Mobiles, not mummies: CommsMEA goes to Capacity North Africa in Cairo, Egypt

What went down on our first visit to the Egyptian capital.
Cairo, Egypt, Africa, North Africa, Capacity North Africa, Tech, Society, Business, Telecommunications, Cables, Submarine cables, Subsea cables, Travel, TELECOM EGYPT

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Photo credit: Ben Mack

"True sages are those who give what they have, without meanness and without secret."

- Egyptian proverb

Photo credit: Ben Mack

“Really, you’ve never been to Cairo?”

“No, never.”

Photo credit: Ben Mack

“I’m surprised. Cairo’s great. You’d love it.”

Her words would prove right a few years later.

Photo credit: Ben Mack

Memory is a funny thing. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about our conversation. It came in passing, on the kind of chilly January morning in Berlin where the sky is a featureless grey slab and icy tendrils snake their way across the windows, where all one wants to do is patter across the hardwood floor with a steaming mug of cocoa or leftover Glühwein from the holidays and burrow under double layers of duvets and wool blankets and watch nature documentaries on Netflix or listen to some chilled out dubstep or Enigma-inspired electronica or smooth jazz. And yet, fast-forwarding a half-decade – as the blazing sun baked everything below and the muezzin’s honeyed voice wafted across the streets and through the shaded souks and their winding alleys and buzzing cafes – they kept searing their way to the forefront of consciousness, like burger patties repeatedly pressed atop a flaming grill.

It was CommsMEA’s first visit to the legendary city. Synonymous with the exotic for millennia, Cairo holds a special place in both myth and reality – after all, it’s the capital of the most populous nation in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab World. Yet seductive as the souks, the energy of Tahrir Square, or the timeless beckoning of the pyramids and, further south, the Valley of the Kings and the temples of Abu Simbel may have been (all the harder to resist seeing as this writer is the hardest of hardcore Indiana Jones fans), we were there for an entirely different purpose. And yet, we too were adventurers of a sort; after all, this was the first Capacity North Africa event, ever.

Photo credit: Ben Mack

It may have been making its Egypt debut, but similar Capacity events had been successfully held around the world for some time, such as in Rwanda and – in our first taste of the calibre of Capacity’s ability to connect telecommunications industry executives a mere month prior to our visit to Cairo – locally in Dubai. Taking place at the Ritz-Carlton betwixt the strange music of the incessant tooting of car horns at traffic-choked Tahrir Square and the brilliant blue waters of the mighty Nile, the two-day event (or three if you include the sumptuous welcome dinner hosted by Telecom Egypt the night before the conference officially began) brought together a multitude of operators, suppliers, vendors and other telecom and tech companies from throughout Africa, the Middle East, and further afield. Egypt may be awash in more history than just about any nation on earth, but in the rich red and gold-carpeted halls accented with hieroglyph-adorned ancient Egyptian mosaics, cavernous conference rooms somehow still filled to the brim with exhibitor stands and a seemingly never-ending buffet, and cosy meeting rooms with couches almost tailor-made for journalists conducting interviews, a new kind of history was being forged.

Photo credit: Ben Mack

Meetings were scheduled. Plans were made. Deals were struck. Debates took place. Discussions were had. Enough business cards to stretch from Cairo to Cape Town (as pan-African operator Liquid Telecom’s fibre network does) were exchanged; all told, it was difficult to tell this was the inaugural edition of the event. Day one began bright and early on a mostly cloud-free morning (a dramatic departure from the day before, when periodic rainstorms and a persistent cloud cover accompanied by a strong breeze made even landing in Cairo at the conclusion of our three-hour Emirates flight from Dubai a rather hair-raising experience), with an opening address from Adel Hamed, event hosts Telecom Egypt’s CEO. From there, it was straight into the aforementioned appointment-arranging, panel-powwowing, and deal-doing.

There can be a certain artificiality and level of absurdity to business events. After all, how many times are the words “yes, we need to meet up” or “let’s make it happen” uttered, often accompanied by equally enthusiastic handshakes and ear-to-ear smiles, with nothing ever coming of any of it? But rather than as nonsensical as ceramic crocodiles, rubber lions, linen hippos or denim monkeys, what took place in Cairo seemed genuine. 

Photo credit: Ben Mack 

The panels certainly were genuinely interesting. Perhaps the most intriguing took place in the late afternoon of day one. While a title of “Meeting the rising tide of data demands with high-capacity subsea cable projects” might not seem engrossing on its surface, the discussion about how subsea cables can connect societies across the globe, stretching countless thousands of kilometres across the frozen, crushing depths of the very deepest parts of the seas – including the challenges to connecting societies across those most inhospitable of environments – was nothing short of fascinating. For instance, it’s the nations of the Arabian Gulf (especially the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman) that are playing one of the most important roles in the worldwide growth of subsea cables and subsea cable innovation, as Mohamed Eldahshory, global projects and submarine cable development director at Telecom Egypt, shared.

“It’s mainly driven by industry especially from the Gulf,” he said.

Mohamed Nasr, vice president of cable innovation, planning and management at PCCW Global, said something similar. He said subsea cables are an ideal solution for dealing with exponentially increasing capacity demands around the world.

“I see the demand coming from two sides: one from the carriers, and one from the content providers,” he said, adding people streaming, downloading and uploading more video content – easier than ever to do thanks to ever-faster connection speeds – is especially driving increased capacity demand.

As the discussion continued, Eldahshory also said subsea cables could be an ideal solution for providing continued connectivity in areas experiencing unrest. He said rather than travelling across land, they can snake along the bottom of a river for its length – making them harder to be accidentally damaged or sabotaged. Translation: subsea cables can help reduce the suffering of civilians in times of conflict.

Photo credit: Ben Mack

A trip to Egypt is an education for many, and our visit to Capacity North Africa was no exception. From the practical (that Egypt’s Arabic name is “Misr,” a fact happily shared by a pair of women at Fiber Misr and Africa Marine’s sprawling booth, one of the largest booths at the event) to obscure (that not one but two major subsea cable systems – the Tata-TGN Pacific and NorthStar – pass through the western suburb of Portland, Oregon this writer grew up in), our horizons were broadened in wholly unexpected ways (like our nostrils, which seemed to constantly be flared to take in the exotic scents from invigorating oud to the freshest of flowers and stimulating citrus). Our contact book was rather broadened, too – so much so, we ran out of magazines to hand out, and nearly a whole box of business cards, too. But as the Egyptian proverb says, true sages are those who give what they have, without meanness and without secret.

Photo credit: Ben Mack

“So, what did you think about Egypt?” she asked again a few days after returning.

A pause. How does one answer such a query, when there’s so much fighting to get out, like too many people trying to push their way through a single small door?

“It was incredible!”

Too clichéd, too simple an answer.

But a correct one.

Photo credit: Ben Mack

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