Mobile food carts have always been a familiar scene in Egyptian streets. Who doesn’t enjoy that cup of warm chickpeas by the Nile, or long for a perfectly seasoned ful sandwich to start the day?
From the middle-aged man in a galabiya roasting corns on an old, wooden cart, to the college girl selling sushi out of a colorful red bike, today’s food carts have evolved into a way out of the recent economic hardships, especially for middle and upper-middle classes.
For youth, food carts and bikes are an escape from unemployment and an attempt to step up their income, and they seem to have spread through various upscale neighborhoods, expanding beyond the corniche and poorer areas. Inspirational college graduates are deciding they will no longer cry over their dusty certificates and taking matters into their own hands, often even turning their own car trunks into mobile cafes.
The dilemma of licensing and the endless red tape, however, were soon to threaten that new source of income, finally grabbing the attention of the president almost a year ago. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi gave his orders to legalize the situation of street vendors; a few months later, the very first street dedicated for food vendors in Cairo was inaugurated, followed by a number of other initiatives. And only this week, the parliament approved, for the first time, a law that would regulate and legalize the situation and hopefully make it possible for youth to pursue that well-needed new source of income.
The first legal step to regulate a decades-old conflict
The Egyptian parliament approved early April a draft law, submitted by over 60 members, to regulate and encourage the idea of food carts, within a legal framework. The draft law, which is considered the first action to comprehensively legalize mobile food carts, grants the right to operate a food cart, following a license from “the respective administrative authorities.” The latter shall also issue the regulatitions and the best practices for the vendors to comply with, as well as stating the conditions and characteristics for each type of food cart.
While licensing a food cart is not as difficult as before, it still requires a lot of money and paperwork from overlapping authorities, and of course going back and forth from one entity to another. “You first need an approval from the traffic authority for the cart, another from the health department for the food, and then an approval from the municipality for the location … And once done, you need to go back to the traffic authority again to check this already-approved location,” says Joseph Aziz, who started a mini food cart next to Waterway Mall in New Cairo a few months ago, along with his wife Maggy Dawood and their friend Sherry Amin.
They first wanted to apply for Share’ Masr but didn’t fit the age restriction and all the spots were already filled, Amin recounts. They asked about the process to license a food cart and found out there isn’t any specific authority to address for that. Without any licenses, they’ve been under attack from the traffic authority and the municipality.
When asked about the new draft law - before it was officially approved -, Dawood said that the terms are still quite vague and do not really clarify whether they will have to go through the same hectic and confusing process. “We are determined to legalize our situation; however, we still do not know which direction to go,” she says.
Deputy Head of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Committee at the Parliament Soad el-Masry explains, “The law coordinates between all respective authorities to make it easier for the applicant to set up their project.” According to Article 8 of the draft law, mobile food carts will answer to the Health and Safety Authority, the Ministry of Health and Population, and the Civil Defense authority. “Several legislations overlapped when drafting the law because it is linked to the safety and health of the citizen,” Masry says, adding that “the local units and the municipalities will probably be the ones responsible for issuing the license in full.”
According to the draft law, the license would only be granted to an Egyptian citizen, over 18 years old, who has not been convicted of any criminal offense; and it cannot be given up or transferred without the approval of the respective authority. The granted license would be valid for no less than three years, subject to renewal, and would cost up to LE 5,000, according to the type of the cart and the duration of the license. “The price for getting the license is the simplest you can pay to start a project this size,” Masry says. The law would also exempt licensed units from taxes on profits for three years from the date of the license.
“Specific locations will be allocated to the licensed carts by the Ministry of Local Development or Urban Communities according to population density,” Masry says. Each cart owner will also be obliged to install a GPS device.
“The law is very important for youth because it reduces the crisis of unemployment to a large extent; and it will help create a lot of job opportunities by helping youth start their own project with a budget that corresponds with their financial capacities,” Masry says. “The law will also protect the Egyptian street from violations and will contribute to resolving the traffic problem caused by unlicensed carts and street vendors,” Masry adds.
The draft law typically sets a number of penalties in case the terms and conditions of the license are violated. However, it also states a penalty of up to one month’s imprisonment and a fine of LE 20,000 (or either), for anyone who works on a mobile food cart without that license.
But can the long-awaited law end up harming rather than benefiting those who are already out in the streets until they re legal? Masry affirms that no one will be harmed if they do not violate the law and that the imprisonment penalty will not be executed since the law is not even out yet. “Everyone will definitely be given enough time to regulate their situation once the law is officially executed,” she says.
Playback: Egypt wakes up to a “food carts crisis”
Come Eat Habashtakanat
The “Habashtakanat” trio are one example from thousands of middle-class Egyptians who have resorted to the food trucks trend as means to top up their income. However, they are left fighting red tape and compulsory bribes.
The three friends are hanging a big banner on their 2015 Toyota car; “Come Eat Habashtakanat”, it says. Right next to their car-trunk, they have set a small wooden table, on which they put their tiny portable stoves and stainless casseroles.
Dawood, 35, has been working at a bank for 13 years; her husband, Aziz, 42, is a field engineer and he has been working in the marketing field in an international company for over 15 years, and Amin, 36, was in the field of medical and life insurance.
“We have been simply living to send our kids to schools … we save every month to pay school fees and that is it,” Dawood says, saying that an additional source of income was a must, and their other option was to leave the country. “The medium-income class no longer exists … The poor are not the only ones seeking second jobs [to survive],” she elaborates.
The three friends have been relying on their portable stove and car trunk for over five months; however, they are seeking to buy an actual cart soon. “We found that the price is too high; an average of LE 16,000 for a simple clean, respectable cart with good equipment … we were looking for old trucks then had the idea to turn a public bus into a kitchen and an open-air sitting, like a mobile restaurant,” Dawood says.
All Habashtakanat’s products are homemade and sold at very modest prices, starting at LE 5. In winter, they were offering tea, hummus, belila, Egyptian pumpkin pie (qaraa assaly), warm lentils with toasted bread and tomatoes. And now their new menu is all chinese: sweet and sour chicken, rice, linguini, and some sweet delights like creme caramel and bechamel sweet potatoes.
It all started with a viral video that showed the municipality confiscating 31-year-old Yasmeen Reheem’s burger cart in Heliopolis in April 2017. “I went out in the street by myself for over two months and worked without taking a single day off,” Reheem told Egypt Today.
Shortly after the video went viral, Reheem received a call from the minister of social solidarity, and was invited to a meeting with the Cairo governor. Sisi also criticized the municipality’s actions during the National Youth Conference in Ismailia, held the same month, and called on the government to issue “temporary licenses” for youth projects like Reheem’s.
The Administrative Control Authority adopted the idea of legalizing the situation of young street vendors and reached out to several companies to seek tangible solutions, says Ahmed Mostafa, CEO of the real estate and marketing company that established, and is currently managing, Share’ Masr’s project.
Four months later, Share’ Masr was inaugurated to allow the youth a legal space, similar to a food court, where they can stand with their bikes and carts. The project gathered 12 vendors who were already present in the surrounding area but had no licenses, and granted them one-year contracts that could be extended annually, Mostafa explains.
Following Share’ Masr’s lead, a new project “Shabab Al-Shorouk” (Shorouk Youth) was also inaugurated in Shorouk City. Cairo Governor Atef Abdel-Hamid has also announced three new spots will be established in Nozha, Ain Shams and Nasr City, called “Aswak Masr” (Egypt Markets), to bring together street vendors in different fields in exchange for a modest monthly rent.
Share’ Masr: regulations and setbacks
Eight months after its launch, we visited Share’ Masr to assess the initative. Each spot inside the gated legality measures two-by-one meters and costs LE 1,200 a month to rent, in addition to LE 200 for services like electricity. Moustafa reveals there are plans to impose extra fees on some of the renters, as “the business has increased and some people have occupied extra space.” Future plans also include replacing the bikes with small kiosks to make room for the equipment used and to open in another location, he adds.
The project had initially set a number of conditions. To get a spot, applicants shouldn’t have any other jobs or job insurance, have clean criminal records, a health certificate, a project idea, and be between 21 and 35 years of age. “We chose this age because they are the ones who suffer from unemployment,” Mostafa says. “We also want the renter to be the one working on the bike and not to turn it into an investment and get other people to run it.”
Nevertheless, during our walk on the street, we did encounter a 49-year-old vendor, two employees manning the cart instead of the actual renter, and two others who stood on behalf of their friends.
Mostafa was quick to assure us that the three cases were accounted for and within the accepted regulations of the project. He explained that the age limit extension was only one exception based on the vendor’s critical situation, and the fact that he was already standing in the location, adding that the first priority was to legalize the existing situation. There are plans to stretch the age limit in the future phases of the project due to numerous requests.
As for the substitute vendors, he clarified that while the regulations stipulate that none of the contracted vendors can give away or rent their spots, they can seek the assistance of two or three employees, affirming that the renter is still obliged to be present all the time. “If one of the vendors wants to take a vacation, he has to inform the administration beforehand…to make sure that no one [secretly] rents their spot,” Mostafa adds. If he does not show up after the notified period, the vendor is sent a warning and his contract may be annulled if he doesn’t respond to it; a situation that has, so far, never happened.
As the first phase of the project mostly focused on legalizing the situation of the vendors who were already functioning in the street, future applicants should follow an online process through the governorate’ website to get a spot. The applicant is required to submit a copy of their national ID, a photo of the project, the health certificate, insurance papers and a criminal record certificate. Before submitting the documents, they should also head to the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise Development Agency to present the idea of the project and seek their guidance to fill in any gaps, Mostafa explains.
“Many people have already applied through the link,” Moustafa affirms. “The selection process will prioritize current renters and those who are already working in the street without license to legalize their situation,” he adds.
Although the project, so far, looks like a promising solution for the dilemma faced by mobile food cart owners, tens of thousands of other vendors, outside the new, gated street-food haven, are still facing the same old red tape. Hopefully, the new law, if adequately executed, can help put an end to the widespread problem.
From burgers to Egyptian dishes, Oreo delights, authentic barbecue taste and many more, each cart in Share’ Masr offers a unique taste. And from a marketer to a computer engineer, a former Fairmont Hotel supervisor and employees at multinational companies, behind each counter is a young entrepreneur, and a symbol of young, middle-income Egyptians who have decided to take control of their own fate.
Coming to the conclusion that a combined monthly income of LE 2,000 was no longer a viable option, Ramy Hefny and his wife Marwa decided to start their own mobile food business, Romeo, literally on the pavement of their home in Sheraton Heliopolis.
“I was a front office supervisor at the Fairmont Hotel with a maximum salary of LE 1,200 and my wife was a teacher at an international school and her salary wouldn’t exceed LE 800 [in 2013],” Hefny recalls. After working abroad for a few years, the couple came back to Egypt and, realizing it was very difficult to work as employees with such salaries again, they launched Romeo in January 2016.
It was based on “some experience and passion for the kitchen and cooking as I have a bachelor’s degree from the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels, and I worked in the kitchen for some time during my studies,” Hefny says.
Romeo was one of the first projects to launch in Share’ Masr, and it has become quite famous for its homemade burgers, hotdog, chicken sandwiches, oriental picks like hawawshi and sausages, and more recently, their special pasta and delicious pizzas.
“When we appeared on a TV show talking about our struggle to get a license we were contacted and invited to join Share’ Masr,” Hefny recounts. “I started working legally after I had been a street vendor and any policeman could report me or confiscate my cart…Instead of working at home, I now have a kitchen. Instead of having a bike, I started my own company. And instead of supporting one house, Romeo now is a source of income for six homes,” he says, clarifying that he now has six employees in total, including himself, working at Romeo.
When asked about respecting the condition entailing that the renter himself should be present at all times, Hefny affirmed that he is present at the street constantly; and even when he is not there, he would be preparing the food or working on kiosks to ensure a “civilized and beautiful” appearance for his business.
Hefny explains that the business is “good and profitable in high-peak seasons, however, in off seasons, they might make a loss especially in bad weather.” He adds, however, that we can’t judge the profitability of the business now because the media attention Share’ Masr received led to a popularity that may or may not last.
“Share’ Masr is one step in a dream I have. I want to create an Egyptian brand that would go international,” Hefny says.
From fresh warm brownies topped with melted Nutella, ice cream and Oreos, to dreamy red velvet cups with layers and layers of sweet delights, very special sweet potatoes with caramel, cake pops, and even a Nutella tagine with Oreos, Oreo Home is one stop you have to make at Share’ Masr.
Oreo Home was established in March 2017 by Abanob Samuel, 25, a graduate of the Faculty of Commerce at Cairo University with over six years of experience in the field of marketing.
“My mother and sister make everything and we work on the harmony of the cup … We know how we can put blueberry with chocolate, but not raspberry … We read a lot and we have tried out different things to know what people would enjoy eating,” Samuel says. “We started with only four products.”
After a month of working in different events and parties, Oreo Home appeared as a bike in Sheraton. “I used to tow the bike with my car every day to a big garage … and I used solar energy to operate a small fridge,” he recalls, praising how, now, at Share’ Masr, the place is secured, clean and equipped with electricity; and right down the street from the spot he first stood.
“The Administrative Control Authority told us they are setting a plan called Share3 Masr; and they would start spreading it all over the country based on our success,” Samuel says.
He asserts that the project provides a “respectable” profit and that the average income is much better than his previous steady job and outweighs the expenses.
Yummy Street Food
The brainchild of a creative food mind, Yummy Street Food offers a variety of sandwiches, with special mixes and seasoning. Some are inspired by the most traditional Egyptian dishes and others are just so international.
Tamer Fawzi Ibrahim, 49, is the only vendor who has been accepted as an exception to Share’ Masr’s age limit condition after seeking the help of the presidency office. A former employee at an international maritime transportation company, Ibrahim found himself unemployed after the January 25 uprising in 2011. Two years later, he started Yummy Street Food with a friend.
“We started by making drinks in our car trunk and with a small fire. We kept developing until we made the bike and started offering food,” Ibrahim says. They stood in the street for two years, until the municipality gathered and met with all the vendors in the area and brought them into Share’ Masr.
“Outside, you have more freedom in terms of when to open and close and what to serve,” he says. “However, the municipality can easily confiscate the bike for two months … Here, there is more stability, security and respect.”
Ibrahim explains that the project also provides several job opportunities for a very low cost. “One bike can provide jobs for over four people and costs only LE 2,000,” he says. And for the average daily income for their bike, Ibrahim reveals it can be between LE 300 and LE 400.
Unlike all of the other vendors we came across, Mina Maher, the founder of Munchies and graduate of the school of computer sciences, already had a licensed cart before entering Share’ Masr. However, when he was contacted by the governorate, he still brought in his bike, and is now standing inside the food court, where he believes “they look better.”
“We wanted to start a project that would work well in Egypt … And food is what works best in the country,” Maher says.
Munchies offers a variety of burgers, grilled goodies, and Egyptian Hawawshi. “All of the food is homemade and it is prepared by my partner Mrs Samia,” Maher says.