order to remove this video from the Egyptian domain. We reviewed the order to make sure that the law complies with the country’s constitution, and we removed it after about six months. We haven’t had any similar requests so far. In such cases, Google reviews the request to make sure it complies with the country’s constitution and laws and that it’s not just for censorship purposes.
WSJ: Can you tell us about Google’s new initiatives in the region to “Arabize” the internet?
Mr. Fakharany: Something that we’re really proud of is Arabic Web Days. The purpose is to increase Arabic content on the internet, but useful Arabic content that touches your life, your day. Arabic is just 3% of the whole internet content in the world and there are far more users that are using Arabic than 3%. You have 141 million Arabic speakers online. The whole point of Arabic Web Days is to reach out to users and give them the tools to really Arabize the internet. We organize a month-long series of online and offline events to engage users and spark ecosystem partners across MENA to join our movement to accelerate digital Arabic content creation.