Egypt stifles its own progress with bureaucracy

They say that necessity is the mother of invention.

And indeed, in Egypt, a succession of government screw-ups over the past few decades have created an extraordinary array of necessities.

Fortunately, a new generation of Egyptian innovators is coming along with an equally extraordinary array of ideas to help plug these necessities. The government could help them with a bit of support in some areas, but otherwise by simply getting out of the way.

One of these private innovators is the education company Nafham. Egypt’s state education system has been in gradual collapse, with teachers, seeking to top up their incomes, deserting their classrooms and instead demanding that students pay substantial fees for private tutoring. It’s often near to impossible to succeed on tests unless a student agrees.

This is where Nafham has stepped in, creating a series of online videos linked to the government curriculum that it gives to students for free, letting anyone with access to a computer bypass dodgy and expensive private tutors.

Another example is Fawry, the electronics payment system launched in 2010, that allows Egyptians with no bank accounts to pay telephone, electricity, water and other bills without standing in long queues.

But perhaps one of the most exciting of the innovations is a new, almost instantaneous test for hepatitis C now being commercialised by D-Kimia, an American University of Cairo spinoff company.

The test, not to be confused with the much-derided kofta gun that was announced by the government a year-and-a- half ago, was developed by Hassan Azzazy, a chemistry professor at AUC.

Hepatitis C has infected some 170 million people worldwide, but is particularly acute in Egypt, especially in rural areas, where unsterilised needles were reused repeatedly during a campaign to eradicate schistosomiasis in the 1970s and ‘80s. The virus later reached the blood bank system and continues to be spread even now by poorly educated medical workers, dentists and even barbers.

Some 10 to 20 per cent of the population is believed infected, but because the tests are expensive and cumbersome, fewer than 10 per cent of those are even aware they have the disease.

Most viruses are tested either by checking if people have antibodies in their body for the virus or by running a sample through a machine that replicates the virus’s DNA or RNA by way of a polymerase chain reaction.

The antibody test is not very accurate. It can give a false positive if the body had developed the antibody without ever having the virus or had already eliminated the virus. It can give a false negative if a person has the disease but has not yet developed antibodies.

The chain reaction test on the other hand is expensive, with machines available at only a few private laboratories and state institutions, meaning that blood samples must be sent away for testing.

D-Kimia’s new test does not require replication. A blood sample is placed in a solution with bits sequenced for hepatitis RNA. It uses gold particles that start out red but change to blue if the virus is present. The more virus present, the deeper blue it becomes.

Mr Azzazy had been working on the process for 20 years, initially in the US, but later at a laboratory at the AUC. He teamed up with Karim Hussein to form D-Kimia, which has been working to commercialise the invention for the last two years.

The new hepatitis test should cost from 80 to 160 Egyptian pounds (Dh37 to Dh74) and take half an hour to perform. Initially it will be done at laboratories or small clinics, but the end goal is to have it available at the bedside. This compares to the current system where samples have to be transported to one of the few expensive machines in Egypt, a process that can take up to 72 hours.

D-Kimia recently obtained one patent in the US to protect the invention and is working on another two. It is also seeking patents in other major markets across the globe. It is working on shelf-life issues, but hopes to have the product out by the end of 2016, says Mr Hussein.

Companies trying to bring their inventions to market in Egypt say they suffer from the usual government bureaucracy, but with a few added complications. Obtaining licences is particularly onerous, especially for processes that are completely new.

There are a few strong programmes in Egypt to fund innovations, but the law stipulates that the government immediately gets a share of the intellectual property rights in exchange for the grant. This reduces a time-honoured motivator for inventors – striking it rich.

Laws also tightly restrict how Egypt’s state-owned universities can engage with private companies when they go to commercialise their innovations.

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