Building the Arab world's first sex education startup

Nour Emam is the founder of an early-stage femtech business in Egypt that's gearing up to be the first of its kind in the region. She spoke to Courier about why Mother Being is moving beyond social media to build a platform of its own.
Mother Being 16x9 hero

Egyptian women's health advocate and business owner Nour Emam code-switches in a heartbeat. One second, she's your big sister telling you about the birds and the bees; the next, she's your business mentor talking about growth trajectories and building culture-centered tech. She does it so skillfully that it starts to make sense how, just a few short years ago, the 29-year-old mother was spinning records as a full-time DJ in Cairo's electronic music scene.

Since January 2020, the ex-musician, now a doula and sex educator, has been known by the online moniker Mother Being. With 1.4 million followers across Instagram and TikTok, she's built a massive audience in her niche as a friendly, trusted source of the kind of reproductive and sexual education most Arab women never got as kids, answering important questions.

‘How do I make sense of my period?’ ‘What's vaginismus?’ ‘What do you mean virginity isn't what I think it is?’ ‘How do I begin to understand, much less take ownership of, my gynecological and obstetric health options?’

Product-market fit without a product

For close to two years, Nour's been offering Arabic-language content in the form of skits, infographics, Instagram Lives and exhaustive Q&As about a host of issues that range from the common but rarely dissected (contraceptives) to the taboo (orgasms and female pleasure). In addition to her social media content, Mother Being currently offers three online Zoom courses: Pleasure Principles: Sex Ed Reimagined; Mastering Your Cycle; and Birth Crash Course. Running between 600 to 1200 EGP ($38-$76), the courses have amassed 2,000 alumni, 30% of whom are repeat customers.

But to look at her pastel Instagram grid, you wouldn't expect to hear Nour describe Mother Being as an early-stage femtech startup, working to build the first online sexual and reproductive health school for the whole Middle East and North Africa region.

‘We've kind of reverse-engineered our approach, testing the market and validating the need for these solutions first,’ Nour says. ‘We get this joke a lot, that we have market fit before a product.’

Making women feel seen

The crux of the platform's popularity is that conventional sex education is almost non-existent in the region, and a culture of shame and misinformation is pervasive across countries and social classes. Women want to take ownership over their bodies and sexualities, particularly from the safety and privacy of their phone screens.

The limited and often erroneous education that does happen informally is often steeped in euphemism, perpetuating common myths like how losing your virginity on your wedding night is supposed to hurt.

Blunt, playful, evidence-based and culture-centered, Mother Being has tapped into the sense of connection Arab women feel when information is tailored to their own unique experiences. ‘We're tackling issues that are very sensitive, so it was important to make the company very human,’ Nour says. ‘People trust people, not brands, and I think that's our edge: we're built on human connection, on empathy and with a very clear goal that users – both on social media and eventually our own platform – feel seen and heard and validated.’

Beyond social media

Nour quickly learned that user demand greatly surpassed the limitations of social media, but admits that she had never thought of Mother Being as an app or building its own platform. ‘We thought we would just film courses and upload them on a website, until we found out that people want a separate platform. They were telling us we need a place of our own where we can talk uncensored.’

Limited by social media's content guidelines, Nour's content often has to resort to the very visual euphemisms she intended to leave behind. Mother Being's Instagram was once shadowbanned for using illustrations of labia in a Story, after which the platform has learned to self-censor, while building its own alternative.

Now the plan is to launch a fully integrated body companion app for women, which will include menstrual cycle tracking, educational resources, bite-size learning and a community. At the same time, Nour plans to continue offering her courses, pivoting away from live classes to a model closer to that of online education subscription platform Masterclass

Men, Nour found, show high levels of interest in her classes, but are discouraged at the prospect of their name being visible on a Zoom. ‘They would rather attend the class alone, in private, watching it where no one has to know.’

Another lesson she's taking forward is the importance of accessibility. It's not enough to offer this learning in Arabic but cater only to affluent customers (who, arguably, have a less urgent need for these resources). This, Nour says, is a ‘big pain point’, given that people may not have the money or may come from the likes of Egypt's large unbanked population with no access to credit cards. 

‘We personally believe that no one should gatekeep this knowledge, so we're thinking of smart ways to monetize and generate revenue, without limiting it to only people who can pay for it,’ she says.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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