Egypt: Inventory management goes digital for Cairo’s corner stores

A busy commercial street in downtown Cairo. Photo by Hamada Elrasam.

This article was first published by the IFC.

An online platform is transforming the way small businesses and corner stores in Cairo resupply inventory, winning loyal customers in some of Egypt’s most underserved neighbourhoods. The company behind the service is equipping its retail partners with new skills, tools, and opportunities to grow.

With an upward push of a clattering steel shutter, Abeer Zainhom sends morning light flooding into the corner store she has run for the past 30 years.

Tidy rows of candies, sodas, and snacks line this narrow storefront, around which Cairo is already wide awake. At eight o’clock in the morning, the honking from taxis, tuk-tuks, and buses on this street already dissolves into a single, discordant roar.

“It’s like this every day,” says the 50-year-old mother of two, gesturing to the tide of pedestrians and street vendors surging outside her window. “It’s just life here.”

Despite the bustling street scene, however, Zainhom and many others in this megacity of 20 million are facing dire times. Skyrocketing food prices are squeezing household incomes in an economy that was already strained.

“There was a time recently where I was selling eggs at a few [Egyptian] pounds apiece, only to turn around and see the wholesale price had doubled overnight,” she says.

Business has gotten easier in one crucial way over the last few years, however.

Three years ago, Zainhom began working with a local startup that is simplifying the way she and thousands of small-scale shopkeepers across Cairo source their goods.

Known as MaxAB – a play on the word for ‘gain’ in Arabic – the locally developed e-commerce platform delivers supplies directly to even the smallest of corner stores, saving shopkeepers like Zainhom lengthy trips, often on foot, to distant wholesalers.

Two years after its founding in 2018, MaxAB received a $4 million investment from IFC to help scale its business and provide pathways to boost women’s entrepreneurship. The financing, which was made in partnership with the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), has helped MaxAB build a customer base of over 50,000 retailers across Egypt and Morocco.

Shopkeeper Abeer Zainhom outside her store in downtown Cairo. Photo by Noah Blaser / IFC.

Recent interviews suggest that MaxAB has indeed made real and swift improvements to the lives of shopkeepers who use its services. They also suggest that MaxAB has built up a level of trust with its risk-averse customers – one that will allow it to serve as a trusted outlet for skills and business training, as well as for shop insurance and loans.

The context is in the chaos. Cairo ranks as one of the most congested cities in the world and suffers from high concentrations of PM2.5 – small airborne pollutants that can permanently damage the lungs.

The World Bank estimates that nearly 12% of all deaths in Cairo in 2017 were caused by exposure to PM2.5. In 2020, the World Bank announced a $200 million loan for helping Egypt reduce unregulated vehicle emissions and other sources of urban pollution.

Zainhom and her 21-year-old son once laboured through the worst of that pollution, making regular trips to distant warehouses to restock their shop. She expands her arms, showing the burden of grocery bags that each of her hauls would entail.

These days, Zainhom uses the MaxAB smartphone app to order the same goods at a similar cost, minus the lost business from closing her store to resupply. Within a business day, a three-wheeled motorbike trundles past her shop and delivers the goods she’s ordered. “MaxAB made life much, much easier,” she says.

MaxAB has achieved that convenience through a deliberate effort to work with, rather than around, Egypt’s uncounted numbers of largely informal, cash-only retailers.

Joining IFC on a tour of his clients, MaxAB’s head of market intelligence Ahmed Naguib nods approvingly at Zainhom’s shop. “This is our kind of place,” he says, explaining that the company did the opposite of its competitors, which remain focused on deliveries to larger clients.

“Our business model has always been about reaching the unreachable,” he says. “Once you can do that, you can do anything.”

In recent years, MaxAB’s dramatic scaleup has meant success, but also challenges. Naguib says the company has worked to find the right mix of ownership and leasing arrangements for its distribution centres, all while debuting its services in Morocco and rolling out shop insurance plans and loan services.

“For MaxAB, we see our people as our biggest investment,” said Naguib. “We don’t simply want to expand our client base. We want the entrepreneurs we’re working with today to become retail leaders tomorrow.”

Life behind the counter: Portraits of Cairo’s shopkeepers

Squeaking by in Shubra: Zinab’s search for new opportunities

Shopkeeper Zinab Mahmoud. Photo by Noah Blaser / IFC

It’s midday in Shubra, the largest Coptic Christian district in Cairo. Brightly painted religious icons dangle on a wire over a busy thoroughfare of cafes, workshops, and steel doors adorned with crosses.

Shubra means ‘village’ in Coptic, and for 31-year-old shopkeeper Zinab Mahmoud, it’s her close neighbours that make this street feel like one.

“My family has been right here since the early 90s,” she says, standing in front of a narrow storefront of potato chips, cooking oil, and toiletries. “Being connected to people of all kinds – people I’ve known my whole life – is what keeps me here.”

The other reason is more pragmatic. Mahmoud is the family’s single breadwinner, looking after three children between the ages of one and five. With her home just upstairs, shopkeeping allows her to tend to family as well as its income.

“Every day it feels like you start over, it’s the same set of duties, and always a new challenge here and there,” says Mahmoud. “It’s a lot of weight to carry on your own.”

Three years ago, Mahmoud started using MaxAB to help replenish the store’s inventory. Restocking once meant a long walk to multiple wholesalers, and she remembers “carrying everything back by hand, really it was such an exhausting struggle.”

As if to confirm those difficulties, a hulking truck squeezes past her storefront, honking and pushing pedestrians into neighboring shops. “Not needing to be out in this has made a difference,” she says.

With an undergraduate degree in literature and philosophy, Mahmoud once had ambitions for a more white-collar career. These days, Mahmoud instead focuses on her store, and doing her entrepreneurial best to run it.

Out front, children look into the frosty glass of a newly purchased ice cream machine. Behind the counter, she recently started offering digital payments at her shop – a service that allows unbanked customers to pay bills for a small fee. The extra income has allowed her to hire her first employee.

Still, she hungers to get ahead, especially as inflation eats into her profits. “Sales skills, accounting, I’d love to have any kind of education that could help me think about how to expand, how to plan out seasonal items, such as back-to-school supplies.”

For now, Mahmoud remains somewhat sceptical of outside help. “It’s not at all common to have women shopkeepers around here, and people think they can pull one over on me because I’m a woman,” adding with a wry smile, “but I’m tough, I have to be.”

“Banks and financial institutions have come around my shop … they ask if I need financial assistance,” she says. “I don’t feel I can trust people like this.” Nevertheless, Mahmoud suggests that MaxAB might be an exception. Asked if a skills programme offered by the company would appeal, she replies that it would.

“I’d still like help getting skills – any kind of advice that could help me increase my business.”

‘You’re never too old to learn’: Omar’s hypermarket hopes

Shopkeeper Omar Gaber. Photo by Noah Blaser / IFC.

Just a few blocks from the eastern bank of the Nile, the silhouettes of riverside hotels give way to a leafy neighbourhood of low buildings with faded historic facades.

Manning a storefront wedged between two apartment buildings, Omar Gaber says he was an early convert to MaxAB.

“What do I sell? I sell whatever MaxAB supplies,” the 28-year-old says. “The deliveries are fast and dependable. This is what makes it stand out.”

Before opening this shop three years ago, Gaber worked part time at another corner store. He found himself travelling to distant warehouses to maintain a steady supply of candies, gums, tea biscuits, and other items.

“The wholesalers would give me different prices for the same goods,” he says. “It was such a confusing process.”

These days, life is significantly easier. Relying on MaxAB for deliveries, he can also call on relatives to help him keep his shop open from morning to well past midnight. A father of two, his wife takes the lead on child-rearing duties.

Despite the extreme upward pressures of inflation, “business is normal,” he said, “And this is a street where people know each other, and we deal with all of our neighbours easily.”

Gaber dreams of doing more, however. A university graduate with a degree in information systems, he hopes to expand his business.

“I found myself here after my studies,” he says. “So, I do dream of growing this business. I dream of having a hypermarket,” he adds, pantomiming the swoosh of an automatic glass doorway, the hum of a row of refrigerators.

Paying for his MaxAB deliveries in cash, Gaber insists that loans or creative finance options are out of the question for making that expansion happen. His faith would prohibit him from taking a loan, even if a modest one was available. The suggestion of training and skills, on the other hand, makes Gaber light up.

“You’re never too old to learn,” he said. “Business administration and commerce – these are things I’d like to know. Unless I keep learning I’ll never be able to realise my dreams.”

‘It saves my time, it saves my health’: Hind places trust and training hopes in MaxAB

Hind Mahmoud

Shopkeeper Hind Mahmoud. Photo by Noah Blaser / IFC.

With spiralling minaret and ornamental motifs, the Ibn Tulun Mosque has long been one of Cairo’s most famous tourist attractions.

But just two streets beyond its ninth century gates, the corner store of Hind Mahmoud is in a world of its own. On a recent morning, the 40-year-old shopkeeper sat waiting for business, the occasional passersby offering morning greetings as she swept the floor of her narrow store.

“You look at this street and you see peace,” she said, motioning to the sleepy alley where she has done business for the past eight years. “But inflation has really hit us, and this lack of business is a big problem.”

A university graduate who speaks in confident English, Hind Mahmoud found herself tending shop after her dream of becoming a language teacher faltered.

Hind is eager to improve her business and her fortunes. With snacks, candies, and dry goods currently on offer, she hopes to buy a cooler to sell cold drinks, as well as an ice cream freezer to cater to neighbourhood’s youngest.

Currently, however, she struggles just to keep up with soaring rents and provide for her three children, aged 16, 15, and 11.

“How do I balance work and kids? I can’t. And yet, somehow, I do. I cook and clean, I tutor the children, especially with English, and all the while I need to work,” she said.

Hind has been using MaxAB for the last three years, and says her overall experience has been positive. “It saves my time, it saves my health.”

That praise is no small thing, given Hind’s distrust of other companies offering services to her shop. “So many companies and lenders come by, they offer money, and talk about being ‘partners,’ but it all means becoming indebted to others,” she says.

Like many of the other shopkeepers that use MaxAB, Hind pays in cash upon delivery. She does not have a bank account. Hind agrees that courses in financial literacy or simple shop management might help her improve her business situation.

“I’m an educated person, I know the value to learning and I’m always eager to learn more.” She adds, however, that education would need to work around her schedule.

When a MaxAB representative arrives, Hind engages in friendly conversation. If MaxAB were to offer the kind of courses she’s looking for, she says she’s grown to trust the company to put her usual reservations aside. “My experience so far has been good,” she said. “I’d definitely be interested in trying something, including courses from them.”