Egyptian entrepreneurs escape daily grind to brew success with cars converted to cafes

In search of better job opportunities in an economy hit hard by the pandemic, hundreds of Egyptians are turning old cars into portable coffee outlets

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Those in search of a pick-me-up on the streets of Cairo need look no further than the roadside for a cup of coffee. Dotted throughout the city, entrepreneurs have turned their cars into portable coffee carts, serving hot drinks from the boot.

In the capital's 6 October district, sandwiched between gated communities and a large industrial zone, Youssef Shalaby, 16, serves thirsty customers.

The teenager, with his father, brother and uncle, converted an old microbus to make some extra cash as Covid-19 job losses began to bite.

“I spend most of my time on this coffee cart. My brother and I take turns manning it so it stays operational 24 hours a day. Unless I’m in school or asleep, I am working here,” Youssef tells The National.

The location means the group caters to a variety of clientele, from upper-class citizens from the gated communities to lorry drivers taking the motorway out of Greater Cairo and towards the Mediterranean coast.

A makeshift coffee shop made from a converted microbus on the streets of Cairo. Kamal Tabikha / The National

Youssef began working for his father, who owns a couple of other coffee and cigarette kiosks located on two other main roads, when he was only 14 years old.

“Because of the locations of our kiosks, we rely on travelling motorists for our business, but when the lockdown turned Cairo into a ghost town, my father chose a motorway that was close to some residential areas.

"It was a smart move, because for a few months, this converted car was our family’s only income. It became very popular with young Egyptians looking to leave their home quarantines for a little while,” he said.

About 20 kilometres north-east of Youssef’s makeshift cafe, in the district of Mohandessin, Shahd and her best friend Mahmoud operate their own coffee car. But while Youssef's converted microbus is unassuming and practical, Shahd’s converted 1960s Volkswagen Beetle is more stylish and equipped with a more sophisticated coffee machine.

“I had been a barista at a number of cafes before I decided to strike out on my own and start this car. I did not find service jobs easy and the fact that I am a woman meant that I was subjected to a lot of harassment,” says Shahd, 35.

Youssef, 16, makes coffee at his father's portable cafe. The makeshift coffee shop is built into a converted microbus. Kamal Tabikha / The National

Shahd’s mental state was deeply affected by the difficulties she faced in her past jobs. She refuses to have her car photographed, explaining that her work experience has taught her that it is safer to keep one’s head down and not draw too much attention.

She says that after a troublesome marriage with a controlling man ended in a long-winded divorce earlier this year, she was finally able to launch her own business.

“I wanted to work on my own terms, and because I have been working as a waitress or a barista since my early 20s, I decided to just do what I know and open this coffee car,” she says.

Although she now makes more money than ever before and enjoys the luxury of deciding her own working hours, she says that in the busy Cairo streets, harassment is still a regular source of distress for her.

Lily, 5, waits in the front seat of a Jeep that has been converted into a mobile coffee shop while her mother finishes her shift. Kamal Tabikha / The National

“Shahd came to me to help her with her project. We have been neighbours and best friends for over 10 years,” says Mahmoud, who mans the car with Shahd during her night shifts.

While his main role in the business is to provide Shahd with protection and a helping hand while she works, another perhaps more important responsibility of his is going to the local police station to plead with the officers to return Shahd’s coffee machine, which is regularly confiscated because she does not have the permits needed to operate.

“Permits are very hard to come by for this kind of business. We are not well-connected people, so although we have applied several times, we have been repeatedly rejected,” Mahmoud says.

Youssef’s family, on the other hand, who have been in the kiosk business for more than a decade, have become well connected enough to avoid having their equipment confiscated.

A coffee vendor makes coffee for a customer on a Cairo street. Kamal Tabikha / The National

Although the majority of Cairo’s converted coffee cars are unlicensed, Rahma, 27, works on one that managed to receive permits because it is owned by an entrepreneur from an affluent family.

“I answered an ad earlier this year on Facebook. Someone was looking for a barista to work on a converted coffee car. After looking for work for a few months and not finding anything suitable, I decided to accept the position because it allowed me to bring my daughter to work,” said Rahma, whose five-year-old daughter, Lily, is lounging in the front seat of a 1997 Jeep Cherokee. The car is parked at a nearby garage every evening.

The car’s owner, who has a newer model for his personal use, comes down every morning to drive it to its spot for the day, and returns in the evening to take it back to the garage.

Also recently divorced, Rahma had worked as a checkout teller at a Cairo pharmacy for 10 years before she was fired in 2020 after the pandemic forced the owners to downsize.

“I couldn’t find a job that would allow me to bring Lily to work with me every day. I am not on great terms with my family or my husband’s family, it’s just me and her. I thought about day-care centres, but they’re expensive and most of them close before my shift is over on most days,” says Rahma. She hopes this will get easier when Lily starts kindergarten next year.

Prices at each coffee car vary, depending on the type of drink being served. Youssef keeps things simple, offering three kinds of drinks – Turkish coffee, plain or with milk, and tea – that he sells for EGP 5 ($0.32) each. Shahd, with her barista background, offers plain coffee and tea for EGP 7 ($0.45) each, in addition to cappuccinos and lattes which cost EGP 15 ($1). As for Rahma, she offers espresso, Turkish coffee and tea for EGP 10 ($0.64) and cappuccinos and lattes for EGP 20 ($1.27).

Updated: October 17, 2021, 10:06 AM