It’s been three years since Ahmed left Ethiopia to pursue a Masters in Aerospace Engineering in Canada. But, despite having obtained a half scholarship at the university, the young professional was left stranded in Cairo, unable either to obtain a travel visa or a work permit in Egypt. As he awaits for new opportunities to pursue his career, he works as a cleaner at Mermaid, an Egyptian startup that matches trusted home cleaners with home owners looking for a reliable service.
“Maid agencies usually only serve companies, so families don’t have a resource where they can find a trusted maid,” says founder Gehad Abdullah, an accounting graduate from Ain Shams University who found the lack of a standardised cleaning service an opportunity for business. “I always start by saying that I am my own customer. Most people don’t want a stay-in maid, they want someone to come clean their home once a week or twice and then leave. I have been looking for someone honest and trustworthy, reliable and professional, and and I couldn’t find it. So I said ‘okay, nobody is doing it so I will.”
Having launched in 2015, Abdullah’s startup is already reaping success: after being incubated by AUC’s V-Lab, she's participating in CBC’s entrepreneurial segment with Lamis El Hadidi, Homa el Shabab, this April, and was selected for Riseup Explore’s next trip to Berlin’s Open Tech conference in June. “I started with one customer and zero mermaids; it was very hard at the beginning. I was claiming that I fixed the problem, but I had yet to find that super professional cleaner, who comes on time and is trust-worthy. So I started searching the first few Mermaids we had, people that we actually knew or who were referred to us.”
Together with co-founder Islam Gohar, Abdullah has grown a network of 25 cleaners, many of whom are migrants and refugees like Ahmed, who found in the startup an opportunity to work despite language and legal barriers. “We are actually talking to UNHCR to partner with them for their job placement programmes,” says the entrepreneur.
Entering the sector entails venturing uncharted territory, as legislation does not legally protect domestic workers from exploitation and abuse. In addition, since the Egyptian Labour law does not allow non-Egyptians to work as employees in Egyptian companies or institutions, migrants usually resort to jobs as domestic cleaners and babysitters, a ‘black market’ where salaries are meagre and working conditions are often plagued by cruelty and mistreatment.
In 2007, the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies discovered that 59 percent of foreign domestic workers in Cairo are exposed to verbal abuse by their employers, with a rampant 27 percent being physically abused, and 10 percent exposed to sexual harassment and attempted rape, according to a report by Daily News Egypt.
But, according to Abdullah, acting as a middleman between homeowners and domestic workers can help prevent mistreatment and abuse in the workplace. “We have two customer segments; the home owner and the cleaner. Nobody has treated maids or cleaners in general as a customer segment, although they are people who work,” explains the 27-year-old entrepreneur. “So we treat them as a customer segment, adding value propositions to you, the home owner, and the cleaner.”
A key element in the company’s vision is the aim to set standards in an industry that is inherently informal. “The biggest challenge is to build a system to automate the industry, so we are setting standards for both cleaners and customers. We train them on how to clean, to be punctual, and how to treat their customers; but we are also trying also to keep it real with the home owners, to instil the idea that they will do their best to clean your home, but you don’t own them,” she explains.
With flexible working hours; early hours for young mothers, training in both languages and the cleaning service itself, the young entrepreneur focuses on building a culture for her startup, setting off to change the sector as a whole. “I don’t want to be a tech company and invest so much in tech while losing the human factor,” she says. “Some cleaning agencies treat their workers with distrust and strict punishing them with deductions while they are really poor, and there’s not much to deduct. But we have a special bond with them; we treat them as employees, our vision is that it’s not bad to be a cleaner. We have people that are very eager to make money and very hungry to work. That’s the caliber of workers we want.”
In order to book a home cleaner, the platform accepts requests and schedules them, setting the rate according to the size of the house and the number of rooms. The entrepreneur is partnering with a company to collect payment after the service is concluded, as well as an insurance company who secures the property’s values from theft. Their fees range between 200 LE and 400 LE, and there are subscription models as well for people who want to have the same maid come every week.
“We changed the business model a lot, everything was different at the beginning. We changed our target customer, and we are also focusing on areas, so we now deliver our services to the districts of Maadi, Zamalek and Mohandessin. Very soon we‘ll be all over Cairo.” But aside from the scope of scaling and expansion, the young entrepreneur is setting off to help some of the most vulnerable workers in Egypt. “Sometimes when I just don’t want to do this anymore, I think about the people that are depending on us to find their clients and to bring food to the table for their families. And it’s all about the chances; if I happen to be travelling to another country where nobody speaks Arabic or English I would still want to eat and live.”
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Peter Adel.