Radwa Rostom is a young civil engineer who is the founder of “Hand Over”, a social enterprise that works to provide sustainable, resilient and affordable housing units for low-income families in Egypt while empowering local residents and providing training for architecture and engineering students. She was named as Arabian Business’s 30th most powerful Arab under 40 and recently she won the World Back competition “Women for resilient cities”. In addition to her start-up, Radwa works as a training and CSR specialist at the Solar Energy Company (www.shamsak.com) and business developer at WeForest Organization (www.weforest.org)
| 1. Tell us a little bit about your background.
I am from Cairo, Egypt and I grew up in Doha, Qatar. I came back to Egypt to attend university and I studied civil engineering at Ain Shams University. During my college years, I worked for several community organizations and NGOs. These were opportunities I didn’t get in Qatar. After graduation I worked in an aluminum construction company. However, after few years, I realized this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life because I was passionate about working with the community and in the environmental field. So I started studying and searching for opportunities to work in my field but for projects that promote sustainability and are good for the environment and the community. After a year of studying and reading, I found a vacancy, working in an environmental consulting firm that focuses on how to make the buildings more sustainable in terms of energy consumption and energy management. In January 2014, I saw a post about a fellowship opportunity offered by the DO School in Hamburg, Germany, which I quickly applied for with just the idea to provide humane shelters to less fortunate people. (Back in college, I had an opportunity to work with these communities but we were helping them with just the basics. I had the idea to help them with what we were studying in construction but I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have many resources back then.) I got accepted in the fellowship and I started learning about how to plan for a project, how to utilize an idea and how to implement it. The fellowship program had two phases: incubation and implementation phase. The good thing is that the organization helped monitor the implementation so I came back to Egypt with a clear plan as to how to make this work. I started by going back to the same district that I used to work in when I was in college. I already knew the entities working there and before starting our work, we collaborated to create a bigger impact.
| 2. So how does the project work?
The project’s goal is to help residents build sustainable houses using natural materials so we don’t add another issue, which is more pollution. We started by preparing a comprehensive training program for the engineering students who work with the residents. Since we started as an initiative, we didn’t have any source of income so I asked a couple of friends and experts to assist me in creating the curriculum and they were extremely generous with their time, effort and knowledge. We created nine workshop modules with team building, human centered designs, and sustainability in construction. Afterwards, We started recruiting engineering students and graduates for this collaboration. During the training module, the participants went to the informal district and had several conversations with the residents about their conditions, their needs and their expectations for the family house. We then started with one house (which will be the prototype) and did few proposals. We showed it to the residents and started to modify it with their input. We also worked with architects and engineers who reviewed the proposals so that the designs would satisfy the social and technical part. As of today, we are preparing for the implementation phase. We are working in this project in collaboration with an existing initiative called “Ezbet project” they will be assisting us in the implementation phase. We will demolish the current house and work with labors from the area itself to build the prototype. Then we hope to review how the process went in parallel to establishing the initiative as a social enterprise so that we can have a stable business model.
| 3. How did you get funding for the project?
In this stage, because it’s the prototyping stage, we don’t have a steady revenue stream, so we did an online crowd-funding campaign and we also got a sponsor, an Egyptian construction company called “PCP”. We are already working on registering the idea so for now our revenue stream will be mainly from the sponsors and hopefully in the future we will be able to collaborate with financial institutions to provide micro-loans for the residents. One of our core values is that we don’t want it to be a charity project. The idea is that they will be able to own their houses but they will pay for it through flexible installments. Most of the people we are working with already own the property and have been wanting to rebuild their houses. We want them to feel the sense of ownership so that’s why we make sure they assist in the design and the process. This also gives the students the ability to have a hands-on experience. We also aim to continue giving workshops and training for students and graduates and this will contribute in some funds for the projects.
| 4. What kind of training do the residents go through?
Basically we work with laborers from the area itself and we have engineers who monitor the work on site. We will teach them about the building technique during the construction. We will have experts who are knowledgeable about this technique and will pass the knowledge to the laborers.
| 5. The technique you are using is called rammed earth. What is it exactly?
Rammed earth is one of many techniques of earth construction; it depends on using earth materials like gravel, sand, and mud. You mix them with a certain ratio to guarantee the strength of the walls. It is an ancient technique used thousands of years ago but recently architects around the world are reviving these techniques. It is a much cheaper alternative to using concrete and steel. Besides being sustainable it has other advantages. It is good for hot climates because it provides good insulation and ventilation and it is easy to learn and easy to do. That’s why we are working with students. It’s not the same technique used to build the pyramids, which used blocks, but is the technique used in some parts of the Great Wall of China and Al Hamra Palace. We are also open to any technique that is sustainable and uses local materials. There are lots of indicators that people are interested in this and its use in powering communities. In some countries they use it in fancy buildings, but for this technique to get very popular, it needs some technical regulations like codes and standards. In Egypt, they are still in the studying phase of this technique so you can still not use it in the wide range. However, in Mexico, some countries in Africa, and areas in Europe, architects are being drawn to this technique and are doing research on how to make it more popular and resilient.
| 6. So what is the next step for the project?
We are already working on our prototype and at the same time we are working on connecting with partners for upcoming projects. I don’t think we will wait for one project to end and start the other one. We would like to not just finish a project but also be continuous. Our aim is to grow enough to work on the community level and neighborhood level. I’m looking for partners to help us launch the enterprise. Right now we are planning for two projects in two different governorates in Egypt. We are always interested in working with people from different countries and from different backgrounds.
| 7. What advice do you have for young girls thinking of going into engineering?
Engineering in general doesn’t only depend on what you learn in university, you need to constantly stay up to date with the latest in your field of study and apply what you learn in a practical way. If your college is not making this available to you, then you have to find it on your own. Look online and find programs where you can expand your knowledge and experience. You should be more open-minded about job potentials and try to discover options to widen your scope. When I was researching for sustainable opportunities in the construction field, I did just that. Follow your passion, if you are interested in other topics not related to your study, it’s fine to expand and explore new options, you do not have to be bounded by your degree.
| 8. What advice do you have for other young entrepreneurs?
It’s always good to start talking about your dreams because I feel that they eventually find their way and do happen. It feels odd or hard when it’s just an idea but all it takes is to have the guts, take the first step and the rest will just follow! A good idea is worth nothing if it is not implemented. Networking is the key word for any start-up, because it connects you with people from different areas and will allow you to reach out for advice from experts. When I first started the project, I contacted experts and architects from all over the world, to get their advice and learn from their experience, I ended up having mentors and advisors from different countries, who were very helpful to me, you will be surprised that there are so many things you never thought about. I would advise young women who are still in school to make good use of their time because time is your irreplaceable; I work in two part-time jobs besides working on my start-up. If you find a good opportunity, just seize it and take advantage of it, especially before you have any commitments. Afterwards, once you have all these opportunities and experiences under your belt, you will be able to work more smoothly. This of course requires time management, which is another important thing to have. It is a very hard thing to do, but when you commit to things you love, you will make the time. A very useful tip that you will possibility need, is to surround yourself with positive and supportive people. There will definitely be several challenges, competitors, even enemies sometime, your support system will help you overcome such circumstances and will be your comfort zone when things fall apart. My last advice would be “Celebrate your success” usually when people are involved in the daily tasks, routine and challenges, they tend to forget about their successes and achievements, it is good to keep track of these things as well and make time for celebration to be able to rise up once again and proceed in your journey.
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