Why this Egyptian engineer ditched a prolific Silicon Valley career to honor Egypt’s dead

The most universal of human experiences is, sadly, the passing of a loved one. Sooner or later, one has to go through the dreadful undertaking of bidding someone they dearly love sweet farewell. When that happens, of course, the last that anyone wants to encounter is a stifling bureaucracy and a chaotic procedure, but unfortunately, that’s what tends to happen in Egypt, leaving those in grief little time or energy to properly and gracefully say goodbye.

This grim experience was what Ahmed Gaballah, founder of the Sokna – Egypt’s first end-to-end funeral service provider that just raised $1 million in funding two weeks ago – went through back in the mid-2000s after the parent of a close friend passed away. Then a student of business and computer science at the American University in Cairo, Gaballah was traumatized at the neglect and chaos the experience had been, adding layers of suffering to the family of his friend who were already shouldering the heavy weight of grieving their father. The harrowing experience dissuaded Gaballah from attending any funeral for the next decade, haunted by what he felt was a dishonorable way to go.

Upon graduation, Gaballah took off to the states and, after a brief period of working as a horse trainer, began a career in Silicon Valley, working for the biggest names in the tech industry, from Google, Adobe, all the way to Facebook. One day, he was once again faced with harrowing reality of death in the most surprising way.

“One day, a real estate agent who was also a friend helped me find and purchase property in San Francisco, and I soon after invited him and the house’s previous owners to celebrate over brunch,” recounts Gaballah. “He didn’t show up, and shockingly, it turned out that he had passed away the same day he gave me the keys. I couldn’t have missed the funeral, and it was a completely different experience.”

‘Well organized, humane, and respectful,” is how Gabllah described the funeral. “In a way I was happy for him. The next day I felt quite jealous at the lack of such quality in Egypt and similar countries. This is supposed to be a right for anyone; it shouldn’t be a big deal. Everyone should be able to have a respectful journey to the grave. Why is this so complicated?” He wondered.

It was then and there that Gaballah decided to wrap up his tech journey and make his way back to Egypt, determined to find a solution to this problem that anyone and everyone suffers from. After more than a decade in a prolific tech career, he set sail for Egypt armed with a mission.

“I came back to Egypt in 2019 to do preliminary studies and research. I went straight from the airport to Shoubra and Imbaba to get to know the undertakers already working in the field,” Gaballah explained.

“I spent almost three months just getting to know them and their daily workflow and the kind of issues they encounter, because for every story there are two sides; one is the customer’s side and the other is the one of the undertakers running an official mortician business. To understand more about the customer’s side, I attended a bunch of funerals to start understanding more what the ‘pain points’ for them are.”

Reinventing the wheel he did not; Honorable and hassle-free funeral procedures existed elsewhere; what he set out to do was to localize these procedures to fit Egypt’s local market. And so the next step on his journey was to check out other markets who have mastered this process.

“I then traveled to a bunch of different countries like Singapore, Malaysia, and many other markets in Asia, to see how they do things, and then came back and started the company in March 2019,” he recounted. “The first year was spent in research and trialing. In 2020 we officially launched.”

After figuring out all the details, researching, recruiting, and trialing, Gaballah and his team were left with one crucial question; how to land their first customer?

“We did everything you can imagine to figure out how to go to market. We would literally go around in the street with a card promoting our service. We tried many other things; went to mosques; churches and many other places, until we found out that the best way to do this is to go where the need is which is usually at hospitals,” explained Gaballah.

“So we went to one hospital and basically persuaded a mourning family to use our service; this was our first client. At that point we had studied everything so it went smoothly. We went from there to do 52 burials that we just used for educational purposes to keep refining the process – fast forward to today and we’ve just crossed the 2500 burials, have 50+ team members on the ground, and have reached operational efficiency that enables us to do 15 burials within one hour.”

For the end-user, aka grieving family or person, the experience is as simple as making one phone call to Sokna’s call center and then having everything sorted for them, from place of burial, location of prayer, cleaning, funeral organization, and even as far as giveaway booklets and seats and umbrellas at the burial sites. A recent service they’ve added is pre-planning the whole thing for oneself or for their loved ones. The packages start from the basic one at EGP 4500 up to premium, which starts at EGP 9000. This poses the question, is this niche service meant for the financially-abled?

“Our mission is to help everyone; this is not a service for a certain socioeconomic class. This is why we have different types of packages so that people can find what they need and afford. Our basic package is actually cheaper than or equal to if the family decided to go through the process alone,” explained Gabllah.

“A very important point here is that customers know how much they’re paying and, unlike the traditional way of doing things, that there are zero hidden fees. In the traditional way of doing this, you’d almost always come across hidden fees whether its tips or anything of that sort, and it usually involves a lot of back and forth while this is supposed to be the time that people focus on their goodbyes and really have their final moments with their loved ones.”

Thus far, Sokna only offers its services to customers who intend to either start or end the process in greater Cairo, but with funds coming in and Gaballah’s tech background, he intends to take it further.

“We’re planning to expand on a geographical level; we want to help people in different cities than Greater Cairo. We also see massive opportunity to enable a lot of processes by using technology and we think we can build something that makes the whole process easier and smoother. We have big room to improve the service and scale it with the use of technology.”

**All photos courtesy of Sokna.**

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