Searching for the Hidden Gems Across the Arab World!

The task of the Search and Selection team in Ashoka is to look, dig and search long, deep and hard for the hidden gems of the social entrepreneurship scene in the Arab region. Ashoka is looking for people who are truly, deeply and madly committed to bringing about positive change regardless of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity or socio-economic status. The entrepreneurship/start-ups scene is currently experiencing a boom and Ashoka is seeking the leading social entrepreneurs; Ashoka reserves the standard of choosing the leading social entrepreneurs that are characterized by their daring approaches in initiating unconventional methods towards solving social problems. Our definition of leading social entrepreneurs are those talented individuals who innovatively tackle social problems from their root causes, rather than deal with their symptoms, hence creating a real system change while tackling all system stakeholders and influencers; in other words, people who change the rules of the game.

One of the most frequently asked questions we receive as the Search and Selection team is what are the criteria we use to evaluate the endeavors of social entrepreneurs who want to join the Ashoka Fellowship? The first thing our eyes are drawn to is whether or not the idea is ‘new’. Is the idea tackling the social issue in a way that has never been done before in the Arab region, is it tackling it from a different angle, or is it just a repetition of previous efforts that aimed to solve the same issue in the region? We keep in mind that solving problems in the same way humanity has been using for decades and centuries will only produce the same undesirable results. When Marwa El Daly was elected as an Ashoka Fellow, her new idea was evident in her new approach to sustainable development through reviving and modernizing the traditional model of giving and local resource mobilization known as the Waqf Model.

ImageOur critical evaluation of the idea, after ensuring that it is in fact new, is that it is reaching out to solve a problem from its roots, tapping into existing systems to make them work. Looking to Ashoka Fellow Hisham Kharma, one can really see how his approach to the blood donation problem in Egypt is completely revolutionizing the system by addressing the very root causes of the problem. Rather than joining the numerous efforts aiming to encourage blood donation, or spending all of his effort in finding existing blood shortages, he pioneered the first effort to unify previously scattered and distrusted actors under one umbrella, connecting blood donors with recipients, aggregating all blood donation initiatives in one place, and mapping out areas of the country where there is availability or shortage of blood. He finally founded a centralized matching system that before him was non-existent and was limited only to scattered initiatives.

Fairouz Omar demonstrates the significant social impact achieved, which is another criterion necessary for the Ashoka Fellowship that ensures that the idea has been implemented on the ground and is proven to work with real results. At the time of her election in 2009, Fairouz’s model of the professional psychological counseling system for teenagers in Egyptian government schools covered Helwan governorate’s 60 government schools, and rehabilitated and trained all 95 counselors recruited by the Ministry of Education there. In this way, Fairouz penetrated and changed systems rather than establishing parallel ones.

Complementing the aforementioned criteria is the creativity of the idea itself, the entrepreneurial quality of the candidate, and their ethical fiber.

Our process is thorough and the criteria are very specific, all to serve our purpose of identifying the real leading changemakers of the Arab World. Upon achieving Fellowship, Ashoka offers our Fellows lifetime support and engagement, empowering them to have deeper social impact and wider scale reach. We always renew our motivation and remember the drive for what we are doing by looking at the map of the Arab World and seeing our gems, social entrepreneurs, spanning it, working around the clock and finding solutions for social challenges in all sectors of health, education, income generation and job creation, disabilities, human rights, environment, information communications and technology among others.

ImageAshoka Fellows in the Arab World range from people working on government  accountability and fighting corruption via civic engagement in Morocco,  and in Egypt our Fellows are empowering local people to establish alternative sewerage systems, building social capital to manage local disputes instead of waiting for court systems, unleashing children’s creativity in education, changing cultural norms and fighting stigmas against the marginalized, disadvantaged and HIV patients and fighting sexual harassment and abuse. In the Levant region within the Arab World you can find our Fellows spreading a culture of volunteerism, engraining tolerance and acceptance for diversity within their communities by gathering people around their commonalities, breeding a new generation of Arab leaders through establishing egalitarian systems. The gulf also contributes Fellows that empower women, both politically and economically, offer a healthier life for people through sports and others finding new systems for dealing with refugees.

At the end of the day, as the search and selection team, we go home with fascination and intrigue knowing that we have succeeded in finding these hidden gems and that Ashoka, along with its search process, will always continue to identify and empower them!


Help us find a hidden gem in your local area, city or region!

Do you know a Social Entrepreneur? Then, join our Nominators Network. Your insight is important for us! Send an e-mail for inquiries or details:



Search and Selection of Ashoka Fellows Team:           

Rana El-meligy

Nariman Moustafa

Searching for the Hidden Gems Across the Arab World!


Ever had a 3ajjour before?

Common snack at El Deyaba Village: Ajjour

In contrast to our commonly known “Atta”- El Deyaba village in El Minya, calls it “3ajjour” as was happily provided by one of the fishermen there. El Deyaba is one of the small villages outside El Minya, one of the many representing the fishing communities there.

Deyaba fisherman using safe nets for fishing

In Egypt, when one thinks of fishermen, they often think of those in Alexandria, or the Nile delta, yet El Deyaba presents a live example of the fishermen community in Upper Egypt. The NGO working there, through the work of Ashoka fellow Maher Bushra, aims at spreading awareness of safe fishing practices, providing caricatures for fishermen and different trainings there and in Alexandria.

A fishing area with the fisherman's feluccas

A tiny village, it is, with a breathtaking view of the Nile, unbounded by buildings, just tiny houses, in response to my comment to one of the fishermen that they lived in a beautiful place, he just said “it’s just very poor”. It is one of the places targeted by our Housing for All initiative providing loans for low cost housing projects.

A view from one of the houses of the Nile and the green fields surrounding it

It’s a place where the moment you enter, you’re surrounded by the kids, running around you, singing and clapping their hands, their chief happily posing for us, letting us enter their houses and meet the people, sharing their life with you, untarnished by pollution, technology or the fast pace of life.

Some kids from the village happily posing for the camera

El Deyaba- as small as it is, is just one shining spot along our beloved Nile, the people’s simplicity humbles you, and makes you appreciate the small things in life.

You can find out more about Ashoka Fellow Maher Bushra by checking out his profile on the Ashoka Website:

A Visit to Gaffar Village

A little while ago I had the great opportunity to go visit one of our fellows, Sameh Seif, in Gaffar Village outside of Beni Suef.  Sameh is a truly amazing fellow, and we were able to visit the sites for both Housing For All and his clean sewage system.

New sewage system near Gaffar Village built by Sameh Seif, will eventually be hooked up to HFA housing

We started in Gaffar Village, visiting some of the HFA sites. HFA is Ashoka’s first collaborative platform, which brings together four fellows in four separate, low-income communities who will improve the safety and sanitation of these homes through microfinance. These fellows all have strong ties to their communities and well-respected microfinance organizations. One of the primary focuses of HFA renovations is to improve sanitation in the household. This includes moving the bathroom away from the kitchen, connecting the house to a clean sewage system that does not contaminate groundwater, and moving animals out of the main house.

First, we visited some of the houses that are going to be renovated. We were able to talk to the families that lived there about what they hope to get out of the project and they were all very excited to have clean, sanitary houses. We saw examples of animals sharing the same entrance and hallways as the family, dirt floors that are hard and time-consuming to clean, and kitchens near bathrooms.

Example of conditions in a pre-renovation house

Next, we saw a house in the process of being renovated. It was almost complete – they were just finishing up the painting and spackling. The floors were tiled easy to clean; the bathroom and kitchen were separate; there were balconies and great light. The house was a wonderful improvement.

Example of a renovated house

After seeing this house, we visited the new animal section of a different, post-renovation house. For me, this change was the most inspiring – it was such a simple design but with huge added benefits. First, the separated the animal room from the house, giving it a second entrance on the street so that animals were no longer walking past the sleeping and eating quarters. Next, they gave the room a sloped, cement floors. The cement is easier and faster to clean than the old dirt and straw dust ones. They can hose the floor down and it will drain into a trough at the bottom of the sloped floor. This also facilitates the collection of manure, which the family can sell for added income.

Another shot of the simplistic yet highly effective and environmentally friendly sewage system built by Sameh Seif

Finally, we went to Sameh’s sewage plant in the next village over. It was this idea that first made him an Ashoka fellow. I was amazed how simple the design was, how much cheaper than the government systems it was to build, and how much more effective it was at removing the pollutants from the water. To read more about this project, visit:

Account written by Zoe Goldman, photos by Nairy Abd Al Shafy

Ashoka Fellow Rabee Zureikat Pioneers Exchange Tourism

During the 2010 Arab World Social Innovation Forum, held May 14-15, Ashoka Arab World inducted ten new Fellows, bringing the total count of Arab World Fellows to 51.  The inducted Fellows are true social entrepreneurs, who  are pioneering  innovative social change in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

In an effort to highlight the Fellows’ impressive achievements, we will feature blog posts about the work of each newly inducted Fellow.  We hope their stories inspire you, as they have inspired us!

Our first featured Fellow is Rabee Zureikat of Jordan, who works in the Income Generation & Employment sector, pioneering new ways to empower the rural communities in the tourism industry in Jordan.

Rabee founded Zikra in 2007, an organization which works in exchange tourism.  He used his background in marketing and social networking skills to market his exchange tourism activities among modern youth in Amman and to encourage companies to adopt corporate social responsibility activities.  As enthusiasm for his program spread in Amman and in the rural areas, more people left their urban bubble to learn about their country and more rural people participated in the exchange by talking and teaching about their traditions, cooking, and way of life.

Rabee’s exchange tourism leads to equity by helping marginalized rural communities rediscover their strength and by taking economically powerful urban communities out of their protective bubble.  Both parties engage in a two-way  exchange in which each side learns and contributes. The tourism revenue is invested in the marginalized communities’ economic development, thus further narrowing the economic and social gap.

The trips have also succeeded in connecting locals of Al Karak with people from the city, bringing 20 tourists from the city in close interaction with 75 individuals from the local community and establishing broader interaction between 300 people from Al Karak and 1,000 visitors from Amman. The groups have developed bonds with each other and collaborated to find different solutions to existing problems, particularly through networks of professionals from the city. By interacting and working together, the rural and urban communities overcome stereotypes and create the potential for greater social change through cooperation.

Rabee has carried out 20 exchange trips to date, and has placed Al Karak on the international and national tourism map, generating many indirect income opportunities. Due to Rabee’s efforts, Al Karak is now featured in the Lonely Planet travel guidebook. The exchange tourism program, when applied in 5 areas over 3 countries, has the potential to generate US$1M in net revenue to be invested in the local communities.

Rabee stresses that the main elements of exchange tourism are gaining the local community’s trust and then taking a close look at its culture, assets, and needs in order to mould exchange activities accordingly.  Lastly and most importantly, exchange tourism is built on a mindset that believes that both parties contribute to the transaction and should feel they have something to offer in the relationship.

Rabee will spread his model in Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon by franchising Zikra to local COs that work with the community, and training their personnel on exchange tourism activities. In the next year, Rabee will replicate his model in Palestinian refugee camps in addition to other impoverished villages throughout Jordan. In the next 3 years, Rabee will bring his model to Lebanon. In the next five years, Rabee will establish his exchange tourism in Egypt with the help of Egyptian COs working with Bedouins on the Sinai Peninsula and Western Desert oases, improving their livelihood through the revival of traditional crafts.

In May 2009, Rabee was awarded the prestigious King Abdullah II Award for Youth Innovation and Achievement and was also honored at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. Rabee has also been named in Arabian Business Magazine’s “Top 30 Under 30” for recognition as an entrepreneurial leader in the Arab region.

Read more about Rabee’s project at:

Fellows Speak Out: Influencing International Agreement & the Case of Current Climate Negotiations

Our Fellows represent some of the region’s most innovative social innovators – Arabs that are experts in their fields, and have committed their lives to bringing about positive social change. Our ‘ Fellows Speak Out’ series on this blog will present a platform for  these leading social entrepreneurs to share their views, to spread their message and to describe their daily work to create lasting impact in the Arab world.

The first post comes from Wael Hmaidan, a social innovator from Lebanon who is promoting youth activism by identifying ‘local heroes’. Based on his own experience as a climate activist for Greenpeace, Wael is now working to spread social activism amongst young people in the Arab world through his ‘league of  independent activists’; IndyACT.

Picture of Wael

Ashoka Fellow Wael Hmaidan

What would cause any individual to leave everything at the drop of the hat, and live for two weeks with little food and even less sleep, and without any pay during the UN climate negotiations? It is the same reason why IndyACT exists: passion to save the planet. We first and foremost are activists working for a better future for us and generations to come.

People think we enjoy our work (which we do, though sometimes we wish we had a different job) and some believe we might be paid well for it (in fact most of us are not paid, let alone paid well). But we at IndyACT do know one thing: if we do not reach a strong agreement on climate change in the Copenhagen UN summit at the end of the year, life on earth will be threatened.

A typical day in the life of a climate activist is not a normal day by anybody’s definition (maybe only normal to the climate activists themselves). Take the Climate negotiations sessions for example; up by 6am to finish up yesterday’s work, 7am is breakfast time (or better known as the only meal of the day), 8am is when the meetings start. You spend the day lobbying, lecturing, intervening, organizing events, meeting delegations, publishing reports, etc. By 11pm, those of us who aren’t on editing shifts to produce the daily NGO newsletter at the negotiations head to the hotel to work and prepare for the next day, we are lucky when we are in bed by 2am.

Being a change maker working on climate policy negotiation is not an easy job to do. You have to be at the top of your game 24/7, reading and following on any climate change related research, discussion, or policy position every day of the year. You also have to be an expert on foreign and domestic policy of each country, their economies, political issues, social behavior, etc. in order to know how to talk to delegates, how to influence countries to change their policies, and how to get the NGO community to stay united at all times. You have to understand that while you are doing all these enormous tasks, you are considered a hero if you are able to change one sentence in the whole negotiation text.

By Wael Hmaidan – IndyACT (

Young Entrepreneurs: The Power to Create their Own Solutions

The “Youth Problem” in the Middle East has received much attention and research from around the world. With 63% of the population in the region under 29 years of age, there should be millions of educated, able-bodied youth to actively contribute to society. Instead, over 25% are unemployed. Many complete a university degree, only to find that there are no available jobs, let alone ones that provide a deeper fulfillment by utilizing their higher education.

People reflexively look to the government for help. In a region dominated by the public sector as opposed to private enterprise, government jobs are highly sought after due to their security and prestige. Earlier this week, an article applauded the Tunisian parliament for “fighting youth unemployment” by passing a law that will allow earlier retirement for public employees. The new policy could potentially result in 7,000 vacancies primarily for new university graduates.

Though this will certainly help to alleviate youth unemployment in Tunisia to an extent, this type of program does not provide a long-term solution. The government can only support so many employees, and more civil servants will do little to increase the economic competitiveness of the Arab world. Instead, we must begin to look to the private sector – particularly that outside of the oil industry – as the future for economic growth and prosperity, more specifically encouraging new, entrepreneurial endeavors.

Arab business elites have already begun to recognize entrepreneurship as crucial to the future success of the region in the global market. Fadi Ghandour, CEO and founder of Aramex, one of the leading logistics and transportation companies in the Middle East and the first company from the region to go public in the U.S. Nasdaq stock exchange, states that, “young Arab entrepreneurs are the future of this region…they are the job generators, they will, with their innovative and creative ideas have an impact on the direction our economies will take.” He calls on the private sector to “invest in its youth and…assist them to create their own future and compete in the global market.”

The necessity of increased entrepreneurship seems to be catching on. A recent TV series presented 16 Arab youth with weekly challenges in engineering, design, business, and marketing, culminating in a final original project. Such a large-scale public promotion of entrepreneurship is encouraging.

At Ashoka, we believe in the potential of youth also as social entrepreneurs, with the ability to provide innovative solution to some of the region’s most pressing problems. One of our current fellows, Ehaab Abdou, has also recognized this potential, creating a program that helps young social entrepreneurs generate and implement ideas for economic and social development. Another fellow, M’hammed Abbad Andaloussi is facilitating a connection between the private sector and the Moroccan education system, working to develop the entrepreneurial skills and capacities of students.

We must stop looking at the youth population as a “problem” and instead begin to view it a demographic with incredible potential: their own “solution”. Arab youth are more educated and technology-savvy than any previous generation, but this knowledge is under-utilized. The private sector, government, and citizens alike must work together to ensure that youth have not just the skills, but also the resources and encouragement to transform their innovative and creative ideas into reality. Youth are not just the future, they are the present, and we cannot afford to wait.

Creative Solutions for Affordable Housing: Fixing Egypt’s Housing Problem the Ashoka Way

Over the last week a lot of attention has been paid to Egypt’s housing issue. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced the government’s new plan to address the problem. Ashoka Arab World sent out a press release about its Housing For All Initiative. Daily News Egypt even published an editorial on “The Slums of Cairo.” The current discussion about Egyptian informal settlements and the poor communities who live in them highlights the need to move away from traditional solutions to the region’s most pressing concerns. It’s time to start looking at these crises from a new perspective, to involve beneficiaries in the solutions, and to make a lasting change. This attitude is exemplified by Ashoka Arab World’s Housing For All project.

The slums of Garbage City

The slums of Garbage City

The housing problem in Egypt has been building up for years. The country suffers from a fundamental mismatch between available housing and those who need housing. More than 11 million people live in informal slum settlements. 90% of Egypt’s housing is built informally and 10% is built by professional companies. Unfortunately, construction companies are building new homes primarily for the high-income market for the sake of profitability. This has lead to the creation of one million unoccupied apartments in Cairo while over five million people have been pushed into the cemeteries of Cairo’s City of the Dead.

The flaw of traditional solutions to this problem is not that they do no good. The Egyptian government’s new plan to deal with 29 slum areas includes giving out alternative plots of land and offering commercial, health, and sports projects to increase employment. There is no doubt that this plan will help people and have some benefits. However, it fails to address the core of the housing problem. The government’s solution is simply not the right answer; it will not give people safer, cleaner, and better homes. Moreover, Prime Minister Nazif’s idea, though extensive, may have the side-effect of placing some slum residents at risk of losing their homes all together.

That’s where Ashoka comes in. Ashoka Arab World is approaching this problem from an innovative angle: the Housing For All (HFA) initiative, called “El Dawar,” leverages the collective purchasing power of the poor to make them viable customers for construction companies. It will transform housing markets by providing a market-based model which creates low-cost housing solutions to low-income communities. Ashoka Arab World and four of its Fellows are partnering with local communities, the business sector, and the government to implement the project, which will create an estimated 3680 housing units over 2 years. The houses, which will be newly constructed or renovated, will be affordable, safe, and ecological. The initiative takes into account everything that obstructs impoverished Egyptians from living in proper homes: it provides affordable building materials through partner construction companies; it makes financing possible through microfinance institutions; and it makes building low-cost housing safer and more environmentally sustainable with the help of engineers and university students. Furthermore, HFA centers will help residents obtain some ownership over their new housing so they have greater control over their lives.

Ashoka Arab World is bringing in experts from all sides of the housing issue to make HFA an effective, comprehensive solution that is bound to go farther than governmental projects and traditional solutions. Ashoka Fellow Hany El Miniawy has built over 10,000 affordable housing units in the El-Monib, Imbaba, and Mansheyet Naser areas of Cairo. Waste disposal, which is linked to public health and environmental safety, will be addressed by Ashoka Fellow Sameh Seif Ghaly, who is introducing low-cost sewage systems in Egyptian villages. In addition, Ashoka Fellow Salah Arafa has experience with economic development and environmental protection of rural communities living in informal settlements in Bassayssa. Finally, Ashoka Fellow Maher Bushra is working to provide essential living needs to Egypt’s informal sector and to raise awareness among poor communities about their rights and resources. All of these Fellows understand that Egypt’s housing troubles are about much more than just homes.

By directly dealing with the issue of housing HFA can address many more closely linked problems such as poverty, public health, environmental sustainability, human rights…The list goes on.  Any solution to the housing problem must attack the fundamental challenge facing the inhabitants of Egypt’s informal areas; poor people cannot afford homes. Moreover, solutions to that long list of socioeconomic problems above must include a solution to the swelling of slums. In Egypt and throughout the Arab world, all of these problems are inextricably connected, and HFA finally looks at them as such.