He helped in particular to launch and popularise “El Mashrou3”, a reality-TV show promoting entrepreneurship to a mass-market audience in Egypt, with successful developments in other emerging markets such as India, Pakistan, Jordan, Bangladesh, Kenya and Philippines.
The innovation here lies in the target audience of these shows, which helps a mass-market of young, dynamic populations to discover how to solve social issues while doing business, a key element for emerging markets to design their own solutions to local challenges.
In this interview, Asim Haneef shares the journey accomplished so far and what’s next for his organization and himself.
Reaching a mass-audience in the emerging markets through a TV show
Can you tell us a bit more about your experience so far, and what lead you to create El Mashrou3?
I was born in London and grew up in the UK, and early enough recognised that what we called “the media” was influential in most of our daily conversations.
I asked myself how to harness such a power to educate and inspire change and help people solve social issues all over the world.
I got in touch with about 200 media companies at the time, offering them to discuss this topic, got almost as many negative replies, but made it to work for a production company, then Bloomberg, and then at the BBC as a researcher.
I eventually became a producer for Al Jazeera English, exploring social and political topics, and helped develop Activate, a series about change makers across the world, with the first stories coming from Pakistan, Sudan, China and India.
You say that “unscripted programming” is one of the key of the programs, can you tell us more about it?
We wanted a show that ordinary people in Egypt could relate to – and that’s not a super-polished studio show, it’s something raw, gritty and real – which is what reality TV during a revolution is all about.
After discussing with a few people in the field, we decided to launch a pilot for Egypt, a country with a very high unemployment rate among the youth, and who was at the time [around 2011] on the verge of a huge change with the Arab Uprisings.
The idea was both to showcase change makers to a wide audience, and to create a platform to connect an ecosystem of organizations, thought leaders, entrepreneurs and media.
El Mashrou3 season #1: 13 episodes, 1 winning team
So you take the codes of TV-reality with an entrepreneurial twist?
Yes, the show is a competition-based TV-reality show with 13 episodes, each of one hour, with a new key topic for entrepreneurs addressed each time.
Judges of the episode would set a challenge, and two teams try solve it in a way which makes sense from a social impact and business perspective.
One of the topic was for instance: “One of Cairo’s biggest problems is trash. We would like you, in 48 hours, to use the trash and waste to develop a sustainable business model and then go out and sell what you’ve made on the streets.”
What’s special about El Mashrou3 is the impact. We have teamed with groups such as universities and impact evaluation organizations to assess the real-world social changes of a show designed for a mass audience.
On top of the TV show itself, we create social media communities and on the ground connections to drive change after each episode, through connections with incubators, accelerators, funding organizations and mentors.
The winning team goes to the next episode, a bit like in Shark Tank, and the losing team leaves the show, all in a positive way. No “you’re fired” here, but rather an encouragement to continue their project out of the broadcast itself, and they have in any case gained quite a few useful connections in the entrepreneurial community to make it happen.
The winner of the season gets a cash prize to help build the business and a support from key players of the ecosystem.
Creating an impact: El Mashrou3 on social media and on the ground
How do you connect whatever you do on TV with the online world? Do you provide excerpts on Youtube for instance?
Yes – we do competitions, make original short clips, connect people to VC’s, incubators, co-working spaces, resources, organise big mentorship events – there’s a huge online community on Facebook El Mashrou3 of over a million people we’ve generated that we continue to support – the show is meant to support the start-up ecosystem.
So far in terms of impact for the first season of El Mashrou3 in 2013-2014 we had 3 to 4 million viewers per episode, which makes it the 5th most popular show on Al Nahar, itself one of the biggest TV network in Egypt. On social media, we gathered about 30 million views and 270 millions impressions on Facebook.
You told us that beyond the show itself, you did a lot of roadshows and events to meet your audience. What it’s like in Egypt, for instance? What people ask you for?
Same problems everywhere – lack of access to capital, need for mentors, need for spaces to find team and co-founders etc – obviously all in the middle of a challenging political environment.
We also organised an “Entrepreneurship Bus Tour” with the winners in several cities in Egypt such as Alexandria and Mansoura to help create a connection with local audiences and would-be entrepreneurs.
After Egypt and Afghanistan, El Mashrou3 heading for South and South-East Asia
Your website indicates Egypt and Afghanistan as the first territories that saw your show run. In each case, it seems to have been quite a success. How does it measure with other TV shows?
Much better! A lot of TV shows with any educational value go out at weird times on odd channels – we focus VERY hard to make sure we go out prime time on a big TV network, reaching millions of people with big online presence and celebrities involved too.
In Egypt for instance we have beaten popular shows such as Dancing with the Stars.
We localise and adapt based on country needs – we do this by having ‘Change Labs’ with the community to understand how we can have an impact – it’s like an act of co-creation and co-design that way.
What are your plans for 2015? You’re with us in Bangladesh today and I think you have quite a lot of meetings? Where will the show run next year? And in 5 years?
We are looking at Pan-Arab version shot in Jordan but including Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians too – and also a version in India.
We are also keen on developing either this show or a variation of a ‘social change’ format in India and the Philippines. The 5-year plan is to create media that responds to social and environmental challenges and has an impact in motivating and inspiring viewers, especially the youth.