Reality TV as a power for good? On screen in Egypt

A new kind of reality show teaches Egyptians to start their own businesses

 

Reality television sometimes seems to be in a race to the bottom, but one woman’s germ of an idea is trying to harness its power for good.

Anna Elliot, who is 30, was a US college student volunteering in Afghanistan in the late 2000s when the seeds were sown for her social startup, Bamyan Media. At the time Afghanistan’s first reality TV show, Afghan Star, had captured the imagination of the nation, and Elliot’s theatre group always stopped rehearsals to watch it.

Thinking about how powerful the programme was, she also wondered how television could be made more relevant. “For me that meant looking at issues like, How do you get a job? How do you earn an income? How do you start a business with the skills you have?”

And so she helped to launch Dream and Achieve, a reality-TV show geared towards social change. Twenty entrepreneurs from all over Afghanistan, including a fish farmer, a hotel manager and a tailor, were filmed as they worked with consultants to build their enterprises and take home a cash prize. The show was filmed across 13 weeks in 2008.

After the first season Elliot returned to the US inspired. She began pitching the idea of Bamyan Media, a social enterprise that partners with local production houses to make reality-TV shows.

The idea took off , and in 2012 Elliot was in Egypt prepping its inaugural show: a similar idea to Dream and Achieve that would try to build on the wave of entrepreneurial activity following the Arab Spring, in 2011.

“We wanted to take the momentum in the wake of that euphoric moment. After all, these kids have seen the power of what it means to come together, of what it means to achieve an objective that’s not so dreamy any more,” says Elliot.

Selling olive oil

World Bank

El Mashrou3, a cross between The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den, was born. Part of its strategy was to help teach Egyptians how to start and run a successful business.

Airing from December 2013, the 13-episode season featured 14 contestants who completed individual and team challenges, from making products using a Cairo rubbish dump and selling them to furniture stores, to being street-side juice sellers.

The winner was a 26-year-old pharmacist, Tina Boules, with her startup, Taqa Solutions, which aims to help poultry farms, bakeries and hotels to make and use biogas. She received the Egyptian equivalent of a €44,000 cash prize, and she is now in negotiations with a supplier in India.

Bamyan’s global director of development, a former journalist named Asim Haneef, loved the way the contestants became role models and “mini-celebrities”.

“It was amazing to see the tears shed when one of the great underdogs of the series, the T-shirt seller Mido, crashed out near the semi-finals after smashing all expectations and going all the way,” he says. “The show ended up beating Dancing With the Stars in the TV ratings.”

But the series’ real value lay in introducing the idea of entrepreneurship to more people.

The year before the show hit TV screens, Bamyan toured regional cities to find contestants. Elliot says groups of aspiring entrepreneurs subsequently set up skills-trading networks. “It’s like, I’ll trade you a website if you give me 10 hours of pitching advice.”

But working in Egypt is not easy for entrepreneurs – local or foreign – because of the country’s opaque bureaucracy and lack of state support for small businesses. Elliot and Haneef admit they’ve learned a lot and will adapt the show accordingly.

Currently they’re trying to nail down the next round of funding from corporate sponsors. And they are full of ideas, from taking El Mashrou3 to other countries to developing new shows. Next up: The Real Maids of Cairo.

Published as part of Impact Journalism Day, June 20th, 2015