This article shares Dale Dougherty’s experiences visiting Egypt and draws on two articles previously published by Dale on Medium, “Young Makers on the Rise of Egypt” and “Not Impossible: The First Maker Faire in Egypt“.
Crossing the street in Tahrir Square in Cairo is an adventure. There are no crosswalks or streetlights. You cross wherever you choose to do so, at your own risk. Drivers decide how best to avoid you without braking. That’s what it is like to cross over to the Egyptian Museum where the treasures of King Tut’s tomb are on display.
Tahrir Square was the epicenter of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. It was a revolution that partially succeeded by toppling the government. Next to the rose-colored Egyptian Museum was once the burned-out headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which last year stood out as a reminder of the revolution’s fury, but which a year later had been completely demolished. Only sand and rubble remained in a fenced-off lot.
While Arab Spring did not bring about the kind of economic and political change that most people hoped for, those who participated in it felt that they had changed and their world was different. In the aftermath of Arab Spring, the maker movement has been on the rise, not just in Egypt but across the Arab world, particularly among young people who are exploring a newfound freedom to decide for themselves what the future holds. They are unhappy with their government, their education system and their economy but they are positive about what they can do themselves, even on a small scale. Even if their country appears broken, they are learning how to fix things. If the country does not offer them much opportunity, they are willing to create it. They are learning from each other and reaching out to share what they can do.
I visited Egypt in 2015 and 2016, both times for Maker Faire Cairo, held at the GrEEK Campus off Tahrir Square. I haven’t met a group of makers more enthusiastic than those I met at these two events and my accompanying travels.
Fab Lab Egypt
Dina El-Zanfaly witnessed Arab Spring from afar at MIT where she was getting her Ph.D. She grew up in Alexandria and was trained as an architect and practiced in Cairo before going to MIT, where she took Neil Gershenfeld’s class, “How to Make Almost Anything.” That class got her thinking about how to create a Fab Lab in Egypt. “For me, I realized that my life would have been totally different if I grew up with a Fab Lab in my city,” she says. Her initial plans were interrupted by the events early in 2011. Then Neil forwarded her an email from Hisham Khodeir, a Cairo businessman who expressed interest in starting a Fab Lab. Dina met with him in the summer of 2011 and they got the ball rolling by reaching out to local makers they knew. “We had 3 more co-founders who donated money and effort to start,” says Dina. “It was grass-roots funding.” Hisham provided space for the lab in the same building as his business and Fab Lab Egypt opened in February 2012.
Hisham, like his wife, Nihla, has a computer science degree from the American University of Cairo. His company does localization of software and content into the Arabic language. Arab Spring of 2011 caused him “to want to leave the bubble I was in.” He saw the problems more clearly, such as unemployment reinforced by a school system that does not develop students with valuable skills and abilities. He believed that the Fab Lab could teach skills and technology in a new way. Even more, he saw the need to inspire confidence and develop a sense of belonging.
Dina shared much of the same thinking. “The education system in Egypt lacks hands-on learning activities,” she says. “Opening the lab in Cairo made me realize that learning the technical skills to use the machines and instruction-based approach aren’t enough to make makers. This made me shift my Ph.D. research towards how people learn to make things, and what they learn from making, and the roles of computational tools, theories, and practices for understanding, describing, and enriching the making process and design learning.”
Fab Lab Egypt is located in the Mohandessin district of Giza. (Mohandessin means “the engineers” in Arabic.) It is a modest space on the ground floor with beanbags, tool cabinets, and 3D printers. It serves as a social club at the crossroads of art, science, technology, and business. When a group of us stopped by on the Friday before Maker Faire, its worktables were occupied by makers finishing up projects for the event. I met a high school senior who loved making things at the space. He hoped to go to university in the United States but his grades weren’t good enough. He was frustrated that school didn’t recognize any of the work he did at the Fab Lab. “They only care about testing,” he says.
“We envisioned that someday we will have ‘designed and made in Egypt’ products,” says Dina. “It’s time to look at spreading and learning design and making as means for economic development.” The lab has seen several startups develop. “The lab and the maker movement introduced a new approach of collaboration and diversity,” she says. “Engineers now work with artists and medical doctors to create new projects, something we lacked in Egypt for so long. Instead of all the makers, hobbyists, and nerds working individually in their homes, they started to feel that they are part of a larger community of makers from different backgrounds.
“Our vision is to make and connect two million makers in the coming couple of years across Egypt,” says Dina. Today, Fab Lab Egypt has expanded to the main headquarters in downtown Cairo and manages six more Fab Labs in six governorates.
With Hisham and Dina’s leadership, the Fab Lab team helped organize both Cairo Maker Faires. The first year I met a young student who had a makeshift robot. I asked him what it did and he replied: “It’s a bomb defusing unit.” He explained that in his town there can be things in the street that one suspects could be a bomb but no police or military will come to inspect it. He built a cheap robot with a camera and claw that he could direct to do that task. The second year I met others with robots to detect mines in remote regions. The mines dated back to World War II; afterward I read a story in the local paper where several people had been killed by such a mine.
Change of Culture
Samar Hamdy attended Maker Faire Cairo for the first time this year. An engineer who works in marketing at an engineering firm, Samar said that it was an opportunity for Egyptians “to prove that ‘yes we can.’” She met entrepreneurs, students, kids, mothers, and “not only people from the engineering sector.” What she liked was that Maker Faire encourages each person “to dream and reach for his/her goals.”
“You can feel the excitement in the air,” exclaimed Hoda Mustafa on Twitter during the Maker Faire. The excitement came from makers finding each other and getting connected. It’s a young maker community that is forming here in Cairo and in the second year’s visit, I had the feeling that the makers not only were participating, but they were able to articulate what coming together meant to them.
Sam Almahy was shooting video for Fab Lab Egypt at the event. I grabbed lunch with him, visiting a traditional koshari restaurant. Over our meal, he told me that what he found at Fab Lab and at Maker Faire was the support from others. “We don’t have that in our culture,” he says. He meant that the recognition and encouragement that makers received from each other was the most important thing. Just a pat on the back made a difference.
“What happens here will influence the rest of our world,” Hisham told me, referring to the influential role that Egypt plays as a cultural center for the Arab world. Others from countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia were coming to learn about Fab Lab Egypt and Maker Faire, hoping to create versions in their communities.
New Entrepreneurial Opportunities
During his final semester in an engineering program at Cairo University, Amr Saleh was down in Tahrir Square joining others, mostly young, in protesting. “I got a call from my supervisor at the university who said ‘Dude, you need to get back to work,’” he tells me. The revolution impacted Amr in many ways but it wasn’t the primary motivation for him to become an entrepreneur. He had already come to that conclusion on his own. “I wanted to do something different,” he told me. He wasn’t looking for a job; he wanted to make a product. With his university colleagues, he entered a competition for Egyptian Engineering Day and won a prize for a “smart breadboard.” After graduation, he tried developing a commercial version but was unsuccessful.
Amr first learned about Arduino not in college, but by taking an Arduino workshop at Fab Lab Egypt with his CTO after working on their smart breadboard project. The course was taught by Omar El Safty, who was the lead organizer for the second Cairo Maker Faire and who must have been about 18 at the time. Amr’s CTO developed their first Arduino project. “Its purpose was to prank me into thinking something was wrong” with the apartment they shared, Amr recalls. Their hands-on experience with Arduino led them to recognize the market need for a shield that connects to your smart phone, providing access to the onboard sensors. “We didn’t think it made sense for people to have to buy a different shield for each project to add sensors and control to Arduino applications when those sensors already existed on your smartphone,” he says. 1Sheeld was born.
Smart and friendly, Amr was the first to run a Kickstarter in Egypt. With a goal of $10,000, 1Sheeld raised $85,000. It was a big relief, as he would have had to close the business without the funds. About 50% of the backers were from the U.S. but there were people from 55 countries, including Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Their first run of boards was 2,000 with 1,300 going out to backers. Soon, they had lined up 30 distributors.
He was surprised by who bought the product and began using it. “We thought we’d be selling it to students who were college age, but we saw much older users in our community,” he says. One of them was using 1Sheeld to control a microscope with his cellphone.
Amr’s intention is to keep building products that serve makers. “It’s an amazing audience to serve, and there’s a real market there,” he added. Now, the company is profitable, though still small. They just launched a new product for home automation.
“The entrepreneurship community in Egypt is very supportive,” says Amr who has started organizing Hardware Startup Meetups in Cairo. Yet there are real challenges on many levels. “Ordering wireless components and getting them through customs is difficult,” he says. You can build drones but you can’t fly them. Some of the challenges are even more serious. Two of his interns were riding a bus back home when they were stopped by police, who looked them over and found an Arduino, breadboard and wires. The interns were taken to jail and detained for 45 days. “This is what’s wrong,” says Amr. “It’s not just that the police made a mistake in detaining them, but it took them 45 days to deal with it. I could understand if they were held overnight but 45 days! We couldn’t find out anything about them for 45 days.”
Nonetheless, Amr reflects the optimism of this new generation of makers. He thought that the revolution had changed people so that “they were now more comfortable and confident expressing themselves” and he noted it at Maker Faire. “The most valuable thing really is understanding that you are not alone,” says Amr. “I had so many people say that to me. You see everyone making connections. It’s a place for nerds, crafters, jewelry makers,” he adds.
May El-Dardiry is the technical operations lead at Fab Lab New Cairo and works as a teacher at Maadi STEM School for Girls. “We are more of a community where we encourage each other to learn,” she says, adding that she wanted them to think independently. There are 300 girls in the school and about ⅓ of them are in the lab. She said that the motto is “Eat. Study. Laugh.” “I treat them like my sisters, my friends,” says May. “I want it to be safe for them to make mistakes and learn. Some of them feel so afraid that if they make a mistake, they will fail.” In talking with May, I thought how many intangibles are involved in learning, and in particular, for becoming a maker.
Nourhan A. Fooda, a 12th-grader and one of the Maadi STEM students, demonstrated her project “An Interpretive Hand for the Voiceless” at the second Maker Faire. It was a prototype of a glove that was able to detect a wearer using sign language and translate it into text messages or even text-to-speech. The prototype used Arduino and had lots of wires hanging off a rather large black glove.
Two of the most dedicated makers I met at Maker Faire Cairo were Mena Effat and Rabab Hassan, co-founders of the Karakeeb Makerspace in Alexandria. (Karakeeb means “junk” in Egyptian Arabic.) Mena and Rabab brought kits and demonstrations such as a Jacob’s Ladder that they use in their programs with kids. They also brought two young “interns” to work their exhibit: brothers, Omar and Ali, ages 11 and 13. The day after Maker Faire, they had exams and needed time to study for them. They were worried about coming to the event, but they came anyway. It proved to be a full day and they didn’t get back home to Alexandria until 1 am. Their understanding mother let them stay home from school the next day. She went to the school herself and said that the boys were not taking their exams. Mena tells me: “She said to them: ‘They learned a lot that day. More than they learn in school. We are more than happy to present you with anything that shows you what they learned.’”
I visited Mena and Rabab at the Karakeeb Makerspace at the Jesuit Cultural Center in Alexandria. It’s a tiny space off a library — a single central table, a cabinet and shelf with supplies, and unexpectedly, a large laser cutter. It is typically open for several hours in the evening. Mena and Rabab, who both studied engineering at Alexandria University and have technical jobs, come by after work. “We do it for fun,” says Mena who is 31 and married with a young daughter. Rabab is in her late twenties. Together, they self-funded the space, which opened in 2013. They offer community workshops for local children and their parents. The first workshop was Aviation 101 — simple gliders. They like to see families come and start a project at the space and then take it home to finish. Recently, they worked with the U.N. and began offering workshops for Syrian refugees in three different places. Mena said that they offered children a chance to play. “They need that more than anything else,” he says. “They are naturally creative kids.” They began training Syrians and even the kids began organizing workshops for other children.
Mena told me a story of how they acquired their large laser cutter. One day, a man came to visit the makerspace and they told him about what they do. The man was about to be married and he told the guests that in lieu of presents, he asked for donations to buy a laser cutter. “We only saw him once,” says Mena. “I didn’t believe it when he said it, but several months later, a laser cutter showed up.”
I visited Alex Hackerspace, founded by Amr El Shair with the help of a number of makers. The space was unfinished with bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and building materials set on the ground. We sat around in a circle and each of the makers told me about the projects that they were working on. Ibrahim Abdelkader is the founder of the OpenMV project. He ran the second Kickstarter in Egypt raising over $100,000. “My goal is to make machine vision more accessible for makers,” says Ibrahim. He had just finished a thermal imaging shield. Ibrahim talked about the challenges any maker faces in ordering parts and then finding out after testing that some are defective. He said it was necessary for a project to allow for a “screwup margin.” Another group presented a universal remote control device that they said used AI to understand signals from any infrared device. Mohamed Shalaby, the maker of the Atom Open Source 3D printer, gave me a demo and said he was focusing on getting 3D printers in schools.
Amr dreams of changing education through Alex Hackerspace. He said that the labs in schools date back to the 1960s. He bought the space himself for about $40,000 and his local maker community is helping him build it out. He wants to change people’s mindset, ignite their passion, and support them in pursuing a path to their own freedom and independence. He thinks they can do it by starting their own companies. “Everyone here believes in what we are doing,” he says. “Not just me.”
On the day after this year’s Maker Faire Cairo, there was a gathering for makers at Al-Azhar Park, with its beautiful public gardens set near the Mohammed Ali mosque. All of us who came as visitors to Cairo were transfixed by the sun setting over the busy city, as we could not only see the skyline but also the pyramids in Giza in the distance. Flocks of pigeons swooped overhead. After sunset, we turned our backs to the city to sit at tables for dinner, but then the air swelled with the amplified sounds of the call for prayer, rising from many different sources but combining in one voice that just filled me with wonder and delight. I didn’t understand the words but I understood what they meant. Here was Cairo, a city of near-constant commotion, a multicultural city that blends Arab, Turkish, and western influences, a proud cultural center of the Muslim world, finding its own time of peace and its own expression of hope. Here was where the nascent maker community was coming together, enjoying each other and believing in the progress they are making together.