More than 4,500 years ago, Egyptian Makers built the pyramids of Giza, among the most impressive handmade structures on Earth, which continue to inspire and awe to this day. With this rich history, naturally, Egypt has no shortage of Makers, but in the modern day, the community was in need of a catalyst to bring them together. Enter the inaugural Cairo Mini Maker Faire in 2015, the first-ever Faire to take place in the Arab world. Organized by Fab Lab Egypt in collaboration with Information Resource Center of the U.S. Embassy and their partner, Powered by Intel, the event drew over 5,000 attendees. This year the organizers are upping the ante and hosting the large-scale Maker Faire Cairo, set to take place on the Greek Campus on March 26. We caught up with Fab Lab Egypt’s Omar El-Safty, who has been a driving force on the organizing committee from the beginning, to get the inside scoop on how Maker Faire has affected the Maker community and what to expect this year.
Last year you helped organize the first Maker Faire in the Arab world: Cairo Mini Maker Faire. What were some highlights you can share? Please describe the energy level of this first-time event and how it was received by the community.
As you might know, not many people in the Middle East are exposed to advanced technology, scientific research, and open-source community, and people always feel that these cool things are not applicable in our countries. Even if we have some great brains who can make cool stuff, people don’t know them. Actually, that was one of the drivers for us to start Maker Faire Cairo.
We believe that we have a great Maker community, but people are not working together; they don’t know each other and they can’t approach normal people to engage them. Maker Faire Cairo was a great opportunity to connect all the community. With the theme of “Making is Fun,” we managed to have families and people with no technical background as participants, and the feedback was super positive. Everyone was having fun!
There were more than 5000 attendees of different ages and backgrounds attending 32+ workshops and 24+ talks and touring around the Maker exhibition, which included more than 95 Makers. Kids were playing with ROVs and drones, and people were watching fighting robots. Once you got in, you could feel the energetic atmosphere. You don’t find such a large number of participants attending a making/technical-related event in the Arab world every day.
Over the past year, what effect has hosting a Maker Faire in Cairo had on the community at large?
We cannot say that everything that has happened over the past year is directly related to the Cairo Mini Maker Faire, but we believe it was a great boost for the community. Statistically, more than four makerspaces have opened their doors to the public, and Fab Lab Egypt is working on establishing five to seven fab labs in different governorates during the next couple of months. Several hardware startups have been launched, and I personally know two startups who started their businesses at Cairo Mini Maker Faire. I consider them among the most successful and active startups in Egypt. One of them is building high-quality FDM 3D printers and has started exporting them globally!
The most interesting thing is that four years ago, you would never hear a term like “Maker” or “makerspace,” and Fab Lab Egypt and other makerspaces struggled to plant the seeds of this movement. Now it’s a trend! You can see people sharing tech news and discussing Maker culture, DIY, and personal fabrication more often. We’re happy and believe the next two years are going to be a great success for the Maker Movement in the Arab world.
You’ve gone from a Mini Maker Faire to a full featured Faire this year. What inspired you to up the ante for 2016?
Because we believe that the Arab world has a great community and only needs opportunities and a light push, we were planning from day one to have a featured Maker Faire, but we had to have a demo to make sure that we’re capable of organizing such a huge event and that the community is ready. After the great success of Cairo Mini Maker Faire and Dale Dougherty’s great article about the event, we were encouraged to proceed and ask for a featured Maker Faire license, and here we are! The first featured Maker Faire in Egypt and the Arab world will take place in Cairo, and hopefully it’s going to be great!
One of your objectives this year is to build an outreach network targeting the non-Egyptian Arab community. What have you done to reach out and what other Arab countries will be represented this year?
Actually, we cannot assure that all the Arab makerspaces will make it to Maker Faire Cairo, but as the first featured Maker Faire in Egypt and the Arab world, we’re doing our best to invite all the fab labs, makerspaces, and hackerspaces to join us and to invite their communities to exhibit projects at Maker Faire Cairo and socialize with partners, sponsors, and international speakers. We extended an invitation to Makers in Kuwait, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan. Several representatives confirmed their participation, but the main issues were travel expenses and the cost of shipping projects. Next year we will work extremely hard on getting dedicated sponsors for helping Arab Makers financially in order to engage them more.
How many makerspaces are there currently in Cairo? What can you share about the government closure of Cairo Hackerspace earlier this year?
Around seven makerspaces, and most of them are actively serving the community and doing a lot of activities. Each space has its own different taste and mindset. Outside Cairo, Maker culture has started to reach other governorates also. There are three makerspaces in Alexandria and around four makerspaces in other governorates.
Actually, we don’t know the truth about the closure of Cairo Hackerspace. All we’ve heard is that it was a misunderstanding or some kind of penalty due to not following some safety guidelines and rules (that information was published on social media). Anyways, the good news is Townhouse (the hub that includes Cairo Hackerspace) has opened its doors again recently.
Tell us about the Fab Lab on Wheels program.
One of the challenges the community faces in Egypt is centralization: most of the facilities and services are located in Cairo, and you cannot find a replacement in the rest of the governorates. Fab Lab Egypt and Giza Systems are collaborating with other sponsors and partners to launch the Fab Lab on Wheels (FLOW) program by August, with the goal of democratizing technology and access to tools, machines, and technical knowledge and spreading Maker culture all over Egypt. The mobile fab lab will stay in each governorate for two months to provide workshops, training programs, and access to the facility, and then will establish a fixed local makerspace before leaving, with the target of covering no less than five governorates per year.
You mentioned that this year’s theme is large projects. Can you please mention a few?
Most of the projects are still classified, as we’re planning to reveal them on the day of the event, but exclusively I can tell you that Fouad Adel, who made the Iron Man suit last year that was the icon of the Faire, is working this year on a four-meter-tall Hulk Buster to be located in the middle of the event venue. We also have many other big projects that will be exhibited, like Ahmed El-Banna’s 24-inch-diameter PVC speakers, Project SETH, human-powered vehicles, Formula and Baja cars, and much more.
What else can attendees expect at this year’s Faire? What will be different now that it’s a featured Faire?
As a featured Maker Faire, we’re trying this year to hit some topics that are new to our community, like nanotechnology, biohacking, and advanced robotics. That was the main reason for inviting some featured international entities speakers like Shingo Hisakawa from Japan, who has built a DIY DNA amplifier, and Backyard Brains, who build DIY neuroscience kits and are going to demo their human-human interface experiment. Also, this year we invited e-NABLE and Open Bionics, the two biggest entities working on 3D-printed prosthetics, and they will participate in a panel discussion that will be the first of its type.
For the community, this Faire will be an opportunity to invite all the Makers to collaborate and work together throughout the year. For this reason, we’re offering partitions for all the Maker/hackerspaces to show their work and projects and have invited all of them to a panel discussion to talk about the common challenges and how we could develop an ecosystem and enhance the Maker culture in Egypt.
What would you say uniquely defines the Egyptian maker community?
I personally believe in the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention,” and that’s why most developing countries have great communities of Makers and innovators who are always seeking to find and develope local solutions with social impact, regardless of the lack of resources and even the governmental and cultural restrictions. Even though the Maker community is not mature enough yet, once someone finds his passion in making stuff, he gets fully dedicated and starts looking for solutions to his daily-life issues. We’re known for our good sense of humor.
Actually, Egypt has many brilliant engineers, and I believe that relates to our history and ancestors in some way or another. The most important thing, in my point of view, is that although Egypt has been taken over by different civilizations and people through history, Egyptians have kept their language, accent, traditions, and culture. They’ve even affected their occupiers and I believe once the Maker community in Egypt gets mature enough, they’re going to have their own taste and mindset and will actually add to the Maker community in general.
For all the information you need to attend, including a full list of exhibiting Makers and a schedule of events, head to the Maker Faire Cairo site. Maker Media founder and CEO Dale Dougherty will be there, speaking about the Maker Movement!