Egypt, Egypt, Egypt. From the other side of the continent all we hear is bleak news about military coups, police violence and encroaching fundamentalism. But then, down here we’re also familiar with the kinds of skewed perceptions an outside world can have if all it does is read news headlines. Which is why, after researching a piece on African tech hubs for a UK publication, I was really keen to talk to an awesome lady called Aliaa Assem after seeing the photo above.
I love that picture. It toys with just about every preconception you might have about women, Islam, Egypt and headscarves. The story behind it is even better.
Assem is hand building a solar water geyser for installation in a poor community in the town of Marsa Alam on the shore of the Red Sea. It was built as part of a series of five hack days at the tech hub icecairo, in the capital, and is designed like most solar geysers to focus heat on water pipes and store the hot water in an insulated tank.
So far, the icecairo volunteers have built two geysers and a third is currently under construction.
Assem herself is 29-years-old, and is a trained telecoms and electronics engineer who is planning to enrol in an MBA course soon. She lives in Cairo and works as a Sales and Contracts Manager for a telecoms firm, and also runs a small farm in Bahria Oasis.
“I was following icecairo’s online activities when I found an event named ”3alganoob festival meeting ‘ – this was my first first visit to the downtown hub,” Assem explains, “The meeting was to initiate a solar hackathon with a group of experts, students and interesting people gathered. The aim was to provide a green source for energy and utilities for a remote area as well as to train locals to build and maintain the products. We all outlined three projects – Solar Water Heater, LED Light Solar, and Solar Water Still – to be our targets. The team decided to start with the Solar Water Heater first.”
Assem says that she’s really keen to make sure people in areas like Marsa Alam can learn how to build the heaters themselves using local materials. It’s fairly straightforward, she says, in as much as she’d had no previous experience of this kind of work before either.
“The first time it took five sessions to build a heater,” Assam explains, “But the second time, after we had experience, it was finished and installed in two days and four hours.”
Cairo is a dangerous place to be a woman at the moment, incidents of sexual violence have gone through the roof and a staggering 99.3% of women have faced down some sort of sexual harrasment. Assam admits that she doesn’t go out after dark any more or feel safe in her home town. She’s incredibly upbeat about the potential for icecairo’s work, though.
“Places like icecairo play a great role to bring together specialists and interested people to share knowledge, tools, skills and resources,” she tells us, “All in a way to improve the environment and increase employment in the green sector. This network communication grants great opportunity for people interested in the same topic to collaborate on projects together, thus starting their own business.
“I think Egypt is in a serious need for these kind of places due to the unemployment that became higher than it’s ever been after 2011’s revolution, as well as the lack of awareness about environment and renewable energy. In addition they help to bridge up the huge gap between academic education and practical work.”
Truly humbling stuff.