Egypt has a once-a-century chance to build an export-led economy that makes us a magnet for foreign direct investment
Readers of a certain age know what “very special issue” means (particularly if you, as a kid, spent any time exposed to “afterschool specials” in the States or Canada): There’s a moral in this morning’s edition. We hope you’ll speak about it with those closest to you before — and while — you attend next week’s three-day Egypt economic conference.
We’re also hoping that some of you will want to help us turn this idea into action. How? For starters, by making a cup of coffee and then giving this morning’s issue a good read. Then, if you agree with us, talk about it non-stop … at next week’s Egypt economic conference. (See a theme emerging here?)
(Oh, and speaking of the conference: Cabinet has yet to make an official statement, but this is the conference website online, including what appears to be a fairly advanced version of an agenda. We understand right now that while cabinet and senior officials from the EGX, FRA and SFE are leading the sessions, other attendees will include heads of industry groups and chambers of commerce, academics, MPs, and select members of the diplomatic community. It’s unclear to us right now how many C-suite execs will be invited.)
SO, HERE’S THE PROBLEM: That IMF package (and devaluation) we’re all sitting here waiting for this week or next? They’re necessary to get us out of the pickle we’re in at the moment — but they’re not sufficient to ensure we won’t be doing this again in five years’ time.
AND THE SOLUTION: Egypt has a once-in-a-century chance to build an export-led economy that will make us a global hotspot for foreign direct investment (FDI). We’ve spoken with some of the smartest people we know in the private sector, and they all agree that it’s not only possible — the recipe is simple. The challenge? Staying laser-focused on execution over a multi-year period, and in doing so, make sure we never again have to ask the IMF for a single red cent.
WHAT WE WANT A PIECE OF: Multinational corporations are scrambling to re-engineer their supply chains all around the world — and we’re a natural partner in that process, says Helmy Ghazi, deputy CEO of HSBC in Egypt. “From energy to manufacturing, countries and major corporations need alternatives. They need to bring production closer to home. They need to lock in reliable energy supplies. And they need to do both things with partners they can count on,” he says.
By virtue of geography, culture, and foreign policy, Egypt is that partner. The question is how fast we can get serious about a handful of industries that experience in other countries can become magnets for FDI, that create meaningful employment, and that turn net importers like us into export powerhouses.
What’s more, we already have a huge base of multinationals here to help us make our business case to their headquarters. That’s to say nothing of the Egyptians working at multinationals across the globe. What out-of-the-box ideas could they bring to the table?
There’s a roadmap already in place: Look no further than what policymakers in India, Morocco and Vietnam have each done in the past decade.
It all revolves around business clusters: Big businesses around the world want a regulatory framework they can count on — and easy access to land, suppliers, energy, talent, and infrastructure. Clusters are geographical concentrations of businesses, suppliers, and associated institutions that create true ecosystems within priority industries — and that plug small and medium-sized businesses into the supply chains of larger entities that are themselves feeding into the global marketplace.
BONUS: By linking SMEs to companies and markets that are otherwise well out of their reach, this approach is also entirely in line with the Sisi administration’s SME development strategy.
Capturing a piece of those global supply chains could change our economic destiny, suggests Simon Kitchen, MD and head of strategy at EFG Hermes Research. “Look at the experience in Vietnam, where they have created single-industry economic zones,” he says. “You see people in low-income jobs suddenly having opportunities to get their heads above water. They save and have disposable income. They invest in education — their own and that of their kids. They buy consumer goods and start to participate in the formal financial system. Then service businesses build up around the zones to serve this emerging middle class. The multiplier is formidable. When you’re a nation of more than 100 mn people, it’s not about the 10k jobs in a given subsector — it’s about the multiplier effect. You want clusters close to centers of population so they can create opportunity for marginally employed people and kick off this virtuous cycle.”
We never should have taken notes on economic policy from … people who don’t get what an economy is all about: It’s time we stop worrying that we need to build everything from
“needles to missiles.” If our competitive advantage is in making needles — and if doing so will generate bns of USD in export sales — let that be our only focus. No nation can escape the need to import.
IN SHORT- Building a (focused) export-oriented economy that is a magnet for global strategic investors is key to making sure we don’t find ourselves five years down the road in the same place as we are today: Grappling with an economic crisis and going hat-in-hand to the IMF and our rich friends asking for help. Our challenge: Building a long-term industrial strategy that is rooted in a deep understanding of our absolute and competitive advantages — and that allows us to become an export powerhouse while pursuing import substitution where doing so makes sense.
So, what do we need to do? We think there are five steps:
Set an audacious long-term goal — say, USD 50 bn in inbound FDI annually by 2033;
Identify no more than five export-oriented industries in which we have clear absolute or competitive advantages. These are our future — full-stop;
Cut red tape. Don’t promise to “get serious” about it. Just do it. If we can digitize the tax man, we can make business formation, permitting, and licensing a simple online process for everyone, regardless of size or industry;
Build a dedicated investment promotion agency that will tell stories that resonate with C-suite leaders around the world. Only by marketing a bankable, investable story tailored to the unique needs of major global corporations will we attract the FDI and know-how to make this work;
Back these five industries no matter what. We exaggerate only slightly when we suggest that other industries effectively cease to matter — if our five horses come in, so, too, will every other sector of the economy.
Focus is the key. Five industries — max. Since 2011, we’ve taken a scattershot approach. We love tire makers. Wait, no, it’s all about import substitution. And maybe automakers (except … not really). The Russian Industrial Zone is perfect. Or maybe we like the Chinese more? Wait, let’s line up bns in investment in green hydrogen and ammonia — ignoring the fact that the US government just drilled a hole in our boat with its production subsidies.
Egypt landed about USD 6.6 bn in FDI in 2010 — and USD 8.9 bn in the 12 months ending June.
We exported goods and services worth USD 46.75 bn in 2010. Last year, that figure stood at USD 44.85 bn.
Folks, the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. But if we get this right — and stick to it over a period of years? It will set the direction of travel for the entire country going forward.
^^ Let’s unpack that, shall we?
#1- SET AN AUDACIOUS LONG-TERM GOAL
The examples are all around us: Apple is assembling iPhones in India. Vietnam is the primary global supplier of Nike and Adidas shoes, the biggest maker of Prada bags, and a major global call center destination. Morocco is a top producer of cars and aerospace components for Europe. Mexico exports more than 90% of its medical devices to the United States and Canada. Taiwan’s exported tech (most of it semiconductors) worth a record USD 446 bn last year — and India is looking to take a piece of that cake.
Their lesson to us: Building an export-led economy is possible — and it is not a multi-generation project. If you have a clear (short) list of priority industries and stick to it, you can integrate with global supply chains in years, not decades. “All of these success stories started with policymakers who took stock of their absolute and competitive advantages, set priorities, and then made sure that everything else that makes FDI possible — laws, incentives, business clusters, the skills of the labor market — is geared to those priority industries,” says Ghazi.
Take India: It doubled inbound FDI in less than eight years — to nearly USD 86 bn in 2021-2022. It should break the USD 100 bn mark this year. How? In collaboration with the private sector, the government identified 15 priority industries and went after them. They slashed red tape. And they created a clear system of export incentives for companies in those industries.
Like the UAE, India wasn’t afraid to dream big: It included a huge USD 10 bn program to build a semiconductor, design, and display ecosystem. That and the promise of the Make in India program were enough that Apple stayed the course on setting up an assembly operation there despite a long tangle with an Indian bureaucracy that could give us tips… The iPhone 14 is being assembled there — and pundits think 25% of all iPhones could come out of India by 2025. Corporate India is now lining up for a piece of the action.
Closer to home, Ghazi notes that “Morocco established itself as a major supplier of cars to Europe and now has a burgeoning electric vehicles industry.” How? It went all-out to land an agreement with Boeing that saw the company create a joint venture in Morocco to make wire bundles for aircraft. That one investment saw Boeing attract dozens of suppliers to industrial parks in Morocco — parks that now serve everyone from Boeing to Airbus and Embraer. From a standing start in the late 1990s, Morocco is now home to more than 140 companies that exported aerospace goods and services worth more than USD 2 bn in 2021 — and that employ more than 20k people.
(The key to unlocking that Boeing transaction? A Moroccan exec at Boeing in Seattle. Ask yourselves, friends: How many of you — or your friends, classmates, former coworkers, relatives — work at global multinationals? Egyptians are literally everywhere. We have the network to bring this plan to life.)
Our seemingly intractable bureaucracy and domestic challenges are no damn excuse… Egypt may have invented bureaucracy, but India raised it to a high art form. Vietnam has a command economy, but somehow leaves the door open for entrepreneurs. Morocco has no more natural competitive advantages than we do.
…and neither is the state of the world around us: From the supply chain snarls that accompanied covid-19 to fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and “Cold War II” between the US and China, a messy geopolitical backdrop is what’s creating room for us to make our play.
SO, ABOUT THAT GOAL? We attracted USD 8.9 bn in FDI in the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Let’s build a program that will let us get to USD 50 bn in the 12 months ending June 2033.
#2- CHOOSE NO MORE THAN FIVE CHAMPIONS
Focus is key, Ghazi and Kitchen agree. We had a (much more) focused investment promotion program pre-2011, when Mahmoud Mohieldin was investment minister. It wasn’t perfect, but back then Egypt prioritized FDI in just a dozen sectors that included business process outsourcing, tech, petrochemicals and automotive, among others. (We know: We helped the good people at the ministry build the material they took on the road to promote the priority industries.) It doesn’t matter what industries were on that nearly two-decade-old list; it matters that the list was focused.
“Egypt’s approach has been too broad rather than focused on building clusters of companies in a limited number of sectors and has been going on in the absence of an ambitious FDI target. There have, in many ways, been too many industrial zones and too little focus,” says Kitchen. “There are plenty of opportunities for countries like Egypt to zero in on a handful of manufacturing industries and thereby bring in genuine FDI.”
“Egypt has both absolute and competitive advantages that will help us narrow down the list of industries we prioritize,” says Ghazi. “Nobody in the world has the mix of tourism attractions we do — from beaches and corals to monuments, adventure, and medical tourism. That’s an absolute advantage. On the competitive advantages side of the ledger, we have our location, energy surplus, and large, trainable, semi-skilled workforce. Everything we do should be geared toward supporting industries that benefit from these advantages.”
Look at what Turkey has done to bring in USD from its tourism assets: It can never compare to the historical + leisure or adventure + historical packages that we could offer, but has still formulated a strong product to which it drives attention with a great airport, outstanding shopping and food experiences, and a great transportation network. How? It made the conscious decision to turn tourism into a hallmark of its economy.
The result: Turkey is aiming to net some USD 37 bn in tourism receipts this year from 47 mn visitors (both off from the pre-pandemic peak). Our high water mark? It was USD 13 bn in revenues from 13.1 mn visitors in 2019.
How does that process start? “Tourism is an obvious export sector for Egypt. Outside that, we should begin by looking at the supply chains that we can reach thanks to our natural competitive advantages,” Ghazi says, “That starts with our geographic location. In many ways, we are literally at the center of the world — particularly if your ‘world’ is focused on selling into Europe, the Gulf, and Africa, with perhaps the US and parts of Asia within reach.”
Kitchen agrees, saying it’s not too late even to make automobiles a priority a decade after we ceded the playing field to the Moroccans. “Our proximity to the Gulf, to Southeastern Europe, and East Africa make vehicle assembly here absolutely possible. It’s not too late.”
In choosing those industries, we need to aim higher: “I live in Europe and regularly see Egyptian products in stores,” says Kitchen, “but unfortunately what I see are cut flowers and fresh fruit — basic goods. And it should really be electronics. And why not? It’s the same argument: You’re a natural, low-cost assembler and manufacturer right next to the GCC, to Southern Europe, right there in the corner of Africa.”
And we also need to look at services — not just goods, says Kitchen. “Services always seem to come second: We talk of ‘goods and services,’ not the other way round; in a classic current account table, goods come first, then services. But we really should get away from that — technology and ease of travel mean you can export a lot of services. You can name them as well as I can — tourism, yes, but also medical care, outsourcing, IT development, call centers, et cetera. There is often a bias towards exports of goods because you can see them — big auto plants, or fields of crops for export, or semiconductor factories. But services bring in the same money that goods do.”
Does all of this mean we hate, say, retail? Not at all. As BTECH CEO Mahmoud Khattab recently pointed out, retailers like his have created jobs this year — many manufacturers have been retrenching. But imagine how much more interesting the retail landscape would be if more products on shelves were made here (not all, just some). And if a steady inflow of USD from FDI and exports kept stores stocked with the latest from Apple and Mercedes — and BYD and Oppo. Imagine how much more money there would be to make in retail if more people had jobs that paid living wages? What if we were the Arab world’s largest consumer market not just by number of consumers (as we are today), but by the value of that market (as KSA is presently, by some measures)?
#3- CREATE A WELCOMING ENVIRONMENT
The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report is dead, but we need to behave like we’re in a competition for the #1 spot. “Because we are,” Ghazi says, pointing to the success Morocco had with the “active and highly efficient” Agence Marocaine de Développement des Investissements. It put the country on the map with European carmakers and has since rebranded itself as the Moroccan Investment and Exports Agency. The name says it all.
“The agency focused on driving meaningful, visible reforms that reassured investors about their ability to integrate Morocco into their global production networks,” he says. (On that note: Egypt’s geographical advantage is even more pronounced than Morocco’s.)
Morocco planned and then built a world-scale automotive hub in Tangiers and surrounded it with industrial parks, roadways and railroads that now help it ship more than 300k cars last year worth more than USD 8 bn to markets including Spain, Portugal and France.
“The takeaways from Morocco are clear: Foreign investors are more concerned about the business climate, transport and logistics infrastructure, and access to skilled labor than they are with subsidies, tax breaks, or subsidized production inputs,” says Ghazi. Adds Kitchen: “What they want on the regulatory piece is stability over the long run.”
It’s the same story in India: 15 priority industries and 2-3% export incentives are nice. Nicer still: India made it easier to hire and fire people. It cut corporate taxes, and made it easier for businesses to bid for government contracts. The default answer from bureaucrats is now “Yes” unless they can present a clear, compelling answer to why it should be “No.” India is digitizing everything — we’re doing that here when it comes to the government collecting taxes and fees. But in India (and the UAE), meaningful government approvals and services are delivered online.
The key: Ask businesses in those five priority industries what they want. “Morocco did that with the automotive industry. Vietnam sat down with big players in tech and consumer electronics such as Samsung,” says Kitchen.
And it’s not just the government that needs to get with the program: The private sector does, too. Vietnam has been the primary supplier of Nike shoes since 2010, it’s the top supplier to Adidas, and its apparel manufacturing industry is the fastest-growing in the world, making it a top-five global producer of clothing. How did they get there? Factories are nimble and entrepreneurial: They’ll take on smaller orders just to land more business down the road.
And don’t forget about training: Morocco has institutes that train people for the aerospace and automotive industries, Ghazi notes. And the private sector can step in where the government doesn’t, says Kitchen: “One of the Vietnamese companies that we like in outsourcing has its own education program to feed staff into the industry and they get about half of their staff from their own university. We see others in Pakistan doing similar things as well as reaching out to the diaspora for globally experienced talent.”
#4- BUILD A REAL INVESTMENT PROMOTION AGENCY
GAFI fulfills a critical function as a regulator — but regulation and promotion are very different skillsets. We need an investment promotion agency with a singular mission: Get big global companies to set up shop here in our (no more than) five priority industries. Look at the quality of the folks running India’s National Investment Promotion and Facilitation Agency, better known as Invest India. They’ve got private-sector and industry-specific experience. They’re educated at the best schools at home and abroad. They’ve spent time at big names including EY, Google, Tata. They speak the language of the industries they’re promoting to foreign investors — and they’re plugged into the bureaucracy with the clout they need to get things done.
Telling the CEO of a global corporation, “We’re open to FDI,” and then talking about broad reforms or initiatives s/he doesn’t relate to is so vague as to make the meeting utterly meaningless. We need to show up in their offices with a clear, defined pitch: “This is what we’re doing in your industry to make Egypt a perfect logistics and manufacturing hub for your company. How can we help you make an informed decision?”
And it’s not like we lack the talent. Corporate teams at Egyptian banks are full of these people. Same with the investment banks — and at plenty of corporates across a wide range of industries. And they’ll serve if we give them the incentives they need: Look no further than the quality of the team that’s building the Sovereign Fund of Egypt.
In fact, Invest India is a great model. It was brought to life by Deepak Bagla, a former Citibank investment banker, who convinced young Indian professionals to come home — and take 30-70% pay cuts — to staff the company. There are 300 of them, and their average age is just 30.
Would a private-sector investment promotion agency work? If we want the best people to convince C-suite execs around the world to invest in and export from Egypt, we need to pay them appropriately. Sure, we could go the route pioneered by the Nazif cabinet and line up donor agencies to pay salaries for “consultants” who fulfill government roles. But maybe a more durable solution would be to create a private sector-owned and -run agency that is endowed by the private sector through donations that should be converted directly into tax credits.
A private-sector-backed agency is effectively what India did: The government owns 49% of the agency, with industry associations holding 51% — enough, under Indian law, that it is run as a private company. It doesn’t charge fees to its clients (the foreign investors it advises) and judges its success by the proportion of its investment pipeline that gets turned into real FDI on the ground. It knows what we all know: That hot money is not going to create meaningful jobs and sustainable economic growth.
IN PARALLEL: We need a regulator that is clearly empowered from the top to slash red tape regardless of which ministry “owns” any given approval.
#5- BACK THOSE INDUSTRIES NO MATTER WHAT
We need to stay focused — for years, not months. We, as a nation, find things like that challenging. Unlike our cousins in the UAE, we have a tendency to lurch from idea to idea, expecting instant gratification — and too often losing interest when that doesn’t happen. As with all humans, our last great idea is sometimes from whoever was most recently in our office.
Instead, we need to be patient. Choose no more than five industries. Build the programs (and the agency) that will bring global players here. Move obstacles out of the way of business. And build.
Someone will inevitably appear on Amr Adib’s show half-way through year one, bellowing that his / her sector is “dying” because they’re not getting the same treatment as Industry “X” or “Y.” There is only one acceptable answer in that case: “Toz.” If the best and brightest in the country can agree that we have 2 / 3 / 5 priority industries — sectors that will drive economic growth, create jobs and bring in steady FX receipts through both FDI and exports? Well, friends, to borrow from my Papa: A rising tide floats all boats.
The tide won’t come in overnight, but it will turn — we’ve seen it in Morocco. In Vietnam. In Bangladesh. The key is to stay the course, Ghazi says. “Smart investors know not to check their portfolios daily, but quarterly or yearly. That’s the same tempo on which we should judge progress on an FDI and exports drive.”
PATIENCE IS GREAT, BUT WE ALSO NEED TO MOVE *FAST*
Every emerging market (and a whole bunch of have-less states / provinces / regions in the rich world) is positioning itself as the next great export hub. We have tons of advantages: A huge domestic market. Plentiful energy. Smart, trainable people. A phenomenal geographic location.
“But the simple fact of the matter is competition is fierce, and time is short,” says Ghazi. Blacksmith International, the supply chain and manufacturing consultants, don’t even list us on a survey of “top alternatives to manufacturing in China.” Who makes the list? Vietnam, Bangladesh, India and Mexico.
THAT MAKES NEXT WEEK’S CONFERENCE KEY
When we gather next week, let’s not waste time talking about FX, L/C vs. documentary collection, import substitution, energy prices, the “evils” of a capital gains tax on EGX trades or any of the usual topics.
The Madbouly government is pulling in some of the best and brightest people in the country. It says it wants to listen. We think an export- and FDI-led growth strategy is key to ensuring we’re not again crying in our cups three or four years down the road.
Five steps. No more than five industries. Who’s in?
We’re looking for folks who share our views to help us keep the conversation going. Reply to this email or ping a note to firstname.lastname@example.org — particularly if you’re a multinational or an Egyptian manufacturer.