By Gloria Mwaniga Odary
In 2018, when Belal El-Megharbel walked away from a flourishing career at Careem, a Middle East ride-hailing pioneer, his family was stunned. It wasn’t the first time he had turned his back on a promising opportunity; he had left the family business years earlier while on a quest to “take a different route.” His relatives still hoped he would fall back into the family business and work alongside his 24 cousins, but El-Megharbel had other plans. He wanted to build a digital platform to manage procurement and delivery of grocery products to mom-and-pop shops in Egypt.
As part of the early team at Careem, he saw “how one can build a huge tech company [in] the Middle East.” That knowledge—and the clear need for better supply chains in Egypt—stirred him to action. He saw how inefficiencies in the food and grocery market resulted in delays and added expenses. “Small shops in Cairo had to go through six or seven layers [before the product reached the consumer] —shipping, unboxing, determining product quality and setting base prices,” he said.
Against this backdrop, El-Megharbel saw an opening for a technology platform that would reduce the cost and complications of doing business. In 2018, he teamed up with Mohamed Ben Halim and formed the e-commerce marketplace MaxAB to connect informal food and grocery sellers—the micro-retailers who make up 90 percent of the grocery market—with suppliers.
Belal El-Megharbel. Photo: Heba Khamis/NOOR/IFC
It was a modest beginning. “We started off completely offline out of a small warehouse on the outskirts of Egypt’s sprawling capital. It was so remote many people didn’t know how to get there. We began by selling bits and pieces of [grocery] cases to these faraway neighborhoods that don't have access,” said El-Megharbel, now the CEO.
Business picked up fast, and the MaxAB platform now features 22,000 retailers who sell everything from dairy products to laundry detergent. Price transparency is a big plus for shops that can now also order stock online and access credit facilities. Suppliers and brands benefit, too. With the data from MaxAB, they are able to predict demand and make informed purchasing decisions, which prevents them from overstocking slow-moving goods and saves them money.
Just 10 months after its founding, MaxAB had already secured $6.2 million from investors across the globe—among the largest seed funding amounts raised by a Middle Eastern startup.
As the company grows its client list and technical capacity, it has also expanded its delivery fleet. Every day, 250 trucks are loaded with food and other products before criss-crossing the hot, noisy, and crowded streets of Cairo on their way to mom-and-pop shops across Egypt—many of which are in underserved areas.
Operating MaxAB hasn’t always been a smooth ride for El-Megharbel, who knew that there was no room to be average: “In the distribution business, you cannot be a medium-sized distributor. You're either going to make it or die very quickly. There is nothing in between.”
But to make it, MaxAB needed talented people, and that posed a challenge he’s still trying to solve. “I think our role as entrepreneurs is to figure out a way to exponentially grow the talent pool that we have with the right skill set and the right attitude,” he said. “People are the most important [part of] whatever we're doing. Our next goal is to complete the foundation for growth, and that means ensuring that we have the right people solving the right problems.’’