Five ambitious budding entrepreneurs, many enthusiastic mentors, one accelerator. Together with the United Nations and the NGO enpact, TUI Care Foundation is supporting Egyptian start-ups with a focus on digital technologies and sustainable business models. The ideas behind them are often small and very personal – but the potential can be enormous.

What is your dream? That question marked the start of the accelerator programme Travel Tech 4 Good. Ahmed Hamed El Helw, for example, wants to connect tourists with local guides on his digital platform Tobadaa, thereby promoting new sources of income. Ahmed Soliman and Raghda Ezzeldin hope to develop meditative free diving with Blue Odysea. Amir Abdallah is working to bring tour operators and domestic holidaymakers together. Reham Abobakr would like tourists to draw inspiration from Egypt’s distinctive geography and her portal will identify local tour guides with specialist insights into the secrets of their landscape. These young entrepreneurs don’t just want to advance their own careers, but to drive sustainable progress in their country. They have the ideas. What they need is the expertise to bring them to life.

“The accelerator programme run by TUI Care Foundation is marvellous. I learned, for example, what the true value of our business idea is and what we should focus on.”

Amir Abdallah, Halla Travel

Desert deep dive

In September 2019, before anything else, the entrepreneurs were literally sent into the desert. Their first meeting with their mentors took place in a simple camp outside Cairo. A surprising start to the week-long workshop that introduced the three-month programme. Amir Gerges, who is developing Conictus as a platform for diving tourists, experienced this excursion to the sand dunes as a form of diving. “Deep into my soul.” At this stage they were not talking about business ideas yet. First, the participants had a chance to get to know each other and themselves better. One task firmly engrained in Gerges’s memory was the speech they were all asked to give: “What would we say to the group if we knew our lives were going to end the next day? In my mind’s eye I pictured a sandglass where the hours of my life were relentlessly trickling away. And it was clear to me that I really wanted to make use of my time to do what I love doing.”

Amir Gerges wants to draw on artificial intelligence to link tourists with diving schools: “My platform Conictus will be used to book trips, but also to archive and share photographs and dive data. This will then help the instructor to assess the holidaymaker’s abilities more accurately and offer the right activities.” Boats can also be shared through the app. Diving schools still ride out to sea separately and the boats are often only half full, but sharing boats would greatly minimise the consumption of resources. In addition, Gerges envisages a kind of citizen science service: “Every day thousands of divers around the world observe marine ecosystems and take pictures. Why shouldn’t scientists make use of that data for their research?” Gerges also wants to make data and knowledge available to staff at national parks and environment organisations in developing countries for their day-to-day work: “We are working on AI solutions that can be applied locally.”

Like the other budding entrepreneurs, Gerges is committed to the future of the tourism industry in Egypt. After years of decline, more people are coming to the country again for their holidays. Young people look to the sector for opportunities. Cairo has a very vibrant start-up scene. “The Arab Spring showed us how powerful social media and digital tools can be. Now lots of people are also trying to use them for business,” says Gerges.

“My dream is to turn my passion for diving into a successful business that can also benefit other people and the environment.”

Amir Gerges, Conictus

A close-knit community

After two days at the camp, the participants and their mentors transferred to the Startup Haus Cairo. It is in one of those countless streets in the city centre where the traffic is crazily heavy. But the location was not the only thing blatantly different from the prelude in the desert: a group of strangers had now been forged into a close-knit community, and together they threw themselves into designing sustainable business models.

There is a lively discussion underway in the seminar room, where a wall is plastered with colourful sticky notes. Upstairs a dozen new entrepreneurs have gathered in a co-working space. The Startup Haus Cairo is run by the Berlin-based NGO enpact, which implements projects to support local small businesses in developing countries.

Working with TUI Care Foundation, the experts from enpact compiled this accelerator programme for start-ups in tourism. “The programme fits very well into our strategy,” says Jost Neumann, who is responsible for this project at the Foundation. “We want to open up opportunities for young people to play an active role in building tourism in their country.” The support from the TUI family has been overwhelming, he adds: “When we advertised online for mentors, we received over 50 applications in no time from different countries and departments, including many senior managers.”

Learning from each other

The mentors support the participants face-to-face at the workshop, and later at regular video conferences. Among them are the communications expert Nora Aspengren from Norway and Lonneke de Kort, a marketing specialist from the Netherlands. Christoffer Wickberg heads strategy development in Sweden. The business architect knows how companies formulate their business models and roll them out strategically. He has been helping the young entrepreneurs to draw up a road map for their next strategic moves, but he insists that the knowledge transfer works both ways: “I am learning an amazing amount from the start-ups.”

Amir Gerges’s conclusion from his first chats with Wickberg is that he needs to hone his business model. “I have so many ideas in my head. I can’t explain Conictus in one sentence.”

“My dream is to make every desert in Egypt a sustainable destination for tourism.”

Reham Abobakr, Geo Travel

A driving force for change

Tourism is one of the leading drivers behind development, especially in developing countries like Egypt. So says Addaia Arizmendi, who is supporting the accelerator on behalf of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). According to UNWTO, daily turnover in international tourism in 2018 was more than five billion US dollars. “After chemicals and oil, it’s the third largest export industry, one in ten jobs globally is in this sector, and in many communities it is actually the principal source of income,” explains the Spaniard. What she likes best about this initiative by TUI Care Foundation is its local approach: “Mentors from all over the world are helping domestic start-ups to build a sustainable business. This is the proverbial investment in the future, with money too, but most of all with knowhow.”

Ground-breaking business models that encompass more than strictly commercial factors and enhance sustainable development – those objectives are common to all the start-ups selected here. They take account of environmental and social goals, but they are also personal, as the story of Ahmed Hamed El Helw illustrates. The software engineer used to work for big companies – but he was never entirely satisfied. He has worked as a tour guide as well. “I know the sector, the dependence on agencies, often poor pay – I wanted to help. People should be able to live off the work they love.”

The software specialist did not take long to create a suitable app, Tobadaa. Now guides can offer their services to holidaymakers directly. They collect tourists in their own car. “It creates very direct, authentic contacts with local people,” says El Helw.
The fact that at the end of the accelerator programme only one participant will be given a little funding and access to a big network of investors and potential clients means that someone has to be singled out as a winner, but they all agree that this has not affected the positive team spirit. “I don’t feel I’m in a competition here,” says Ahmed Hamed El Helw. “It’s more like I’ve acquired a new family.”

»People in the destinations should benefit sustainably from tourism. TUI Care Foundation works with local partners in 25 countries and supports 30 projects. These focus on education and training in our TUI academies and on conserving nature and biodiversity.«

Thomas Ellerbeck, Member of Group Executive Committee, Chairman of the TUI Care Foundation