Entrepreneur hoping to ride Egypt’s first tech unicorn into the emerging market transportation sunset
Mostafa Kandil (26) graduated from the American University in Cairo in 2015. A mere four years later his career CV boasts astonishing stops along the route of creating the Egypt-based transport app company Swvl (pronounced swivel). Originally trained as a petroleum engineer, Kandil was selected to participate in a Google programme at the age of 21 to learn about entrepreneurship and to network. He describes this as a “life-shaping” experience.
He was suddenly surrounded by impressive young professionals from other locations, encountering new levels of competition and standards. “I knew where I should aim to be,” he says.
Driven by his self-confessed competitive nature, Kandil used the network he created in that programme to set his personal achievement bar very high.
He joined Rocket Internet in the Philippines, founding and scaling the company Carmudi. He then returned to restructure another Rocket Internet company, Otlob, back in Egypt before joining the Middle Eastern transportation giant, Careem, as a market launcher.
Things were going well. He was performing, helping Careem to launch in eight new cities. But life was getting too comfortable for Kandil and he quit to pursue his own idea. Back in Cairo he met Ahmed Sabbah and Mahmoud Nouh and together they launched Swvl in March 2017, with Kandil as CEO.
Swvl, through its app, allows commuters to book fixed-rate affordable rides on the company’s own bus route ecosystem that they have built up over time. It is not on-demand: Pick-up and drop-off points, as well as bus times for these points are fixed. Using the app you can book your seat in advance and track the minibus’ position. It is a more comfortable, more reliable alternative to the public transportation system on offer. Swvl partners with bus owners and drivers who sign up with dedicated Swvl buses to provide the service.
Now, two years later Swvl is active in two markets and three cities, receiving millions of bookings through the app on a monthly basis. The company is currently wrapping up an oversubscribed funding round and planning major expansion – aiming to launch in 10 cities within in the next year and to establish another R&D facility, this time in Berlin.
“We are looking at South-East Asia and Africa – those are our two main geographies,” says Kandil.
“Swvl is a company of 300-plus co-founders,” he describes the culture of the company, referencing the 320 employees that currently make up its workforce. They share a battle-cry of “growth at every possibility and at all costs”. Their ambitious and competitive vision is to build the first Egyptian tech unicorn.
In the venture capital industry, the term unicorn refers to a startup that reaches a US$1 billion market value as determined by private of public investment.
“This is not an easy mission. We all understand how big this responsibility is. If we don’t see week-on-week growth or hit the milestones that we have planned, you can see the atmosphere in the offices and how the people are demotivated,” he describes the fast-paced culture of Swvl’s workforce – where the average employee is the same age as the CEO.
Take us back to the beginning
Kandil says he was not born an entrepreneur. “I think I cultivated the entrepreneurial spirit over time.”
He was 12 when his father, who was head of police in one of the Egyptian cities, passed away. His life changed “overnight”, he says. “It made me driven, extremely competitive and ambitious. It was a turning moment for me.”
Growing up, he lived the transportation problem – that Swvl is trying to solve – every day.
Kandil says one could either make use of the mostly “broken” public transportation system which, whilst cheap, was very unreliable and where especially women face constant harassment. Or you could use on-demand transportation, sinking a chunk of your monthly income into this expense.
Swvl now offers an alternative to public transportation in the cities where it operates. “We offer affordable, quality, convenient and reliable everyday bus rides,” the company states on its website.
The three co-founders started Swvl using their own savings (approximately $25,000). Very early in the game Kandil’s previous employer, Careem, invested about $500,000 in Swvl, but has since divested this stake.
Late last year, in October and December respectively, both Uber and Careem announced bus-booking services to challenge Swvl in Egypt. Earlier this year Uber announced its acquisition of Careem in a $3.1 billion deal. Kandil believes the market is big enough for this not to be a threat to their growth, stating that their model is difficult to replicate. “Many have tried and failed before,” he says.
He remembers the very first day the app and service went live. One of the first riders took a picture and posted it on social media, commenting on the cheaper fare. The very next day Swvl was the top-trending app. In the first month Swvl only had about 150 bookings. Now they have millions every month and a network of buses (none) that rivals the government-owned fleet in Cairo.
What can we learn from his experiences?
Kandil is by his very nature a disruptor. His advice for future entrepreneurs (and the growing youth cohort in Africa especially) is simple, but tough: “Don’t settle for jobs such as investment banking or consulting,” he says. “Go and change the world. Solve local problems. The very, very smart people should be building their own things.”
Secondly, he believes that you should start as young as possible, before life and its responsibilities tie you down or make you too comfortable to take risks.
“And the third piece of advice is to work hard. If you are after a cause, you have to sell your soul to it. It has to overtake your life and become the only thing you think about.” Kandil admits that he does not necessarily know if this qualifies as “good” advice, but it is what he believes.
To be able to survive in this fast-paced environment you need ambition, honesty and an incredible work ethic. “You don’t have to be the smartest, but we do see ourselves as the hardest working,” Kandil says.
He does not believe in the existence of work-life balance: “At some point your work becomes your life. Your life is also what you do to impact people, and this comes from your work. I don’t see them as opposing.”