CAIRO — Aisha Mustafa, a 19-year-old student at Egypt’s Sohag University, has recently developed a new propulsion system based on quantum theory that could power space probes and satellites. Although grateful to her university for helping her to patent the idea, Mustafa laments its limited resources.
“Only departments of astronomy and physics were available,” said Mustafa in a morning TV show called Sabah El Kheir Ya Masr (Good Morning Egypt). “Although they are related to space sciences, unfortunately, they can’t practically test or implement it.”
Although Arab university investment in science is generally weak, over the last few years, global technology giants like Google and Intel — as well as a growing number of local companies — have stepped in to encourage innovation.
While some of these companies invested in education before the Arab uprisings, more companies seem to see a growing market ahead. In the last two years, technology companies have been doling out more scholarships, sponsoring more competitions and otherwise showing interest in outreach to students and universities.
“Definitely, there are more educational initiatives now,” says Wael Massoud, a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the consulting firm.
“Education is one of the market channels.”
Says Christopher Schroeder, a technology investor and author of Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East. “Every tech company I’ve met with talks now not only about market share, but how to support and integrate with local communities from education to ecosystem building. It is a combination of great local initiatives growing and expanding, increasing recognition of local companies to embrace CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives and global players doing the same.”
But there is more at stake than good public relations for the technology companies, who are seeking their share of the fast-growing Arab internet and mobile-technology markets.
Increasingly, universities are an important venue for the companies to engage a key demographic of students and professors, who are frequent users of technology, as well as recruit employees from the university ranks.
“Investing in education is about winning the hearts and minds of a new generation,” says Massoud, of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. “The competitors who are not doing such activities, they don’t have a chance.”
Some observers criticize technology-company educational programs as being too narrow and too focused on subtle and not-so-subtle marketing. “The number of initiatives is increasing, but they [the technology companies] are interested in the major track, which is entrepreneurship,” says Fady Ramzy, a founder of Interact Egypt video production company and IT consultant. “They are not concerned with higher education as a whole.”
Analysts say Google has been at the forefront in the programs, recognizing an opportunity to support Egypt’s educational needs as well as supporting its own brand recognition and market position.
Before the 2011 uprising that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Google moved to increase its presence on university campuses with the Google Student Ambassadors program, which started in Egypt and several other Arab countries that year. In addition to getting training and the prestige of affiliation with a global technology giant, the Google Student Ambassadors play a low-key sales function promoting product use and new product launches and also helping “Google better understand each university’s culture.”
“The aim behind the Google Student Ambassador program and the training for the ambassadors is to find out what students and universities need,” says Maha Abouelenien, head of communications for Google in Middle East and North Africa. “This feedback from the ambassadors is crucial as it helps shape the way our products are tailored to further help and serve students and promote education via the power of the web.”
In 2012, Google selected 234 ambassadors from 70 universities across the region.
Even before Google expanded its educational outreach in the region, Microsoft and Cisco have been investing in education in the region. Cisco Entrepreneur Institute launched in 2009, training graduates and offering workshops on starting a business, job searching and computer literacy.
In partnership with AMIDEAST, an education-focused non-profit organization, Cisco started training centers in Morocco, Lebanon, Oman, Tunisia, and West Bank and Gaza, offering a mix of technology training and job search skills.
Microsoft, one of the early movers in supporting education in the region, has focused on access to technology in addition to training teachers and students. Through its Academic Support Center, Microsoft offers teaching materials and technical support to IT faculty in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Many of the programs are aimed at supporting female entrepreneurs.
“Women are more active in the technology sector in Egypt compared to the U.S. or Western Europe,” says Khaled Ismail, a chairman of Endeavor Egypt, which seeks out and supports “high-impact entrepreneurs.” “You find many employees at technology companies are female and women make up around 30-40% female founders of tech start-ups.”
As a part of the Empowering Women Challenge, Dell launched a new competition open to all university students to arrive at innovative business solutions that empower women. “While the aspiration of women and men may be equal, the barriers to opportunities they face are not,” says Trisa Thompson, vice president of corporate responsibility at Dell. “We’re excited to see how the world’s university communities will propose tackling the challenges facing women today.”
While Dell takes a completely global approach, Intel has a regional gateway– “Intel Business Challenge Middle Eastand North Africa” — to a global contest that it holds in which students strive to create technological applications in areas such as health care, biotechnology, and nanotechnology.
Such programs help the global sponsors who are looking for an educated workforce familiar with regional and global requirements in a region where education itself is acknowledged to be struggling.
“I don’t think anyone has had doubts about gaps not only in university education but in the high school quality which, of course, affects universities terribly,” Schroeder says. “Implementation can’t merely come at the university level — which is why so many start-ups are looking at early education and supplemental skills, such as math and programming.”
Yet the companies’ support of educational programs are inextricably linked to their broader strategies of expansion. Over the past decade, Egypt in particular has become a new frontier for technology development and product launch throughout the region. “Egypt is a populous country with relatively low cost of living,” says Ismail, of Endeavor Egypt. “Acquiring access to a big pool of human talent at low cost is something [multinational companies] always look for.”
As the cost of doing business in China and India has risen significantly, the allure of the Middle East for technology developers has increased as well. “MENA is a fast-growing market,” Ismail notes. “As a late comer in technology, the growth rates are much higher than in mature markets.”
But it is yet to be seen if technology-company investment will spread more broadly in higher education.