One of Egypt's newest coastal cities on the Red Sea seems to be angling to become a new centre for productivity and entrepreneurship in Egypt. Charlotte Swan spends a few days in the growing innovation hotspot that built itself in just five years.
I awake to the muted sound of waves lapping against the sandy beach just outside my window. Opening it up, I’m greeted by the warmth of the rising sun and the sight of palm fronds lazily rustling in a gentle breeze. It’s an idyllic locale - the kind of peaceful retreat one imagines when seated at a desk in a frantic office, dreaming of a respite from everyday life. But it’s a Wednesday morning, and I’m not on vacation. I’m in El Gouna for work, covering the yearly Spark Entrepreneurship Bootcamp that takes place in this little utopia on Egypt’s Red Sea. An entrepreneurship bootcamp at the beach? It might not be as strange as it sounds.
The beachside entrepreneur is a familiar trope in Egypt. The country is home to some of the region’s most paradisiacal seaside getaways – once heavily trafficked by tourists but now quiet and dreamy – and everyone here knows someone whose love for the beach life has prompted them to declare their intent to move away from the city, start a business, and spend the rest of their lives working and playing from the shores of Dahab or Hurghada. It sounds like a millennial fantasy, but the growth of El Gouna in recent years has fostered an environment that encourages aspiring digital nomads to put down roots in paradise.
A manufactured wonderland constructed out of nothing - similar to Dubai - the city of El Gouna is barely older than some of Egypt’s young entrepreneurs.
A manufactured wonderland constructed out of nothing - similar to Dubai - the city of El Gouna is barely older than some of Egypt’s young entrepreneurs. The dream was born in 1990 when Samih Sawiris, famed billionaire and chairman of real estate giant Orascom Development Holding AG, was looking for a natural retreat on the coast and fell in love with the land that would become El Gouna. Upon being informed that housing utilities could not be established in the isolated area for a single residence, the prominent Egyptian businessman did what any determined wealthy person might do: he bought a few million square meters of land and built a hotel. Armed with the facilities and the utilities, Sawiris’ weekend getaway became increasingly popular with friends and colleagues over the years. The town grew, sprawling along the coast of the Red Sea, peppering the many lagoons of El Gouna with Nubian-inspired homes and hotels.
A peaceful waterway snakes through the coastal town.
It took less than five years to complete the transformation from beach town to hometown. By 1995, the growing city had been outfitted with the necessities for full-time living, such as a post office, police station, hospital, and award-winning schools. Aside from its reliance on imported food, the city had all the building blocks necessary for a self-sustaining community. The Orascom Development Group calls El Gouna its “life as it should be” development benchmark, and it’s true that the city has been grown with care. Its meticulously-maintained infrastructure and emphasis on recycling and eco-friendly practices make it seem a world away from Cairo, even though only an hour’s flight separates the two cities. As a resident of Cairo, being suddenly dropped into a city where sidewalks are to be used for their intended purpose was almost jarring.
Recent additions to the city’s infrastructure suggest that El Gouna is trying to attract a very specific type of full-time resident: the innovator.
But the growth of El Gouna is more than the typical story of a resort town that became too attractive to leave at vacation’s end. Recent additions to the city’s infrastructure suggest that El Gouna is trying to attract a very specific type of full-time resident: the innovator. According to an Orascom representative, the city’s vision, aside from environmental protection, is to encourage new ideas and creativity. A satellite campus of the Technische University Berlin, Sawiris’ alma mater, was built and in 2012 began offering Master’s degree programs in Energy Engineering, Urban Development and Water Engineering. Orascom’s site declares that the city is angling to become a science capital in MENA.
G Space, El Gouna's new co-working hangout.
Remember the beachside entrepreneur? El Gouna’s city planners seem determined to create a city where that pipe dream can become a reality. Its latest in construction is a roomy modern co-working space outfitted with bright, contemporary furnishings, designed by one of Egypt's most prominent interior designers, Ramzy Makram-Ebeid. Dubbed the “G Space,” the building rents desks and offices of various sizes to entrepreneurs and freelancers. Ramy Khorshed, the vibrant young director of the Spark Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, sees the G Space as a definite attempt to accommodate startups and self-starters. “G Space is a very important step in the direction of supporting entrepreneurs who want to build businesses by giving them a truly state of the art facility within which they can work,” he explains. “If you’re going to create world-class work and compete in a globalised market, then you need to have the right tools at your disposal.”
El Gouna’s yearly hosting of the Spark Entrepreneurship Camp, which kickstarted the business plans of 200 middle school to university-aged aspiring entrepreneurs this year, is another attempt to nurture a group of minds that can innovate and thrive in what may be Egypt’s most progressive city. “I don’t think there is a destination in Egypt that can compete in terms of the experience that it can deliver to people who want to create a world-class instance of work on a regular basis, and we want to create a critical mass of forward-looking thinkers and empowered leaders,” Khorshed adds.
The ultra-contemporary interior of G Space.
Its strategic recruitment of young innovators is one thing, but what about the people who already live and work in El Gouna? When asked about his experiences in the burgeoning resort town, one professional had glowing remarks. Kwame Hall, who lived in El Gouna for two years while working with Orascom to achieve the city’s carbon-neutral goals, was inspired daily by his relaxed surroundings. “There’s no shortage of activities to create a very nice ecosystem for work-life balance,” he exclaims, mentioning his proximity to the beach and ability to migrate from office to seaside in a matter of minutes. His assessment of the city’s potential as an entrepreneurship hub is compelling.
“I think El Gouna has a huge potential to be the future for entrepreneurship in Egypt,” he begins. “Anyone familiar with the entrepreneurial work culture in some of the most advanced economies knows that they don’t exactly stick to the 9 to 5. It’s a lifestyle that’s very flexible in terms of work hours, and even the concept of work is not clearly defined. CEOs spend quite a lot of time just thinking, actually, and that is work. The quality of the space and the environment that you’re in while you think, while you dream, while you create a vision and the mission and values of your company is very important. El Gouna affords a lot of flexibility and a great environment to actually build good companies,” Hall concludes.
G Space is decorated with whimsical, modern murals.
In terms of actual daily life, though, is living in El Gouna sustainable for the average self-starter? It remains at its core a luxurious resort town, and the local prices are more in line with the budgets of wealthy European tourists than the average Egyptian. “I think the margin of increase in cost of living is doable, relative to the increase in the value of productivity,” says Khorshed, the 24-year-old Spark director. “It pays back very quickly if you’re going to think about it from a purely financial perspective.” Life with a five-minute commute from home to beach to office is a far cry from Cairo’s noisy roadways, congested at all hours. “It’s tough to have a good work day if it feels like you’ve succeeded just by making it to the office,” says Khorshed. It’s true that without my morning and evening commuting rituals, the days in El Gouna seemed to last much longer than those in Cairo.
One thing that really struck me was how manufactured the city of El Gouna is. Even the plants in all of its countless, sumptuous gardens are imported. A seaside paradise, sprung from the ground in a matter of years, the city feels somewhat artificial – but this fact bothered me less than I thought it would. With its meticulously planned and ardently manicured grounds, the designers of El Gouna have created something more lively than what nature gave the landscape to begin with. Is it possible that the planners and architects behind El Gouna have designed a place with more opportunity for innovation than Egypt's more organic cities? After a few days in the quiet paradise, I’m thinking that the beach life might be much more productive than I had anticipated.
Image credits: MO4 Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer and videographer: Martin Roux.
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