Qubix, the Egyptian start-up that takes discarded shipping containers and not only renovates but utterly transforms them into homes, offices, restaurants, and even gym and leisure buildings, is undertaking groundbreaking work in an industry that is still very new. Youssef Farag, Qubix co-Founder, talks to Law Today about the first steps the company has taken and the immense potential still to be realised in this field.
LT: Qubix has had an astonishing growth rate for a concept entirely new to Egypt. How did it all happen?
YF: It all started in February 2016, as Karim (Rafla, Qubix co-Founder) and I were brainstorming business ideas. We knew that we didn’t want to do anything run-of-the-mill but to start our own entrepreneurial initiative. Karim told me about Container City in London, which we thought was ingenious and worth trying to replicate.
We saw a design online of shipping containers that you open by pressing a button; hydraulic pistons open the container down to the floor. We contacted Fatma (Moemen, Head Architect and Designer at RDW Architects), who helped us with the mechanics and designs. We employed a team of two workers, bought a container and some basic tools and started working – experimenting – in my backyard.
In August we had our prototype done. We hadn’t told people what we were doing, but then by chance a friend of mine disclosed that his parents were interested in building a container home on their land. They told us what they had in mind, we created designs and built the house in two months in my backyard. It was a great success and they loved it.
At this point, with nothing in the pipeline, we started writing and sending tailored proposals to all the companies we could find contact details for. We didn’t get any replies. Through Facebook I ended up connecting with Ali Mazhar, the owner of BeFit. He responded immediately to the customised proposal I sent him and shortly afterwards we started work on his project, using two 40 foot containers.
We discovered it was going to be difficult to do this work in my backyard so we found a warehouse to rent. We faced endless logistical problems – with electricity, water, plumbing; we had seven workers and no manager or engineer on hand. Still we completed the project successfully in two months.
Once we delivered that, we were offered a project with Ski Egypt, who wanted a restaurant in the ski slope. This was also full of challenges, as we were working on a very tight schedule and they had requested a container that could be disassembled and reassembled, without any welding. This turned out to be another great learning experience.
We became more confident in our abilities and started to have more pitching meetings. Then the article that Cairo Scene wrote gave us a big boost; people started to really take notice of what we were doing and were impressed.
So at this point overall we have delivered 18 projects. Many of these have been for the food and beverage industry, because that is particularly active in the summer. Everyone loves the idea of having a fully branded, transportable container which you can move during the season. Because we also provide the logistics, it means that brands don’t miss opportunities or seasons. Cost wise and time wise, it is very attractive to all our clients. On average it takes between four and five weeks to complete a project; really big ones may take nine weeks. So we’ve taken it from there.
From our perspective, this is just a different way of building things and we are trying to serve as many different people as we can. We want to cater to private people, retailers, service providers and businesses.
LT: How receptive have people in Egypt been to this idea, especially considering the trend in the real estate sector for larger buildings?
YF: I think the trend for larger buildings will die out in time. Within certain demographics in the country, there is a trend towards minimalism and I really believe that this will only increase and that the real estate bubble will pop soon. Prices are going up, inflation is increasing, yet incomes are going down; the figures don’t add up. People buy in bulk, intending to sell at a profit, but with so many people doing this there will soon be more supply than demand and people will end up losing their money and looking for other solutions, such as what we offer.
In four or five years, we as Qubix want to have established a community of homes made from containers, a community of like-minded people. We have unique designs and buildings that are environmentally friendly and cost effective. As a trend, it is picking up. At the beginning we would have to spend the first 40 minutes of any meeting just pitching our idea, but now people understand and like our concept so we can go straight into looking at how to apply it.
The uniqueness and adaptability of the idea helps it sell itself. I think the fact that our scope of work is turnkey also makes a difference. We handle everything – from the design to the layout, construction, delivery, branding and signage. This is different from any other company working in this area and we hope it makes our clients feel comfortable and that they are spending their money wisely.
LT: You have said that urban development and low-income projects are among your core goals with this initiative. How do you see that developing?
YF: Karim and I were recently speakers in a forum organised by Engage Consultancy, which focused on establishing private-public relationships for development. We were discussing innovative ideas for urban development, with a particular focus on slum areas and it reminded me that, when we first came up with the idea of Qubix, I immediately thought of how great it would be to rebuild the slum areas using shipping containers.
The slum areas in Egypt constitute a big problem. They are not licenced, are often unsafe and built wrongly and even aesthetically they are ugly to look at. This is not how people should be living.
Because our containers are 100% built offsite, the badly constructed buildings in the slum areas could be knocked down and replaced within days or weeks with our containers, which would be built with the right infrastructure, electricity and piping – and which could even be solar panelled. We would give a different interior to people’s homes, helping them to live with greater dignity and to treat the country in a more respectable way.
Currently the country is spending billions to relocate people from slum areas to empty land that has been redeveloped, where they have built compounds for low income housing. But people can’t just be expected to relocate to a totally different area, leaving their family, social circle and livelihoods – especially if there is no reliable and affordable public transportation.
To implement an initiative like this, we would have to work with the government: the Housing and Development Bank or the Ministry of Housing. They would have to recognise it as being an unconventional way of solving a problem they have been trying to solve for years.
LT: So speaking more broadly, how do you see the future for Qubix?
YF: The truth is, the company could develop in many different directions. One area that we believe could be very exciting and full of potential is exporting. We cost twelve times less than our competitors in the US or Europe and because this industry is not yet established at the international level, there is no reason why Egypt shouldn’t be the market leader. We offer cheaper labour and materials, we have highly qualified and competent workers, exporting is easy and obviously so is shipping – these are shipping containers!
This does not just apply to retail. We could work with the UN to provide refugee housing, which would align with the kinds of solutions they are looking for. We could build public bathrooms, schools, mobile clinics. There are so many opportunities, so many different services we could provide.