Food and beverage carts in New Cairo: The challenges and pitfalls

Photo: Facebook/@CafeUpEgypt

A short drive around just a few of New Cairo’s main causeways will show no shortage of street carts selling a variety of foods and beverages.

While such sights are an inextricable part of the urban fabric of Egypt’s towns and cities, their presence in relatively new desert satellite cities such as New Cairo still feel somewhat unfamiliar and strange, despite their frequency. New Cairo has its fair share of traditional fuul and koshari carts, along with many more expensive carts that mostly cater to middle and high-income Egyptians, selling burgers, crepes, sandwiches and Italian coffee freshly brewed from Italian-made espresso machines.

How legal are these carts, though? What do their owners and operators think of the current legal situation and the bureaucratic procedures of formalizing? And what do they think should be done? Business Forward investigates.

Back in May 2018, the Egyptian parliament approved a draft law to regulate the establishment and operation of food carts. Egypt Today reported that the law would allow the “sale, preparation and cooking of food from mobile food units under a license issued by the local administration authorities and the bodies concerned with the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA).” It also stipulated that the license to operate these carts will cost no more than LE5,000 a year to keep and will exempt them from paying profit taxes for their first three years.

However, according to another report from The Globe Post published later the same month, the parliament’s Local Management Committee made a final decision on a fee not exceeding LE20,000 annually, in exclusive statements to the United States-based publication.

To add even more confusion, Hala Aboul Saad, the deputy of the parliament’s Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) Committee, told Business Forward at the time that “carts owners mistakenly believe that they will pay LE10,000 to obtain the license. This is not true; they will pay according to many factors including the neighborhood they operate in and the fees will start from LE200.”

Speaking to Business Forward, Mahmoud Salah, an owner and operator of an unlicensed coffee and beverage cart close to Rehab, says these laws are by no means applied on a national level and are in fact up to local authorities to interpret and enforce in whichever manner they see fit. “Each [local authority] has their own law […] and New Cairo has banned carts like mine,” he says.

High-ranking officials who hold positions of authority in four of New Cairo’s districts were contacted for details about the procedures one would have to go through to legally open and operate a street cart. One very swiftly said to apply for a permit at the offices of the New Cairo City Authority (Gehaz al Madinah). The other three said that the authority has completely stopped issuing permits altogether.

When asked for more information, one claimed they are in the planning stages of opening a “Share’ Masr” in the far flung district of the Third Settlement. Share’ Masr is a government initiative which allocates a pedestrianized street exclusively for the operation of food and beverage carts, and carries with it a fixed monthly rent and age restrictions of 21 to 35 years, intended to assist with high youth unemployment.

One of these officials said that the New Cairo authorities ceased issuing permits around six months ago and that all the currently existing carts are either operating with licenses issued from before, or their licenses have expired, or do not have a license at all. When asked him why the authorities stopped issuing new licenses, he said they did not want New Cairo to turn into “’ashwa’iyat,” an Egyptian colloquial term for urban areas built informally and inhabited by low-income and poor Egyptians.

He went on to say that there is a lot of confusion and a lack of clarity of information regarding the area’s plans for establishing a Share’ Masr project.

The New Cairo City Authority could not be reached for comment on the matter.

Ahmed*, who operates a beverage cart says that he has already done much of the paperwork yet is still awaiting their final processing to obtain the full license. What has helped him to continue staying on the street doing business is his close relative (who owns the cart) who happens to be a high-ranking government official, able to pull some strings for him, he admits.

Mohamed*, a fuul cart owner, does not have a license and says the main problem with these permits is that the authorities decide on the location yet will only approve of locations in sparsely populated or almost empty areas. Any locations which would guarantee regular customers and even a small profit, are never permitted.

He also cites the complex procedures which require visiting multiple offices and paying multiple fees with every visit. “I would be paying fees here and there,” Mohamed says. Due to his unlicensed status, his equipment is consistently confiscated by the authorities, after which he needs to pay a fine to repatriate it. Mohamed is illiterate and unable to get a formal job. Being the eldest sibling in his family, he is relied upon to support them with his fuul cart business. Despite the fines he pays, “doing this job costs me less than getting an education,” he says, emphasizing that all other fuul carts operate without a license and only do so to make a living and help them make ends meet.

Mohamed also says the fees required to operate legally are unfair on businesses such as his. “I do not always make enough per month to meet what the authorities ask for,” citing the fixed amount of monthly fees current regulations stipulate, as opposed to being calculated as a percentage of income.

To make things smoother and easier for everyone, he suggests that there should be a one-stop shop where one can obtain all the necessary approvals and licensing. Mohamed also says he would be fully willing to pay taxes if they were calculated more justly and based on a percentage of income.

Sherif* operates an unlicensed koshari cart in New Cairo and says that if the processes were a lot more straightforward and easy, he would definitely go through with them. Mostafa*, his colleague, says their only motive to work in the area is to earn a living. “We come here from Sohag and Fayoum and [other governorates] to make ends meet, that is all,” he says.

When asked what he would suggest to improve the current situation, Sherif’s answers suggest that the loosening up of regulations will assist with the unemployment problem and keep people out of poverty. “In my opinion, they should just leave us to earn a living […] If someone cannot work on the street, how are they going to eat? There are no jobs. If you take away their cart, they will resort to theft.”

Salah, the coffee vendor who works close to Rehab, says the only piece of paperwork he has that allows him to operate is a permit from the electricity company to use the power source in his current location. “It dictates where I can get [the electricity I need] from, not where I can stand specifically,” he says. Every time inspectors from the electricity company pass by, after initially assuming that Salah is stealing the electricity, he shows them this permit and they move along.

He says that while initiatives such as Share’ Masr are conceptually good, their problem is that they are not placed in profitable areas, which are usually streets far away from routes busy with commuters. If his cart was in a typical Share’ Masr location, “they are not going to come all the way to me in a street at the end of the world to drink a cup of coffee,” he emphasizes.  Locations such as the one Salah chooses to sell in have a constant flow of commuters who stop by to buy their beverages on the way to their final destinations. “This is why my cart is located in this area,” he insists.

Asking him if he would pay taxes within a formalized and regulated system, Salah says he would be relieved at such a prospect. “I wish!” he exclaims.

*Names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.

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