How this Egyptian entrepreneur built an eyewear business

Ahmed Hamdi

Nile Eyewear, an Egyptian eyewear brand, was founded by Ahmed Hamdi in 2012. Later on, Hamdi further expanded his portfolio by introducing the Nile Details brand, selling high-end products such as leather clutches and bags. In an interview with Jeanette Clark, Hamdi shares the journey of establishing the business and the challenges he has encountered.

Ahmed Hamdi’s first job in 2007 was as a real estate agent in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. He seized the opportunity to ask his wealthy, older clients – typically those seeking to retire in the Red Sea coastal city – what they would do differently if they were 20 years old again.

“These were people who had money and had done well in life, but the answer I would get the most was to treasure time as the most valuable thing in life,” he remembers. “The advice I got was to take more risk and do the things I loved, and the rest would fall in place.”

The drive to do something meaningful for himself and his country began to develop, but it wasn’t until the transformative event of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that he took the plunge. “Everything was uncertain, uncharted and new.”

Hamdi opened a small shop (approximately 4m2) within one of the hotels, retailing various accessories. He noticed that his clients tended to perceive Egypt as the historical country of yesteryears, not acknowledging it as a burgeoning, revolutionised nation

In response to this situation, Hamdi resolved to establish his own eyewear brand. “Egypt didn’t have any cool brands and these customers still saw it as it was 3,000 years ago. I wanted to change the ‘vision’ and how the world ‘sees’ Egypt. That is why, in 2012, I decided to start my own Egyptian high-end eyewear brand.”

Learning the eyewear trade

Hamdi used his savings to travel to China in search of eyewear manufacturers and to broaden his knowledge of the industry. He chose ‘Nile Eyewear’ for the brand name to ensure a strong connection with Egypt, regardless of its future sales locations. “It was super hard. I was risking everything with my own money. If it didn’t work, I would lose everything,” he recalls.

The budding entrepreneur delved into the various materials used in the production of frames and lenses, and explored diverse manufacturing techniques for these products. Recognising that he first needed a better understanding of consumer preferences, he opted to initially sell an assortment of imported eyewear brands. Eventually, after locating a suitable manufacturer in China, he introduced a select range of sunglass styles and models under the Nile Eyewear label.

“I was learning what my customers would like – the shape, colour, size, et cetera. Initially, the Nile Eyewear glasses were made using injection moulds, with no handcrafting involved and using more affordable materials. This has changed over time.”

A Nile Eyewear retail store

A change in strategy

Hamdi’s initial target market was international customers – those visiting Egypt as tourists, and eventually customers in other countries. After all, his motivation was to alter the world’s perception of Egypt. However, the positive response from the domestic market was an unexpected surprise.

“I changed my strategy and decided to postpone the idea to focus on international clients. There is something special about being recognised by your own people,” says Hamdi.

The focus on the local Egyptian customers meant a slight change in the thinking around the design of the eyewear, and the look and feel of the retail presence that Nile Eyewear would have.

For the international consumer, Hamdi explains, the original concept was to present a reflection of Egypt, merging ancient history with fresh, innovative designs. However, for the Egyptian customer, he realised that incorporating elements related to the pyramids, historical figures like Cleopatra or Tutankhamun, for example, simply wouldn’t work.

“We live here, we see the pyramids every day. The local customers would not want to wear it. I had to create a cool, modern, edgy brand found in good locations with modern storefronts.”

Sales channels

In the initial few years, Nile Eyewear’s approach leaned heavily toward the cool and trendy whenever it launched pop-up and pocket stores. Hamdi holds a strong belief in the brand maintaining its own retail presence, thereby fostering a distinct brand atmosphere within a physical space.

The brand proactively established Nile Eyewear-branded pop-ups and smaller booth stores in areas where it seemed the clientele would be a good match. Additionally, the eyewear was made available in various optical stores, primarily in Cairo.

“Customers still want to touch and feel the glasses before they buy them. Even those who find the style they like online, prefer to go into the store to see if they have made the right decision,” says Hamdi.

Today, Nile Eyewear has 12 permanent stores, all situated in Egypt along the North Coast and in Cairo. The brand briefly operated smaller pocket stores in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Bali to test the international market, but these have since been closed. Nile Eyewear also markets its products online.

New collections are launched annually to maintain a fresh and innovative product offering, says Hamdi. He has introduced a shatterproof children’s range, available at Hedeya, a prominent Egyptian retail chain for children’s products nationwide. In addition to its range manufactured in China, Nile Eyewear also offers an eco-friendly wood frame range made locally, as well as a handcrafted range from Italy.

Competitors entering the fray

In 2018, Jennifer Lopez donned a pair of Nile Eyewear sunglasses and was snapped by paparazzi. “It was a huge milestone,” says Hamdi. “I felt so proud. She has worn them in public around 34 times since.”

Local celebrities, who wore Nile Eyewear, began actively tagging the company in their social media posts.

Despite the positive trajectory, 2019 brought a challenging juncture. A major Egyptian eyewear importer approached Hamdi, wanting him to join its company. Hamdi declined, as he saw no added value this could bring to the brand he had diligently built.

“This specific company, as well as two others, then started local brands to compete with me, specifically on pricing. It kept me awake at night, trying to figure out what to do,” says Hamdi.

Instead of dropping his product prices to compete, he chose a different approach. “The big brands of the world would not do that; true luxury brands would never drop their prices. So, I decided to launch a new brand that sold more than just eyewear, with high-end luxury products.”

Nile Details was launched to establish a stronger presence for the brand, and today has three stores in Egypt, with two more coming this year. Most of the bags and clutches sold in these stores are manufactured locally in Egypt. Today, the Instagram accounts for both Nile Eyewear and Nile Details feature various images of well-known regional celebrities showing off the latest designs.

Economic headwinds

In recent years, Nile Eyewear and Nile Details had to persevere through challenging times when retail stores were inaccessible due to Covid restrictions, compounded by a foreign currency shortage in Egypt that made importing difficult.

It has been tough, says Hamdi.

The Egyptian government implemented import regulations and restrictions in 2022 after geo-political turmoil in Ukraine impacted the country’s current account balance. The Central Bank of Egypt also devalued the Egyptian pound in that same month by 14%.

“The biggest challenge we are currently facing is the restriction on import. We can only import a little bit every month as foreign currency is limited,” he says.

Hamdi notes that Nile Eyewear is looking at finding the right partner to help it bridge some of these challenges, perhaps by establishing a hub in another country to assist with import and export into other countries.

Going international: time for the original plan

By the start of 2024, Hamdi aims to launch a new international luxury collection of eyewear, reaching beyond the borders of Egypt.

The designs for the new collection draw heavily from Egypt’s rich history, incorporating references to past kings and queens, architecture, and other historic moments. The eyewear will utilise recycled eco-friendly metal sourced from a factory in China. Production is already underway, and the team plans to showcase these designs at international eyewear and fashion fairs, seeking partners interested in stocking them.

The long-term vision involves opening Nile Eyewear stores in various locations around the world. However, this time, the storefronts will offer a historical experience upon entry. Each eyewear piece will come with a booklet narrating the story of its historical reference, whether that be Cleopatra, the pyramids, or King Tut.

Hamdi also has his eyes set on collaborations with other companies and brands but will be selective in choosing partners.

“I keep asking myself: what next, what next, what next. I want to create something new every day. I want to change something in the eyewear industry in the world so that people think of my name when they think of eyewear,” he says.

Nile Eyewear founder Ahmed Hamdi’s contact information

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