A construction site of residential buildings is seen in Bengbu, Anhui province, China July 9, 2017
CAIRO – 28 May 2018: Property developments expert and women’s empowerment advocate, Mona Aboud has left her mark in Egypt’s economic and social worlds. Facing many challenges and difficulties when she first set off to establish her real development company, The Egyptian Arab Company for Modern Building & Reconstruction, Aboud managed to make an unforgettable impression on the sector.
Aboud has remained on top of the property development marketing industry for 30 years, encouraging women to seek economic independence, and venture into male-dominated fields. Aboud graduated from the faculty of commerce, Cairo University in 1981, then received a master’s degree in real estate marketing from the London Business School in 1987. She has then started a real estate marketing company in 1990, before establishing her joint stock company in 2008 with a share capital of LE 220 million, the company has since built over 4,000 housing units. Two years later, she established a second joint stock company with a share capital of LE 20 million. Working on various projects, Aboud’s three flagship developments have been Garden Hills, built over 150 feddans, Sun City, Sama El Qahera and Katameya Gardens.
Egypt Today sits down with Aboud to chat about the sector’s recent developments and future prospects.
How did your journey begin?
I started off as a real estate agent 30 years ago; I had an agency that marketed different projects. None of the projects I marketed were mine. Little by little, I started to make connections and learn more about the sector. I started to invest small contributions into projects; I didn’t have big shares, of course. I contributed more and more with time.
Eventually, I realized that I like to make the calls. My issue with having partners is that I like to take quick decisions to fix problems quickly. When I made contributions in projects, it is difficult to agree on things and to make calls quickly. With partners, you have to ask everyone and make sure that the decision is unanimous or, at the very least, that the majority agree on it. You need to talk a lot and convince partners—I found that the work sometimes stops simply because of this – this is why I decided to establish my own company about 20 years ago.
Then I started Garden Hills in 2010. It was a big risk. Two revolutions happened while we were building it. The building stopped a few times because of this—it was a rough period but now it is all fine. Now, we are in the last phase, with 3,500 units ready out of the 4,200 units available. I started off as a real estate marketer and now I am a developer, I have come a long way with the support of my family.
Being a woman in construction is difficult. What challenges do you face as a woman in this field?
Construction workers, and workers in generally, are very difficult to deal with. They do not accept taking orders from a woman. They think that orders need to come from a man. It is very difficult for a woman to go between them and enforce her orders without hearing a negative remark or having to argue with someone. There is much stigma attached to female leadership in our society and so, they sometimes want to defy [women leaders]. Also, the lack of women in the field makes it difficult for workers to change this perspective.
You face problems as well that are not associated with being a woman. The biggest problem that we face, or at least I face, are the people. They are generally difficult. You try to set a system or to organize work in a specific way and they do not help you. Everyone wants to get ahead and they do not care how they do it. Not only that, people also have goals that are beyond their capabilities sometimes. You find, for example, someone who is new at work and expects that they will give orders when they still do not have much experience. This often stops work from progressing.
To fix this issue, we are working to increase our workers’ capabilities by training them. We asked lecturers from the American University in Cairo (AUC) to help us set up and run workshops for the workers. We are also running a training program with another company to share experiences and information; this will help in human development and significantly increase workers’ capacity. We want people to develop skills and get ahead in life. My company, our company really, is not just about building a compound, it is about building a life, and not just a life for our customers but also the people working under the company’s roof.
As one of the most prominent women in the field and a women’s economic empowerment advocate, what would you say to other women who are perhaps cautious of the property development sector?
Do not fear the field—once you get your feet into the sector, it is easy to pick up the skills and connections needed. It is difficult at the start, but it gets easier. You have to fight to find your place in the sector but once you do, you will find that people want to cooperate and work with you. The profit margin is also relatively better than many other sectors.
Another thing that many women are worried about is their ability to come up with new, original projects. From my experience, I can tell them that finding the first project can be difficult, and maybe it won’t be a new concept. But the next will be less difficult, and then the one after will be easy. You will start to meet people, see projects and make connections; this will lead you to begin really coming up with new and original ideas. Everything in the property development field, from marketing to investment, makes good money.
The third thing that I would want to warn women about is the image of the company that they will establish. Women, and everyone really, need to remember that the reputation and image of the company is very important. It is the lifeline of all projects. If the company stains its reputation, there is no going back. This means that there is a need to keep up on payment, deadlines and be careful to keep with all laws and legislation.
Do you feel that the last period has seen a positive move towards the inclusion and empowerment of women?
Without a doubt! President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has spared no effort on the journey towards equality and women’s social and economic empowerment, as well as political, of course. He has done a lot for women throughout his term as president.
The Year of Egyptian Women managed to gather much support and saw the launch of many important initiatives that helped to empower women socially and economically. On the social front, for example, laws banning genital mutilation (GM) are harsher than before. Social liberation is difficult without the economic liberation of women. Under Sisi’s vision, the state and organizations launched many initiatives to help women become economically independent. For example, the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) launched many loan programs specifically for women; this has encouraged women to go out and work, and has led to women reaching new levels.
For the first time time in Egypt's history, six female ministers were assigned to cabinet, representing nearly 20% of leadership.
Turning to property development in Egypt, what challenges did the sector face in the last period?
The recent period was difficult in the field of property investment because banks were not giving investors loans. In the past, they used to give loans based on expected sales. Recently, investors had to pay for everything, from land plots to infrastructure development to the landscape, before they could even sell. They used to pay these in cheques mostly, and of course, if he or she is late in paying the money that they owe then they could spend time behind bars. Also, it takes time to sell the units.
Another challenge in the recent period was [heightened costs thereby leading to] higher prices. It took time for people to comprehend and accept this increase in prices, even as investors it took us time to understand this increase and adapt to it. This gave some people the impression that the market is stagnant, that nothing is being built or sold, which led to less people investing for a while but now we are back on track. Today, you can see that there are several remarkable projects that were built over the last period.
You mention that more projects are being built around Egypt. Does this mean that investors are more attracted to Egypt now than after the 2011 revolution? If so, why?
Of course! A lot of people want to invest in Egypt. It is safe to do so and the profits are big, in comparison to other countries. Not to mention that the New Investment Law has led people to feel more secure and safe. The next period will be a lot better than the previous one. The government has now introduced a great initiative where investors can pay a down-payment for the plot and continue paying for it through installments, meaning that they can hire a contractor and start building while paying for the plot. This has led to more investors being able to launch projects.
Egypt is very promising in terms of investment, it has a lot of good things and investors are coming here much more frequently. They know it is safe and they profit a lot here. We are 100 million people now, and we are increasing quickly. This means that we increasingly need houses; we will never stop needing houses and developments. We are very promising.
What would you like to see property investors do more?
Invest in slums and poorer neighborhoods. Many investors fear that by serving slums and poorer areas, as well as middle-class and upper class areas, their reputation would be threatened and they would have to sell for less. However, I believe that this would be a great service for the country and will lead to overall good.
If more places have sound infrastructure and look good, then all of Egypt will reap the benefits of this development through an higher influx in real estate, tourist inflows and many more services and smaller businesses that would launch or become more active as a result of the increase in projects and better infrastructure in Cairo, and Egypt generally.
I did a study on investment in slum areas. The conclusion suggests that through developing these areas, we can have a well-developed district. [In such an area,] the investor would be able to sell cheaper houses for those who are not so well off, and more expensive houses for those who can afford them. Like in Europe, you find that expensive houses are located next to those that are cheaper, or less expensive. This is a type of social integration and inclusion. Here, of course, it is important to mention that we are not talking about absolute slums; we are talking about high lower-class slums. There are engineers who can only afford to buy a small apartment, costing maybe LE 200,000 or LE 300,000, and then there are those that can afford to pay the fair price.
People think that property developers have increased the prices to increase their profits, is this true?
When we first started building Garden Hills four or five years ago, the price of steel was LE 3,600 or LE 4,000; today it ranges between LE 12,000 and LE 13,000. Yes, the prices did increase but that is because the cost of the material needed for infrastructure is more that it is now.
Building materials come from abroad and the price for moving materials to Egypt has increased. Similarly, electricity has also become expensive everywhere around the world and so the production process is more costly now.
Some have recently been speaking of a real estate bubble in Egypt, what are you views on the matter?
The constant increase in population and the influx of foreign investors into Egypt means that there will always be demand for properties in Egypt. This demand, I believe, will not be satisfied to the point where the price would decrease. I do believe, however, that the rise in property prices will slow down in about five years or so. However, as of right now, I expect that it will increase. The “bubble” will not “explode.”