© Bamyan Media

In the Midst of a Revolution, The X Factor Meets The Apprentice

How do you tackle social and environmental problems and make money at the same time?

Tired of reality TV shows focusing on Kim Kardashian or some other pointless celebrity? Ever think reality TV could be a little deeper? Thankfully, you’re not alone. A groundbreaking, new “edutainment,” reality TV show that launched in late 2013 in Egypt has skillfully harnessed the power of mainstream media to ask some bigger questions of its audience, such as: How do you tackle social and environmental problems and make money at the same time?

Combining some of the best aspects of The X Factor, The Apprentice and Ashoka’s Changemakers, El Mashrou3 (The Project, in Arabic) is the first-ever reality TV show about business and social entrepreneurs in the Middle East.

Produced by Bamyan Media, a social enterprise that specializes in creating impact-oriented television shows for social change in the developing world, El Mashrou3 is an innovative and original formatted reality TV show that brings together 14 young contestants from different walks of life as they live together and work to find solutions to social and environmental problems that can also be sustainable, profitable businesses. With the concept of the show drawn up in the wake of the January 25 Revolution, El Mashrou3 seeks to highlight the renewed passion for social change among Egyptian youth.

Sponsored by heavyweight tech partners Samsung and Google, the reality TV show racked up tens of millions of viewers in Egypt following a successful first season. It created a large action-led social media community — over 1 million — as part of its on-the-ground outreach effort to connect viewers with ways to practically start their own social enterprises and businesses. El Mashrou3 is now set for a second season in Egypt, as well as being adapted and localized for several other regions, including India, Jordan, Philippines and Bangladesh.

In this interview, author and journalist Abul-Hasanat Siddique speaks to Asim Haneef, Bamyan Media’s global director of development and the executive producer of El Mashrou3. Haneef is a former Al Jazeera English producer and journalist specializing in long-form, sociopolitical documentaries on activism, technology and sustainability. Currently based in Cairo, he is also a fellow of the Aspen Institute, the pan-Asian think tank Asia House, a TEDx speaker, part of the under-30s “young leaders” network Sandbox and on the advisory board of tech entrepreneurship quarterly Erly Stage.

Abul-Hasanat Siddique: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. First, please tell us a bit about your background and how you got to where you are today.

Asim Haneef: I was born in London and grew up in a town called Croydon.I don’t have many memories from my childhood, but I remember I was a pretty empathetic child and wanted to help others, especially those I saw being victimized and oppressed through no fault of their own — basically being born with a different set of results from me in this insane geographical lottery of life.

I remember witnessing a lot of that injustice around me, and I guess the way I channeled that into my work in the media was by recognizing at about 15 years old that this all-conquering entity — the “media” — had largely replaced the role of religion in dominating our imagination, culture and consciousness, and that I could probably trace back about 70% of whatever people were talking to me about on any given day to some form of media output, whether that be a newspaper, TV report, radio or other.

I began to think there must be ways to harness this medium to educate, inspire and inform others, through storytelling and truth-telling with a flashlight of some kind. I wasn’t yet sure if that was through news, books, investigative documentaries, reports or other mediums, but I felt it was a fairly good field for me to try my hand at and one that naturally fit with my hunger and curiosity about other people and the planet we exist on.

© Bamyan Media

© Bamyan Media

So I started off writing hundreds of letters to TV production companies, asking if I could have a five-minute coffee with them. I wrote about 500 letters and received around 495 negative replies, which I used as motivational wallpaper for my room. But I got a couple of encouraging messages that said, why don’t you just come in for a quick coffee? So I pounced at the chance and soon started working as a tea boy/runner at a production company, then an intern at Bloomberg, then a researcher on some BBC projects. I then really just jumped across lots of different TV production and news companies and did whatever I could to get closer to a role that I felt enabled me to use media in a more meaningful way to build a better world.

Siddique: And then you moved to Al Jazeera English, right?

Haneef: Yes, I became a researcher and producer at Al Jazeera English with a focus on global sociopolitical documentaries. Whilst there I pitched and helped develop a series called Activate, which was about young, change-making social activists across the world. That idea came about in 2011, just as the Arab Uprisings (sometimes oddly referred to as the Arab Spring) started to emerge, and I wondered: Why can’t we find a way to tell stories about social activists around the world who are doing something brave and inspiring — but in a positive light — and also tell their stories as flawed human beings with the exact same vulnerabilities as you and I, not making them out to be superheroes, but just incredibly driven and courageous people? So, I identified and developed stories in Pakistan, Sudan, India and China, and we made six, 30-minute documentaries that were successfully aired on Al Jazeera English, going out to millions of people globally.

Even though the series was a success and got re-commissioned for a second season, I was frustrated and remember clearly thinking: I wish these stories and the crucial themes of socioeconomic injustice, bravery and technological innovation could reach broader audiences. I wondered: Am I simply making news and documentaries that just reach niche, already-educated viewers — people who know the issues? Do these films only get seen by a handful of people that understand the issues already? Am I just preaching to the choir? Is this just a comfortable media job that enables me to keep making films without having to really think hard about the audience, whether they are having any impact or contributing to any real change on the ground?

I began to wonder how to explore some of these complex themes with broader audiences — such as, how do you reach the young and old mainstream audiences that don’t give a s**t about politics and the news? Those who find the whole universe too serious and inaccessible. That seemed like an interesting challenge.

After doing some basic research, I found that the majority of those people were either glued to long-running soaps/dramas/serials or some form of reality TV. So I began to consider how to use the popular medium of reality TV shows to communicate basic business information or to inspire, educate and empower, perhaps focusing on some of the individuals in our world who I felt really needed to be highlighted — not just social activists, but the upcoming new generation of creative social entrepreneurs, people using business to affect large-scale social change. I really loved this concept of the social entrepreneur and realized that most people still had no idea what it was, making it a great subject to communicate to a mass audience.

Siddique: Why was that? Why do many people not know about social entrepreneurship?

Haneef: Well, people might not be familiar with the term “social entrepreneurship,” which is still pretty new across the globe, but many are familiar with the concept of an ethical business created to make a financial return and be good for the community. This is what regular business used to be before the era of unregulated corporate casino capitalism, under which profit was king regardless of social consequences. Social entrepreneurship is at least a label for the revival of this old concept that business can be a force for good and part of the solution to the social transformation required so desperately in society, if we are to have a fairer and more just world for all of us. 

Historically, businesses were drivers for social, environmental and economic change — they cared about the communities they served. I believe companies like Cadbury’s was actually started to wean people off alcohol and its negative effects — its remit was one of responsibility to people, not just to shareholders. It’s only in the last 20-30 years that we’ve reached this point where profits are prioritized over anything else. And yet we all know that’s not sustainable, so there needs to be more responsible businesses and entrepreneurs emerging, especially in the next generation of younger people — and they need to be encouraged and highlighted.

A popular reality TV show in a developing country highlighting some of these themes and people seemed like a good idea that could not only inspire and encourage millions of young people, but also become a platform for connecting those that wanted to start their own businesses with the resources, tools, mentors and networks they needed to take that first all-important step.

I wrote up a proposal for the show, pitched it around and found some success from funders. However, at the same time, I was also put in touch with someone called Anna Elliot, who had done something similar in Afghanistan but on a microscopic scale. I was supposed to have a ten-minute Skype call with Anna that turned into a four-hour conversation about the power of “edutainment.” We talked about Sesame Street, the psychology of brands and marketing, how to reach a mass audience and why edutainment had mostly failed across the world. We agreed to work together on the show in Egypt, a country suffering from some of the highest youth unemployment and gender inequality rates in the Middle East and North Africa, and also in the grip of monumental economic and political change.

Siddique: So we’re talking about the uprising in 2011?

Haneef: Yes, the youth were leading the charge for change politically on the streets, but we also wanted to develop this TV show to focus on the wider economic question — because even back then, some observers were rightly pointing out that you needed an economic revolution alongside a political one for real long-lasting and systematic change on an institutional level.

We held a three-day co-creation action lab bringing together the key stakeholders within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the educational system, youth, business leaders, activists and NGO [nongovernmental organizations] to ask: How do we collaboratively create an educational TV show that’s going to have an inspiring, positive impact on the country and, hopefully, lead to a nationwide movement triggering more young people to believe in themselves and their own ability to create and own a business project, and go from the ideas stage to execution with the help and assistance of the growing start-up ecosystem around them?

© Bamyan Media

© Bamyan Media

Sorry to backtrack, but just to answer your initial question about how I got into all of this: I’m trying to create a different kind of approach using media, because I worked in news and documentaries for a long time and became tired of them — tired of the same press release “copy and paste” editorial line over whether a story gets traction or not. Usually, you have a bunch of white, middle-class editors who decide what’s going to be a global news story and that then somehow goes out to millions of people. I advise everyone who is interested in working in the media to study the economics of news production, because once you trace it back far enough, you realize that so many editorial decisions are purely related to who has the money, and even news companies owned by businessmen have biased agendas they are constantly pushing on the rest of us.

I decided that rather than continue in news and documentaries, I was going to try appeal to mass audiences, especially in the developing world, who were already having their brains and minds manipulated by TV — only with the lowest common denominator trash of mainstream entertainment and celebrity. For me, the challenge is: Can you really make something that’s educational and entertaining at the same time? And that’s what led me to where I am today.

Siddique: Moving on: Was Bamyan Media created with the TV show, El Mashrou3?

Haneef: The company itself? No, it was registered a few years ago in Afghanistan for the Dream and Achieve show; though only in Egypt have we become more aware of what Bamyan Media really is. It’s an attempt at a radical kind of media organization that’s a significant departure from traditional media, because we don’t just create or aggregate content. We have a process of quantifying the impact the media has — working with universities, ratings agencies and specialist M&E [monitor and evaluation] experts and other bodies to measure the effect it has in terms of providing behavioral and real-world social changes.

We go beyond the TV show with our on-the-ground outreach work. Most shows are made to go on TV, people watch them and then end of story. But with Bamyan Media, we create huge, sprawling social media communities around our shows; we stay engaged with millions of people who are watching them; and we help them connect to vital tools and resources on-the-ground, so they can set up their own business projects. For example, if someone watching the TV show about entrepreneurship in Egypt has an idea about an agriculture start-up that they want to do but don’t know how or where to start, Bamyan Media helps them to connect to an accelerator or incubator, and the potential funding organizations that will enable them to fulfill and realize the potential of their idea. It’s a very different thing to conventional media. It’s us saying: We’re not just a media organization; we are on the intersection of media and social development — and the TV shows are just one part of the equation.

© Bamyan Media

© Bamyan Media

Siddique: Let’s talk about El Mashrou3: What is it about, and how has it helped the contestants and Egyptian society?

Haneef: The show, El Mashrou3, consists of 13 one-hour episodes. It’s a competition-based reality TV show and you have 14 contestants from across Egypt, each with an idea for a sustainable business. We chose them, brought them together and filmed them over about two months. We set challenges in each episode that related to an entrepreneurial lesson — so it became almost like a boot camp for entrepreneurs. One of the ways I describe the show more broadly is: If The X Factor or American Idol are about people achieving their dreams through their talent or voice, then El Mashrou3 is a reality TV show about young people reaching their dreams and fulfilling their potential through their business acumen, brains and a whole lot of hustle.

In every episode, you have two teams that are set a challenge often by one of the three main judges or a mentor — something related to a social problem Egypt faces. To give you an example, one of the biggest problems in the country is trash. So, the judges will say to the contestants: “One of Cairo’s biggest problems is trash. We would like you, in 48 hours, to use the trash and waste to develop a sustainable business model and then go out and sell what you’ve made on the streets.” In this particular episode, the two teams went to Cairo’s biggest trash yard and worked creatively to turn the country’s problem into a solution, by finding a way to create products, have a supply chain and sell the goods to market.

At the end of each episode, the winning team moves on to the next stage and one person within the losing team has to leave the show. There are elements of some other shows like The Apprentice, Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank. But The Apprentice is just a job interview from hell — that’s the tagline and it has nothing to do with social entrepreneurship or social innovation, and certainly isn’t about tackling society’s problems!

Siddique: Well, it’s to do with money.

Haneef: Yes, exactly! So we have a totally different angle that’s much more centered around “encouragement” rather than “humiliation” or laughing at people. Our contestants are not waiting to get a job; they are aspiring entrepreneurs from across Egypt learning to be even better leaders. They come from different cities and different backgrounds. One of the most important things on a show like this is to have a really wide cross-section of people that represent the authentic face of a country. So, we spent a long time finding those people through a casting roadshow across Egypt that lasted several months.

In the last three episodes of the show, the format shifts to become much more focused on the final three contestants’ personal projects and businesses, and how to make these social enterprises successful. Everything becomes much more focused on them — their business plan and how they will raise capital and get their project off the ground. This is our way of taking our main audiences through an entertaining and fun ride into finally the heart of start-up world, where you need to have a business plan, know your numbers and be prepared for anything necessary to build your business.

Siddique: And has the show finished?

Haneef: Yes, the first season of El Mashrou3 started in late 2013 and finished in April 2014. The ratings were between 3-4 million per episode, making it the fifth most successful show for the TV channel, Al Nahar — and Al Nahar is one of the biggest networks itself in Egypt. In total, we worked out that we had over 30 million views and over 270 million impressions on Facebook, and that it had beaten a lot of other popular reality TV shows like Dancing With the Stars  — becoming the first business, social entrepreneurship TV show to ever achieve that.

Siddique: It’s very innovative, and I like the link to American Idol, Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, but from a social entrepreneurship approach. We don’t even see shows like that in Britain, so I think that’s absolutely brilliant. What does the winner get?

Haneef: Not sure why there’s no equivalent in the UK — maybe we should make one!Regarding the winner, besides the $350,000 grand cash prize toward building their business, they also get a combination of support from the entrepreneurial ecosystem accelerators, incubators and mentors. A lot of these entrepreneurs desperately want to have advisors to help them get their idea to a point where they are able to scale. We have also helped several of the other contestants go on trips abroad linked to securing funding, and every single contestant also received a range of gifts provided by our sponsors, including phones, laptops, TVs, website development assistance and six-months incubation.

© Bamyan Media

© Bamyan Media

Siddique: And what happens to the other contestants, since one leaves after each episode?

Haneef: We decided that the whole tone of the show was going to be encouraging and positive. It wasn’t going to be negative or have insults like “you’re fired” or “get lost.” In a way, every contestant that leaves the show is a winner. In fact, our goodbye line from the judges is: “You will continue your dream, but not with us.” So it’s even framed in a way to make people feel encouraged and inspired that they joined in the first place. Every contestant who leaves the show goes off with a package of support from us that I mentioned earlier, making us perhaps the only TV show of its kind to do that.

Siddique: I personally can’t stand Alan Sugar, so I’m glad you don’t follow his line. But do you track their progress?

Haneef: Yes. We knew it wouldn’t be enough for us to just give contestants some money or support on a one-off basis and not follow-up. The contestants became celebrities in their communities and nationally, which we witnessed during the nationwide “entrepreneurship bus tour” we organized, with some of the contestants going around the country post-show with crowds of hundreds coming out in Alexandria, Aswan and Mansoura to hear them speak in a public setting about their experiences on the show and what they will do next. And we are following some of their progress to communicate via social media, so people can know what they are up to as well. This is hard, and it’s a struggle to keep up, but it’s something we are certainly keen to do and become better at in the months and years ahead.

Siddique: You traveled quite a bit last year. What’s the future for the show? Do you see it being sold to other parts of the developing world?

Haneef: Yes, we are currently in various talks and negotiations about bringing the show to several other territories. I recently read that 4 billion people still don’t have access to the Internet — and so, television is still one of the primary mediums to reach a wide array of people that aren’t online yet. Whether you like it or not, viewers are still sucking content up globally. It’s just that they’re absorbing content that doesn’t really do anything for them, their future and lives — to help them. The type of content they consume doesn’t give them a sense of being able to take the future into their own hands, and it doesn’t highlight and show examples of successful people that are at the same age as them.

In the West, we might be inspired and influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. But there’s a lot of young people in developing countries that don’t relate to him at all — they don’t see familiar role models around them that look like them, talk like them, understand their society or came up from the same neighborhood as them. I think we are subconsciously looking for a reference point in others or a role model. And one of the benefits of a TV show like El Mashou3 is it has the potential to reflect some of the best of society back to itself and say: “Hey, this is what someone born down the street from you is doing. It’s not going to be easy, but you have the potential to do the same.”

We are talking to the main television networks, telecoms companies, banks and ecosystem players in places such as Jordan, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Pakistan. The idea has been very  well-received in every country we visit. Everyone accepts that it’s a fantastic idea, using the power of media in a big way to inspire and educate.

And even though many people have had a similar idea for a reality TV show with a social edge, what separates us is that we’ve done it successfully now twice. We’re one of the first companies that actually went out there, managed to get the money and support from sponsors like Samsung, build the alliance and produce the show for a primetime mainstream audience.

So, to answer your question, yes we are actively exploring how to bring the project to a range of other places, but also making sure that in every country we go to, we listen very carefully with our partners on how to regionalize, localize and adapt the show. We don’t want to just copy and paste the show; every culture and country has a different identity and different challenges — that will invariably inform the content and programming itself.

For instance, in Bangladesh, the show may be more geared to resilience around climate change, because in time, the country faces the possibility of being submerged underwater. The biggest environmental and social concerns in Bangladesh are related to the scarcity of water and climate change, and also corruption and pollution. So these are going to be some of the top issues we will try to address and tackle on our show in the country. In Jordan, you have a tremendous amount of new jobs that need to be created within the next five years and huge issues around migrant populations from Iraq, Syria and Palestine. So how can our show encourage social entrepreneurs to start businesses in Jordan that are going to create jobs and contribute to inter-regional unity? These are some of the challenges for those regions.

Siddique: Are there specific countries you would like to state on record that you’re looking to pursue for a show?

Haneef: Yes: India, Jordan, Bangladesh and the Philippines. If you think you can help in any of those places, feel free to drop me an email on.

Siddique: Very interesting times ahead. Thank you!

Haneef: My pleasure.

*[A shorter version of this article is available at Your Middle East.]

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Photo Credit: Bamyan Media