Remembering Our Founder, Onsi Sawiris

1930 - 2021

Onsi Sawiris, our founder, passed away peacefully in El Gouna, Egypt on 28 June 2021 surrounded by family.

Universally lauded as a pioneering entrepreneur and deeply respected as a philanthropist, Mr. Sawiris’s enduring legacy includes businesses employing over 120,000 people around the world, and the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, which has reached over 671,000 beneficiaries in the last decade.

An Entrepreneurial Spirit 

Mr. Sawiris was born in Sohag, Egypt on 14 August 1930 to Naguib Sawiris, a lawyer, and his wife, the youngest of four children.

When his older brothers became lawyers, it fell to Mr. Sawiris to manage his family’s 52-acre farm. Mr. Sawiris received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from Cairo University in 1950 and managed his family’s land at his father’s behest for two years.

In 1952, he oversaw the construction of a family building, piquing his interest in the construction industry. A born entrepreneur, he saw significant growth opportunities in the industry and together with a partner at just 22 years old, established his own construction company, Onsi & Lamei Co, which began as a road and waterways contractor.

El-Ferdan Railway Bridge, the world's longest swing bridge

An Unparalleled Work Ethic

His first major contract was the construction of artesian wells for 18 towns in Upper Egypt, allowing him to expand across the country. Over the following decade, he built his business into one of Egypt's largest general contractors.

In 1961, the business was nationalized under President Gamal Abdel Nasser and later became known as the El Nasr Civil Works Company. Mr. Sawiris continued to run the nationalized business for five years.

Not content to be an employee in his own company, Mr. Sawiris left for Libya where he continued his construction career. In 1976, he returned to Egypt and founded Orascom as a general contracting and trading company with five employees.

By the early 1990s, Mr. Sawiris had established Orascom as a leading global private sector contractor with subsidiaries around the world and had further diversified the Orascom brand to include separate companies in telecommunications, real estate development, and industrials. These businesses were eventually led by each of his sons to become leading global players in their respective industries.

Nassef Sawiris became Chief Executive Officer of Orascom Construction Industries, the predecessor company to both OCI N.V. and Orascom Construction, in 1998, and Mr. Sawiris remained Chairman until 2009.

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    World ranking of Orascom Construction on ENR

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    World ranking of OCI's nitrogen fertilizer group

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    World ranking of the Orascom Telecom group

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    World-class destinations with 33 hotels by Orascom Development

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    World ranking of OCI's methanol group

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    World ranking of the Orascom Cement group

An Unwavering Commitment to Integrity

A consummate professional, Mr. Sawiris was widely praised for his integrity, honesty, and strong work ethic.

Speaking to Forbes in 2016, Mr. Sawiris’s eldest son, Naguib, recounted a valuable lesson he learned from his father: the importance of building a reputation.

"I took a very important meeting with a customer in Switzerland, and my dad asked them, ‘What is the project? And who are you working with now in Egypt?’” When he heard the name of the competitor who was already working on the project, Naguib Sawiris's father did what was best for the potential customer. He told them, "We are so happy to work with you, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you the truth, that we cannot do as well as this gentleman. I can’t imagine you want to leave this guy. He’s as good as they come. He has the staff and the integrity you need." Afterwards, Naguib asked why his father had praised his competitor. He’d blown up the chance to get the deal, in the young man’s view. His father said it was simple: He was being honest. "People were very impressed that my dad would do that."

Zafarana Wind Farm, one of Egypt's first wind farms and the second largest in East Africa at the time of completion

An Incomparable Legacy

In addition to his legacy of entrepreneurship and innovation, Mr. Sawiris and his wife Yousriya Loza Sawiris founded the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development (SFSD) in 2001 with an endowment from the Sawiris Family as one of the first national donor foundations in Egypt.

Since its establishment, SFSD focused on addressing the most pressing issues facing the most marginalized Egyptians such as poverty, unemployment, provision of health services, and little access to quality education. Over the past 20 years, SFSD has succeeded in funding and delivering programs aimed at achieving comprehensive and sustainable development, in partnership with the governmental and private sectors, as well as civil society. 

This has resulted in the creation of thousands of job opportunities, availing quality education, and providing access to basic services for more than 671,000 beneficiaries with a focus on the most remote marginalized villages.

Mr. Sawiris also established the Onsi Sawiris Scholarship program, a private merit-based scholarship program established in 2000 as the first private full tuition scholarship for Egyptian students to study abroad at leading universities in the United States. To date, the program has financed the educational dreams of nearly 100 students.

During his lifetime, Mr. Sawiris was recognized with numerous honours and awards, including: 

  • 1998: L'ORDRE DE LEOPOLD from his Majesty the King of Belgium Albert II
  • 2007: Swedish Royal Order of the Polar Star in the presence of HRH Princess Victoria of Sweden
  • 2008: Commander in the Order of the Crown from Belgium’s Crown Prince Philippe
  • 2010: honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow

Mr. Sawiris is survived by his wife of 67 years, Yousriya Loza Sawiris, his three sons Naguib, Samih, and Nassef, and 13 grandchildren.