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Egypt's 'Yomken' Brings Open Innovation, Crowdfunding Under One Roof
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Egypt's 'Yomken' Brings Open Innovation, Crowdfunding Under One Roof

When it comes to inventions and innovation, the Muslim world’s track record is nothing to scoff at. Consider, for example, the depository of knowledge that was the Library at Alexandria, or the encyclopedia of medicine and science left behind by Avicenna.

More recently, however, the innovative engine has sputtered, the gears slowed by nepotistic dictators, foreign military intervention, and a lack of investment in the region. The good news is that the entrepreneurial spark is returning to the region. Hoping to use this to its advantage, Yomken is providing an outlet for people’s creativity, and it’s using crowdfunding to turn their innovative ideas into reality.

Yomken (“It’s Possible” in Arabic) is a hybrid crowdfunding and open innovation platform that launched only last month in Cairo. The platform is the creation of 24-year-old Tamer Taha, who was able to raise seed funding from the World Bank’s Youth Innovation Fund to start the site.

Yomken works exclusively with low-tech entrepreneurs and business owners who make up the majority of Egypt’s small businesses but receive a fraction of the investment and lending their high-tech counterparts get. The entrepreneurs who are currently featured on the site hail from Manshiet Nasser, a slum near Cairo known more for its rubbish piles than its innovations. They are craftsmen and workshop owners whose products have long faced competition from Chinese exporters.

If the dwellers are to pull themselves out of poverty, Taha believes, they must have a chance at expanding their businesses, hiring more people, and creating better products. That’s where Yomken comes in.

“We want to be a bridge between people who want to buy innovative products, people who are innovative… and the third party of people who work in workshops who need to get capital,” he told

The platform’s founder recognizes that while many of the micro-entrepreneurs live in poor conditions, they are nonetheless experts in their fields. They know their businesses, and they know what challenges they need to overcome in order to grow their businesses. What they don’t have, generally, is the know-how to fix those problems; some are illiterate and thus find it especially difficult to search for solutions.

Egypt, like most of the Arab world today, is suffering from a strenuously high level of unemployment, which is especially acute among the youth. In many cases, college graduates cannot find jobs or are forced to accept low-skill positions paying meager wages. Taha hopes this contingent of the young and educated innovators (as well as their more seasoned elders) can help the entrepreneurs on Yomken.

The platform works like this: micro-entrepreneurs sign up and post their challenges onto Yomken (the platform has asked volunteers to help the illiterate formulate their campaigns). The innovators compete for a chance at solving the entrepreneur’s problem; in return, they are promised a share of the revenues, or a monetary prize.

Once the solution is implemented, the product is moved into the pre-order, crowdfunding phase. To ensure improved products get a chance at production, Yomken financially supports them until the crowdfunding phase is complete (though if the goal isn’t met in the allotted time, none of the contributors’ credit cards are charged). The platform emphasizes transparency, allowing contributors to check where their contributions are going.

Indeed, transparency is one of the several reasons Yomken considers itself compliant with the tenets of Islamic finance. Sharia-friendly banking has been on the rise in recent years, spurred on in part by the growing wealth in the conservative oil-rich Gulf states. (Egypt's Muslim Brothers, who control the government, also seem more likely to promote Islamic banking than ex-president Mubarak's secular lot.) Two of its most important tenets place emphasis on halal businesses and forbid gathering interest on loans. Taha explains halal enterprises to mean those that promote social good – green energy, for example – while ignoring forbidden substances like alcohol. He thinks Yomken, which has innovation at its core, may even have a leg up on Islamic banks that may not prize the entrepreneurial and inventive streak as dearly.

What makes Sharia-compliant crowdfunding in the Muslim world especially intriguing is the obligation every Muslim has to donate a small portion (usually 2.5 percent) of his or her earning to the less fortunate – one of the religion’s five pillars known as zakat. Taha says offline initiatives similar to crowdfunding already happen in the region, in part because people feel obligated to donate. He mentioned specifically the 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital in Cairo, which was financed in large part by personal donations.

“One of the slogans of that campaign was, ‘Donate, even with one [Egyptian] pound,’ and it raised millions of pounds,” Taha said. “So crowdfunding is not something new.”

Still, due to relatively low internet penetration rates and a lack of online payment portals, it may take some time for Egyptians to begin funding one another’s ventures through crowdfunding. For that reason, the platform’s creator is targeting potential funders both inside and outside the country, choosing to operate the site in English and Arabic.

Currently, Taha is looking to populate the site with more products and to get people with innovative ideas to contribute to the site. If he can succeed in building a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem on Yomken, don’t be surprised to see innovative ideas coming from Manshiet Nasser. Innovation, after all, has quite a legacy on the banks of the Nile.

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