Onsi Sawiris: Memorialising the Tycoon’s Legacy

Onsi Sawiris: Memorialising the Tycoon’s Legacy
Onsi Sawiris in Cairo in 2006. Photographer: Axel Krause/laif/Redux

Onsi Sawiris, 90, passed away on Tuesday morning in the resort town of El Gouna. The billionaire patriarch of the Sawiris dynasty leaves behind a formidable empire of trailblazing innovation and unprecedented success. As Egypt’s business community mourns the loss of the Orascom conglomerate’s forefather, we highlight some of the icon’s milestones throughout his epoch-making career.

From Soil and Seeds, to Brick and Mortar

Sawiris was born in 1930 to a lawyer father in Upper Egypt’s Sohag. He graduated from Cairo University after studying engineering and agriculture, with the goal of taking on his father’s almost 52-acre land, and leading the family’s extended business. Both of Sawiris’ brothers took after their father by pursuing a legal career, so it was left to the newly graduated Onsi to develop a knack for tending to the farmland.

After two years of working on the farm, Sawiris came to the apt conclusion that this might not be his calling. Leaving the world of cultivation behind, he went on to start his own construction company in 1950. After a mere decade into its establishment, the company had amassed great success, becoming one of the country’s largest contractors, and a lead point in building major infrastructure.

The Birth of Orascom: There and Back Again

After President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s several reforms to Egypt’s economy in the early 1960s, Sawiris’ business was nationalised and renamed ‘El Nasr Civil Works Company’. Coinciding with that time, Sawiris departed for Libya, leaving behind his wife and three sons, citing ‘expanding the business to Arab countries’ as his reason, but it’s argued that it was also accompanied by an irritation at now only being an employee of his own company. 

During his 12-year stay in Libya, he founded a contracting company, and looks back at the time fondly, attributing many of his business learnings to his time in the North African country. As friction arose between Egypt and Libya, Sawiris returned to Egypt during its new dawn of rule under President Anwar el-Sadat in the 1970s. Already a veteran entrepreneur, Sawiris then rebuilt his firm back from scratch, officially founding Orascom Construction Industries. And it was then that it catapulted from being a company, into being a conglomerate.

A Sole Firm Turned Empire

Onsi Sawiris was renowned as a sharp, stern and quick-witted businessman. This reputation dispersed well beyond Egypt’s borders, and helped lay the groundwork for Orascom to form partnerships with international companies to work on local endeavours. By the mid-90s, Orascom had become a juggernaut conglomerate. Establishing three separate entities in three industries: telecommunications (Orascom Telecom), real estate (Orascom Development) and construction with the forerunning Orascom Construction Industries.

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Sawiris with his three sons, Naguib, Samih and Nassef.

Each of the organisations were later spearheaded by one of Sawiris’ sons, where they were given full autonomy to lead their respective slice of the Orascom empire. Orascom Telecom was helmed by his eldest son, Naguib, Orascom Development led by middle son, Samih, and Orascom Construction by the youngest, Nassef.

A Resonant Legacy

The Orascom companies, all of which have either morphed into different entities, been acquired or remain in their original form, currently employ more than 120,000 people globally. Sawiris’ philanthropic efforts also include founding the ‘Onsi Sawiris Scholarship Program’, a scholarship program that afforded budding Egyptian talents the chance to study abroad and committing to importing the knowledge back to the country after graduation. On top of the program, the Sawiris family also established a foundation for social development that is regarded as Egypt’s first family-founded donor foundations.

The impact Sawiris has accomplished throughout his lifetime has positioned him forevermore as a diligent businessman, an influential icon that has left an astounding footprint. Sawiris is survived by his wife Yousriya Loza Sawiris, his three sons and 13 grandchildren.

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