New cities and expansions of existing ones, slum elimination, upgrading and establishment of new road connections, and construction of new housing schemes for middle and low-income groups are all transforming the infrastructure of Egypt. Changing social fabrics and consumer behavior are influencing where and how people work and live.
In addition to the ambitious New Capital City megaproject, 45 new cities are in the plan of the Egyptian government, largely to accommodate the steady population growth. In Cairo, it is hard to miss the rapid changes in the city’s spatial structure, seemingly easing traffic off the traditionally congested parts and attracting more activity away from the center. But have you ever wondered what would be the future of the old neighborhoods of Cairo and other cities witnessing those modern extensions? Being an enthusiast for old and authentic places, I know I surely have.
Eager to learn about how a graceful old downtown building has turned into a buzzing tech-savvy co-working space carrying the name ‘Consoleya’ (Arabic for ‘consulate’), got me all the way to meet its co-founding partner Hanan Abdelmeguid, who is also a leader in the IT field, and founder of Cairo-based venture Kamelizer.
I stepped out of the Uber car that took me from the modern outskirts of the city that are increasingly filled with half-empty gated communities, and into the beating heart of the country’s capital: Cairo’s downtown, where everything looks, smells and feels like Egypt. The busy streets are home to European-style buildings of over a century old, as well as hundreds of shops, offices and clinics, some keeping their vintage displays and some struggling to catch up with time. Cars, bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians are crossing by iconic coffees shops, cinemas, and local restaurants. Nearby still sit the scattered buildings of the old American University Cairo (AUC) campus, where thousands of leaders and changemakers over the past 100 years were once students. Still playing a part in the ecosystem of Cairo’s downtown, two of those buildings have transformed into ‘The Greek Campus’ that hosts a large startup community, and ‘Tahrir Cultural Center’ offering a platform for art and cultural activities.
Reconnecting people to the center
Consoleya building is a beautiful eye-catching white building aged more than 95 years, located on a side street near Talaat Harb square. The building has been acquired by Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment in 2014, after which it was renovated and re-introduced as a versatile workplace environment in 2021, collaborating with Kamelizer.
The co-founder and managing partner of Consoleya, Hanan Abdel Meguid, has a huge passion for downtown Cairo, and believes that it holds the cultural spirit of Egypt and its reality. “This is the place where I feel I am integrated to the society and not isolated [from it],” she shares, as we sit for two cups of good coffee in the building’s ground floor cafeteria.
Abdel Meguid also explains that from a logistical side, downtown is convenient when you are working and meeting with people from other governorates or who are living closer to the center. Downtown is a great connection point between different parts of the city, and being a transportation hub, also connects with other governorates. “I am a great believer in the value proposition of downtown,” she says, “but the issue is that it lacked the services that cater to the needs of a modern work environment.” That is what lead Abdel Meguid to partner with real estate company Al Ismaeliya to establish El Consoleya- a world-class co-working space with an embedded cultural feel to it.
Originally home to the French consulate, the four-storey building incorporates modern office design in private and shared meeting rooms, lounges, halls, terraces and an elegant rooftop. It also retains some of the historic elements of the building’s previous function, like the beautiful staircase and a vintage meeting hall with some pieces of well-preserved furniture that have been merged with the new setting.
A cause in mind
The entrepreneurship scene today is vibrant in Egypt, including many social entrepreneurs endeavoring with projects and offerings that have a social case behind them. “They cannot afford fancy meeting rooms in hotels, but they still need an appropriate venue to hold an event,” says Abdel Meguid, “so we offer them the room rental for free and they could just pay for coffee breaks and other event expenses if the event is not aiming for profit.”
Allowing young companies to act like big companies is Consoleya’s brand promise. Just like the big corporates, small businesses, startups and even freelancers could have a well-equipped office to land on after on-site visits or meetings in different locations, as well as a reception to receive their collaborators and guests, and meeting spaces of various sizes to hold their meetings and events. For individual consultants and freelancers who do not have the luxury of a working space at home and need a separation between home and office, this is a perfect solution.
The facility provides a range of packages that allow their clients to mix and match the services that meet their business’s requirements from day passes to monthly subscriptions to use meeting spaces. Bookings of private spaces, shared spaces, meeting rooms, event revenues can all be managed through an app equipped with a credit-based system. “It is a plug and play solution,” Abdel Meguid says.
Customers who use El Consoleya also benefit of being part of a community and from the potential synergies and connections that happen from potential interaction with other companies, freelancers, and independent consultants. “When the lawyer, the creative, the artist and the consultant meet, you never know the possibilities that can happen,” reflects Abdel Meguid.
Interior design with a purpose
The launching of Consoleya coincided with the coining of the term hybrid work, as knowledge workers struggled with COVID-19 implications on the world of work. The concept of the office is redefined; workers no longer need to be working from the office every day, and they do not need to be working at the same hours, which allowed for the ‘share economy’ model that co-working spaces is built on, a trend that is likely to continue.
“Because this is a shared space and rented by several end users, we could afford carefully-selected top notch and perhaps pricey office setting to optimize the work environment,” says Abdel Meguid. She explains that this includes details like comfortable chairs specially designed for long sitting hours, to desks made out of non-stain wood, etc. Today office-based work and effective collaboration takes different formats according to purpose and function, which are not fixed as Abdel Meguid explains. “The interior designer we worked with, Hesham Ghorab of Style Design, brought in his exposure to the “science of the office” to create a variety of options to meet different work needs.”
Consoleya experience is like going back in time but enjoying world-class technology and perks of modern life, including energy-saving air-conditioning and LED-lighting systems and full accessibility.
The share model makes such distinctive offerings viable for the business. The shared resources also include the Consoleya staff working at the reception, those responsible for cleaning and maintenance, as well as those managing the coffee corners availed in the common areas of each floor. “This is where technology comes in, to help us manage the traffic on these facilities to serve our clients,” she continues.
Abdel Meguid believes that time has proven that a combination of both remote and office working is the best of both worlds and is there to stay, hence changing the parameters companies look at when considering office spaces and their costs. The ‘satellite’ offices facilitated by Consoleya are helping medium sized companies of 20-40 people who work in a mostly hybrid manner.
Abdel Meguid’s background as an entrepreneur who fully understands the needs of all the types of customers has proven helpful in developing Consoleya’s offerings in a very agile manner, allowing customers to scale up or scale down their packages as needed.
Replicating the experience
As the city expands towards the east and west, “the government now has a vested interest in finding transformation propositions for old buildings,” Abdel Meguid explains, mentioning the example of how the Sovereign Fund of Egypt led a bid to revamp the historical Tahrir Complex (Mogamma El-Tahrir).
“We will not allow heritage to die. How do we create projects that bring people back? [Projects in downtown need to] bring back culture, tourism, hospitality and entertainment,” commented Abdalla El Ebiary, chief investment officer of the Sovereign Fund of Egypt (SFD) referring to Cairo’s downtown, in an event organized by the AUC Alumni Office in June 2022 to discuss investment opportunities in Egypt. El Ebiary mentioned that as the new capital attracts government offices and ministries, the SFD will be looking into solutions for these buildings.
Besides Consoleya, Al Ismaelia for Real Estate Investment is working on the renovation and revival of 25 other buildings in downtown Cairo. In a previous interview with El Arabeya, Karim El Shafei, CEO of the company explained that the company is using its own capital, in addition to financing from the European Bank for a total of EGP 145 million.
“El Ismaileya are pioneers in this exercise of preserving old neighborhoods and keeping business activity in them, which has been the vision of its CEO Karim El Shafei for years,” commented Abdel Meguid, “We get visits from other companies and entities interested in similar investments, which are all promising signs that a snowball effect could be created. With the right collaboration we could be seeing downtown Cairo like those of European capitals,” she continued.
I finally asked Abdel Meguid about how she feels about such rising competition, and her reply was that more similar offerings support her objective of reviving downtown and attracting people and business to it, thus growing the pie.