–This story originally appeared in Challenge Cup news at the 1776 site–
The word “tagaddod” means renewable energy in Arabic. It’s an appropriate name for a startup based out of Cairo that turns used cooking oil into biodiesel. Egypt has an especially sizeable problem with families pouring oil down the drains of their sinks—polluting the country’s water supply in the process. Tagaddod wants to stop this—and use the cooking oil—for good.
The company was the energy category winner at the Amman Challenge Cup earlier this month. Cofounder Ahmed Raafat traveled from Egypt to Jordan to pitch his growing company’s solution and will next head to Washington, D.C., in May to take part in the Challenge Festival. He explained the ways in which it’s different to be an entrepreneur in Egypt and why he sees the country as an ideal place to launch an energy business.
You’re turning cooking oil into biodiesel. How does that work?
We’re focusing on vegetable oils in general to convert vegetable oil into biodiesel. But our main raw material is the used cooking oil. It is a process of filtering the oil and adding chemical additives until we have our final product which is biodiesel. Biodiesel is an alternative to diesel.
How long does this conversion process take?
Around three hours. The process produces two products, which are biodiesel and glycerin and it takes around one hour to separate between them.
So who are your customers right now?
We’re now working with a tourism entity in Egypt called Travco. They give us around 20 tons of used cooking oil every month, and we deliver back three tons of biodiesel. This is the first customer and we have an uptake order from Jordan for about 200 metric tons per month. That’s why we’re upgrading our production capabilities to meet these orders.
Down the line, who do you envision selling to? Are you planning to expand beyond the Middle East?
The European Union market is our first target because they’re the biggest importers of biodiesel in the world. They import annually more than 2.5 million tons of biodiesel.
Tell me more about the problem of cooking oil waste in Egypt and the environmental issues you’re trying to solve through Tagaddod.
In Egypt, the process of treatment of water to be used again in irrigation and such things is not a good process at all. I know that water treatment of 1,000 liters of water costs $2; this is the standard price. In Egypt it costs $7 because they use cooking oil. Around 90 percent of households drop their used cooking oil in the drain. The draining system of the house is contaminated and that polluted water cannot be treated again to be used.
How did you and your cofounder come up with this idea and decide to tackle this cooking oil problem?
Our main focus in the beginning was to start working on an alternative source of energy. We participated in the solution of the energy crisis in Egypt, but we found that most of the people are concerned with solar energy and there are millions of diesel engines operating with regular petrol diesel which hurts the environment and we have a problem with the availability of this diesel source.
So we started researching and we found out about diesel. In the beginning we knew that there were some seeds and plants that could be used to extract oils to be converted to biodiesel. And we knew about the wasted cooking oil. So we thought we could be a waste management solution provider and a biodiesel manufacturer. And from that idea we started our household model and raised the awareness of the residents about how to get rid of this oil properly. This oil can be used as a solution in the energy crisis problem in Egypt as well as in many parts of the world.
What is your background? What were you doing before launching this company?
We created the company the day after we graduated (from college), so there was no room for any other thing. Before we graduated, for four months we worked on developing this idea.
Being based in Egypt, how did you hear about the Challenge Cup and what made you want to travel to Jordan to take part?
In the beginning of creating the company we were in an accelerator in Egypt called Flat6Labs. So Oasis500 sent an invitation to Flat6Labs. After that we realized it was a proper competition for us and here were different categories like energy. It seemed interesting for us to compete.
What did you get out of being involved, besides, of course, winning?
It was a good experience personally. I like traveling, and it was my first time in Amman. And then the idea about getting people from different countries together competing for the same thing, I liked it. You are Americans, the hosts are from Jordan—so to bring these people into one room for the same cause, which is creating value through their fields, was great. And the exposure to the other competitors and the fellow entrepreneurs was great also, and hearing their ideas and how they work. Also the entrepreneurship culture differs from one country to another, so it was an experience to understand how it operates in Jordan.
What’s different about the entrepreneurship culture in Egypt?
I think in some ways it’s harder because the competition is higher and the resources are more limited. The presence of infrastructure in Egypt is very poor because there’s no integration between different ministries. No one would like to make a proper decision because of the political and economic situation in Egypt. So I can say they’re struggling to get their companies right.
But you’re sill anticipating staying in Egypt? Or do you plan to relocate Tagaddod elsewhere, given the challenges in Egypt?
No, no. I’m convinced that these problems mean business opportunities. It means business opportunities, people working to create value and to have solutions.
Tagaddod COO and Co-founder, Ahmed Raafat, far left, with 1776’s Donna Harris and other finalists at the Amman Challenge Cup. Photo credit: Diana Eftaiha