555 strikes back: How coronavirus revived an Egyptian brand from the 1920s

Zeinab El-Gundy , Saturday 4 Apr 2020

Unlike many businesses that were hard-hit by coronavirus, the public sector’s Kesma and Chabrawichi made a strong comeback

555 strikes back
queues outside Kesma and Charawichi outlet in Cairo's Downtown "Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy"

As the prices of imported alcohol-based sanitisers and disinfectants doubled or tripled in the past two weeks in Egypt and pharmacies nationwide ran out of stock of ethyl alcohol due to the public's rising demand as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, millions of Egyptians began looking for alternatives.

The search did not take long because there is a cheap local alternative with high concertation of alcohol that has been lying hidden and forgotten in the closets and armoires of many Egyptian homes. Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages reminded people of the Egyptian average household item until the 1990s that is affordable in price: the one and only “555” eau de cologne with its 70 percent and 90 percent alcohol concentration.

The discovery led to the quick disappearance of the eau de cologne, produced by the famous “Kesma and Chabrawichi” factory, from the shelves of pharmacies where it is usually sold. Soon enough, the people found out there are outlets for the public-sector company in governorates, including Cairo.

Since the re-discovery of 555,  the people have been lining up in front of the small outlet at Cairo's Downtown crossroads facing the Central Bank of Egypt.

Ahram Online checked out the outlet and spoke with the vendors and customers who were standing for hours waiting for their turn.

It was hard to go inside the small outlet because there was only a small opening in the outlet’s folding sliding metal door allowing for one company representative to receive customers' orders, while the rest of the shop, as appeared from the glass windows, was full of brown boxes of several brands and 555 boxes.

queues outside Kesma and Charawichi outlet in Cairo's Downtown "Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy"

In an organised fashion, women lined up in a queue and men formed another -- which was much longer.

Karima, a housewife in her 50s, went to the outlet after knowing about it on social media. She could no longer find the 555 in the pharmacies close to her house. She also learnt the eau de cologne was sold at a less expensive price in the outlet than in pharmacies.

“I have been standing here for nearly four hours. Our queue is shorter, but it is not moving a bit because the men are pushing their queue faster, giving us no chance,” she told Ahram Online while holding the end of her cloth veil as a makeshift mask.

Other women, all in their 50s and 60s, began to speak in a loud voice complaining about the long wait. The loud voices turned into shouts when a female janitor came from the street and tried to skip the queue.

“Go back to the end,” Karima told the woman. 

“I am not here to buy anything. They sent me from the office in that building to know the prices of the bottles,” the other woman said, pointing towards a nearby building.

Karima and other ladies standing in the queue told Ahram Online that that woman was not the first to try to skip the line, and that another woman “used her old age” to get to the company’s representative from the men’s queue to buy several boxes several times.

“She came twice before and bought two boxes. It seems she buys them for some shop or to sell them on the black market,” Karima said as the old, thin woman returned back pushing her way through the men’s queue with a stack of EGP 200s to get another 555 box while some men began to question her actions.

555 returns as a super hero in the latest ad released by the public sector company "Photo: Kesma and Chebrawichi official Facebook page"

The black market has already been booming in the current coronavirus crisis. There are several reports about the Egyptian police and the Administrative Control Authority making daily busts of large quantities of disinfectants, sanitisers and medical masks ready to be sold for double and triple their prices.

Back to the Kesma and Chabrawichi outlet. At the very long men’s queue, some men were getting weary and tense as they had been standing in the queue for long hours. Some refused to speak to this reporter, while others complained the eau de cologne was being sold at that outlet for a higher price than that of the factory’s outlet at Giza’s El-Hawamdeya district.

Before the coronavirus outbreak in Egypt, the 260 ml plastic bottle of 555 was sold for EGP 18 at pharmacies. Now it is officially being sold for EGP 36.

Ahram Online could not speak with the company representative. He was either taking the orders of the angry customers who were exhausted from the long wait or he was behind the closed metal folding door arranging the orders with his colleagues.

The story of the 555 goes back to 1920, when a self-made industrialist hailing from a Nile Delta village in Dahaqliya governorate opened a small shop in Cairo’s Al-Hussein popular area concocted strong lemon fragrance with pure natural ethanoyl alcohol. 

From there started the tale of Egypt’s top and probably most famous perfume-maker in the first half of the 20th century Hamza Chabrawichi and his perfumes and cosmetics empire.

Egyptian industrialist Hamza Chabrawichi

Before Kesma and the public sector: The story of Chabrawichi

Until 1950, Hamza Chabrawichi had in his company’s perfumes catalogue about 20 perfumes, some of which have survived both time and globalisation, such as 555, Secret, May Fair and Femme Chic; mostly thanks to the older generations of Egyptian women who still wear them.

After the July 1952 Free Officers movement and the end of the monarchy as well the introduction of nationalisation policies in Egypt, Chabrawichi kept his perfumes company for some time as it turned out that not only did king Farouk use the 555, but so did president Gamal Abdel-Nasser as well.

In his book “Egypt’s Craftsmen”, author Omar Taher wrote about the Chabrawichis, and he found out that Nasser had admired Hamza Chabrawichi as a self-made industrialist who, despite his detachment from politics, he supported and donated huge sums of money to Egypt’s megaproject, the Aswan High Dam.

Yet that admiration came to end in 1965 when the old man travelled to Switzerland to be treated from a stroke.

Following his recovery, Hamza El-Chabrawichi developed the same fear other Egyptian industrialists who have been nationalised had. He moved to Lebanon and opened a cosmetics and perfumes factory there.

His fears came true. In Cairo his name was added to the nationalisation list and all his properties including his factories and villas were confiscated and became a public-sector property.

In the late 1960s, he passed away, leaving a long legacy that is being remembered in the hardest and the strangest of times: the time of a global pandemic.

Chabrawichi post-merger

After the nationalisation, the government decided to merge Chabrawichi cosmetics and perfumes company with Kesma cosmetics and perfumes public-sector company in 1967 which it founded in the early 1960s.

Thus “Kesma and Chabrawichi” Company was born.

Now the company is working under the Perfumes Factory umbrella which is a subsidiary of The Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company, which is another subsidiary of the Holding Company for Food industries which follows the Ministry of Supply.

Ahram Online contacted the administration of the factory to know more about it. Kesma and Chabrawichi Perfumes factory said it was working with its full capacity to meet the huge demand in the future and that it has already enough stock.

In March, Egypt’s Supply Minister Ali Moselhi announced that Chabrawichi’s 555 would be available in the state-owned Consumer Complexes nationwide where the 250 ML plastic bottle would be available for EGP 38.

The minister also announced in a media statement that the factory would pump 10,000 bottles into the market soon.

Asked whether the factory was affected by the shortage of alcohol in the country and its soaring price, the state-owned perfumes factory said it does not suffer from that problem because all the needs of the factory are met with pure natural alcohol from sugar cane produced by the distillery factory, which is also a subsidiary of the Egyptian Sugar and Integrated Industries Company.

The distillery factory based in Minya has been producing 154,000 litres of alcohol on a daily basis. Some of those were exported in March, but then the Ministry of Trade and Industry decided to ban the export of all medical materials, including alcohol.

Historically, Hamza Chabrawichi followed that way when he had inaugurated his first factory in 1924 in Cairo’s Dar El-Salam when it was still part of the countryside. He bought a piece of agricultural land beside the factory to cultivate lemon for his perfumes, according to Omar Taher’s best selling “Egypt’s Craftsmen”.

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