Not Impossible:
The First Maker Faire
in Egypt

Dale Dougherty
Mar 13, 2015 · 16 min read

On March 7, the first Cairo Mini Maker Faire was held at the Greek Campus in Cairo, just off busy Tahrir Square. This was the first Maker Faire in an Arabic-speaking country in the so-called MENA (the Middle East and Northern Africa) region.

For myself, as a first-time visitor to Egypt, there were two very different places that helped me understand the past and present that surrounded this Maker Faire. One was the Great Pyramid of Giza, the only remaining “Wonder” of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the oldest monumental building in the world, which dates back 4500 years. The second was the concrete hulk of an office building in downtown Cairo, now charred and gutted, once the home of the National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted from office four years ago in a revolution that is still deeply felt among Egyptians. Both the old and the new are compelling if not daunting.

The organizers of the Cairo Mini Maker Faire were the founders of Fab Lab Egypt, located in Giza, just outside Cairo. Dina El-Zanfaly, an MIT PhD candidate in Design and Architecture, is one of the founders and an organizer of the event. Dina is a self-professed maker but she also has “how-to” knack for community building — she knows how to get things done, how to work with all kinds of people, how to lead and how to share leadership. Community building requires the combination of organizational skills and people skills elevated by a true sense of purpose.

Today’s Maker Faire in Cairo, Dina told me, “was four long years in the making.” To some people, it would have seemed impossible.

It started in January of 2011 in Tahrir Square. “Making in The Time of Revolution” was the title of Dina’s talk in Arabic on the main stage. She explained that the maker movement in Egypt was inspired by the hope for change that were stirred by the Arab Spring. Like the revolution, the maker movement has been a grassroots, “bottom-up” effort to empower people with new ideas, new tools and new skills. Even though subsequent developments in Egypt have diminished the initial optimism (the military took control of the government in a coup), the maker movement continues to offer hope for change. “Things were stagnant, static,” she said, “The revolution showed us that things can change.”

This first Maker Faire helped bring together the maker community throughout the region and celebrate what makers do. It also helped reach new people and invite them to become part of the maker community.

“Inspiration, Ideas and Creativity”

Centered in the courtyard of the Greek Campus, which was formerly the American University of Cairo, the Maker Faire was held mostly outside (on a warm sunny day) with a maker exhibition area inside one floor of a nearby building. The playful enthusiasm of young makers doing demonstrations and talking about their projects was infectious. Over five thousand people came out for the event, a number that exceeded the expectations of the organizers. I saw many families with kids, as well as college students.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Moushira Elamrawy. “But it turned out to be awesome.” She was pleased to see such a diverse crowd including “newbies and ladies.” She added: “It’s not just Egyptians but Arabs from around the world,” Moushira commented. As she said this to me, she was interrupted with a greeting from two men, one from Saudi Arabia and the other from Iraq. There are also many Syrians in Cairo, having fled the war in their country. One moment I found touching was a group visit by Syrian refugee families who got on the stage for a group photo.

The event’s main sponsors were the American Embassy in Cairo as well as Intel. Each of them provided speakers to kick-off the event in a ceremonial fashion. U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Thomas Goldberger addressed attendees at the event, saying: “Events like this Maker Faire represent the best of the long and deep relationship between the United States and Egypt. We have the greatest respect and admiration for the inspiration, ideas, and creativity of the young people here today. They represent the future of our relationship and of the world as a whole.”

Made in October City

Motaz Elewa is a founder of Qafeer Labs, located in the Sixth of October City, an area just outside Cairo. He was wearing a black t-shirt with the message: “Made in October City.” The T-shirt calls out to a pride of place, the sense of connecting where something is made with what is made there and who makes it.

Motaz said that makers were inspired by the revolution but many thought that change would be easy. He and others have learned that it is hard. “We see things differently now,” he said, soberly. “We do it now, not for country,” he said, “but we do it because we can make a successful business.” Still, he explained that being successful as a maker can be harder in Cairo. “Often the goal of entrepreneurs is to get out of Cairo,” said Motaz. “Yet some people are staying,” he said. “It is inexpensive to live here and things are cheap,” he said, hoping that more would choose to build and participate in an ecosystem for makers.

Motaz established Qafeer Labs as an incubator. He started the space after doing a crowdfunding campaign that raised $16,000. He sees it as a creative community center and wants to focus on makers who have started projects in college or graduate school. “When students graduate, they need time and a place to continue working on their project,” he said. “While at the university students don’t own their own innovations,” he added. “Plus, universities are not good at getting innovation out of the university into the market.” He wants Qafeer Labs to help develop professional makers who can bring new products to market.

80 Makers

There were eighty maker exhibitors, ranging from robots and 3D printers to decorative lamps and jewelry.

There was one exhibit that made me stop because I had never seen anything like it before at a Maker Faire. Mohammed Nour, a maker from Upper Egypt and a student in electrical engineering, had built a robotic bomb detection unit from spare parts.

The project was called Mobtel. The robot had a camera and a claw to inspect and pick up a bomb (IED). It was operated remotely by a game controller. Mohammed said he had built the project in four weeks and just finished it the night before. I asked him why he built it: “I wanted to do something to help fight terrorism,” he said to me. He explained that such robots exist but they were expensive and might not be found in some of the neighborhoods where they are finding IEDs. The pamphlet for Mobtel states its mission: “we can solve any problem with limited abilities and unlimited thinking.”

The Sharabassy Built-Environment Studio had an exhibit with the banner: “Make The Future”. They are allied with Institute for Advanced Architecture in Catalonia (IAAC) in Barcelona, the home of the first Fab Lab outside the US. (I had visited Barcelona and IAAC prior to coming to Cairo.) Architects Rim Alaa and Hunia Tomoum demonstrated bioplastics, which degrade faster than conventional plastics. They had several soft bioplastic models that were connected to sensors and an Arduino such that the bioplastic changed color based on input from a motion sensor.

There were two do-it-yourself 3D printers on display. Amr Kamel demonstrated the “Altimaker,” which was pretty much a clone of Ultimaker. I asked Amr what made Altimaker different from Ultimaker. “Nothing much,” he admitted but his goal was to create a low-cost 3D printer that more people in his country could afford. The other 3D printer named Arizm was a tall, Delta-style printer made out of acrylic. A pamphlet said that Azim was the product of a team of mechanical engineers from Zagazig-Egypt and they hope to “spread knowledge of additive manufacturing throughout Egypt.

One of the makers pulled a small drone out of a bag and showed it to me. “They are illegal in this country,” he said, with the government citing security problems with drones. He shrugged his shoulders, saying that they find creative ways to fly drones.

Fab Lab Egypt

Located in Giza, the Fab Lab is a local hub for makers and part of the Fab Lab Network developed by Neil Gershenfeld at MIT. Fab Lab Egypt is not associated with a particular institution such as university, as some Fab Labs are. It is a non-profit, community-supported organization.

“In 2011, I was trying to open a lab in Egypt,” Dina El-Zanfaly said. Young people in Egypt should have access to laser cutters, 3D printers and other fabrication tools. Hisham Khodeir contacted Neil Gershenfeld at MIT about opening a Fab Lab. “We met in summer 2011, right after the January 25th revolution/arab spring,” she said. “Hisham provided most of the funding and we started with a couple of machines.” Hisham reached out to the community of hackers and makers in Egypt, and found others such as Mahmoud Elsafty. “We also had 3 more co-founders who donated some money and effort to start,” said Dina.

Fab Lab Egypt launched two other Fab Labs embedded in STEM schools funded by USAID in association with the Fab Foundation. “We trained the teachers and the students, and we maintain the lab,” Dina told me.

Dina is an architect, and when we were walking through Old Cairo one evening she pointed out a street feature that she had designed. She makes her way back and forth between Boston and Cairo, coming in for Maker Faire and heading back on Sunday, jumping time zones, climates and cultures.

Mohammed Abuelhagag is head of the IT Department at the lab. He is from Upper Egypt and moved to Cairo a few years ago. He said that everything in Egypt is centralized in Cairo making it difficult to do things outside of Cairo.

Hisham Khodeir, Dina’s co-founder of Fab Lab Egypt, is a thoughtful man with a kind smile. He seemed to know all that was going on behind the scenes at Maker Faire, including what the 100 volunteers were doing and how they were being managed. Yet he was always calm, amused by the activity and the number of people. He never claimed credit for anything but I had the feeling that he made things happen.

Hashim is a graduate of the American University in Cairo, who along with his wife, Nihla, studied computer science on the Greek Campus. This place where Maker Faire was held was very familiar to him. In Cairo, he sees problems like unemployment reinforced by a school system that does not develop students with valuable skills and abilities. He sees the Fab Lab as a place to teach new skills and new technology in a new way. Even more than that, he sees the need to inspire confidence and develop a sense of belonging. He’s happy when the Fab Lab is full of people using the machines.

Hisham said Egypt plays a influential role in Egypt and throughout the Arab world as a cultural center. Others were coming to learn about Fab Lab Egypt and create versions in other countries. “What happens here will influence the rest of our world,” he told me.

Risha Project

Moushira Elamrawy is the founder of the Risha project, an open source laser cutter, which I had first seen last fall at Maker Faire Rome. She is from Alexandria and trained as an architect. In fact, she was in the same class in college as Dina El-Zanfaly. “Out of a class of 120 architects who graduated, both of us shifted towards making,” said Dina.

I asked Moushira about Risha. “We’ve made good progress on the project,” she explained. “The software is improved and usability is better.” One man asked her why her project was open source and why she’d put it out there on the Internet for other people to take. She replied that Risha was possible only because “we took things from other people that they had shared and we added to it.” She said that only a “network of gratitude” made the project possible, as people helped her. She had the idea of starting the project last year and created a Facebook group. Pretty soon, she had 14 people in the group. “When I started, I had zero hope that I could do this,” she said. “I needed a team.” She began to gather a team through Facebook.

Still, she faced the challenge that she wasn’t an engineer. She had to learn a lot and even challenge engineers to be patient as she told them: “I’m learning.” It was made only harder being a woman in a male-dominated culture working with all male engineers. “Ok, I will make you regret it,” she steeled herself to work through it. “I don’t have to prove it.”

She said that the ecosystem is just starting to develop. “Everyone is new and fresh,” she said, “and they can be competitive instead of cooperative.” Yet what happens here in Egypt, she said, “opens a window” for others. “Egypt is a cornerstone of the Middle East,” she added.

Maker Movement As A Cultural Shift

I gave my talk on the main stage. I was worried about speaking to an audience in English who may not fully understand what I am saying. I relied heavily on photos from other Maker Faires. I learned enough Arabic to say hello awkwardly (“As- salaam Alaikum”). After presenting about Maker Faires around the world, I brought Dina and Mahmoud on stage with me for a conversation about the maker movement, which helped in translating some of my ideas into Arabic and providing a local context. We talked about the maker movement representing a cultural shift, impacting the economy and education. My slide read:

SKILLS over Money
BUILDING over Buying
CREATION over Consumption

Makers focus on what they can do and what they are doing matters.

After my talk, I was immediately in the middle of a crowd that climbed on stage, each wanting a selfie with me. It was an uncomfortable number of selfies, as I was jostled and turned every which way. I’m not even sure they knew who I was so I don’t take it as a sign of popularity. I was, however, someone from outside, someone from the US, who was there to witness what was happening, and to capture this moment with them.

Alternative Education

Hadeel Ahmed said she loves Maker Faire. She noted that a lot of the makers finished their projects just the night before. “We have lots of craftsmen in Egypt,” she said. “So the whole idea of making comes quite naturally here.” The word for craftsman in Arabic is “san’a”, perhaps the closest to “maker.”

She also loves children. Hadeel has been in charge of education programs at Fab Lab Egypt for the past two years. She ran the Kid Zone at the Cairo Mini Maker Faire, featuring robot builds and squishy circuits. A few years ago, she saw an ad for an electronics workshop and she decided to try it. “I didn’t know anything when I started,” she said. She continued to learn through books and magazines.

Now, in working with kids, she believes that kids like to make their own toys. “They have lots of ideas for toys,” she said. She likes to see them design new toys and play with them. “One child came up with a hat with a light bulb drawn on it and called it his thinking cap. Hadeel is offering kids learning experiences that they are not getting in school or home. She hopes to help parents recognize their children need these kind of experiences.

A 14-year-old boy, Abdelrahman, came up and proudly showed me the drawbot he had made in the Kid Zone. He originally told me he was 13 but came back to correct himself, saying that he would turn 14 in a week. He was obviously delighted by his robot.

I heard from different people that education in Egypt is terrible, and students must learn through memorization, a complaint I hear everywhere.

Even at university level, students don’t have access to hands-on experiences. A group of engineering students talked to me and I asked them if they had the opportunity to make and build things at the university. No, they replied. I asked if they’d like to make at school, and they all responded enthusiastically. Mohammed Abuelhagag offered to talk to their dean about a Fab Lab.

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Abbar team members

A group of four people created Abbar (which means “express”) as an alternative to school. They called it a co-learning space with workshops, salons and after school programs. (Isn’t co-learning how we should think about schools?) “We are a non-formal education start-up that promotes modern learning techniques for teenagers, “ read their description. People want to work together and learn together, and if they can’t do it in school, they might have to find it in a fab lab or makerspace.

Karakeeb Makerspace

The Karakeeb Makerspace in Alexandria is very small space, consisting of two rooms. (Karakeeb means “junk” in Arabic.) This community space serves families, with specific programs for children from 3–12 years old. I was struck by Rabab Hassam, one of the founders of the space and her genuine passion for the work of teaching in a community setting, sharing new skills. She is an engineer who created the space with Mena Effat. “I know a lot of makers can’t find space or access to tools,” said Rabab. Because their space is small, they lend kits to families to take home.

Hisham Khodeir of Fab Lab Egypt wants to work with the Karakeeb Makerspace. He admires what they have accomplished: “It is not about resources; it is about will.” The people I met in Cairo seem to recognize that it might be hard to do things, to make change, but they believed it was not impossible for them. It is a fitting belief for a country where the ancient pyramids amaze us yet make us wonder — how was it possible that they built them?

Bilal’s Travels

Bilal Ghalib is so exuberant that I’m not sure where he gets all his energy. He has lots of ideas and he loves to be with people.

I got to know Bilal Ghalib while organizing Maker Faire Detroit. He comes from an Iraqi family in Dearborn, Michigan, which has the largest Arab-American community in the United States. Bilal has worn many hats over the years, as a maker, artist, educator and activist. He has spent a lot of time in the Middle East helping to foster the development of makerspaces. Over the years, I’ve seen Bilal in the Bay Area working with Instructables or at Maker Faire Shenzhen representing LittleBits.

Bilal introduced me to many of the makers, including Sara Sibai and Bassam Jalgha of Beirut. Unlike me, who would head home, Bilal planned to stay around for several weeks. He said he’s been leading design thinking workshops at makerspaces. He was heading to Alexandria Sunday night.

Bilal deserves praise for the work he has done largely on his own in the Middle East connecting makers.

— — — -

No crosswalks, traffic lights or bikes

The big adventure in Cairo is crossing the street, which I did with a small group of folks several times. I have never seen anything like it. The metropolitan areas has a population of 20 million people, and it would seem half as many cars on the roads. There are no crosswalks, no traffic lights, no real car lanes. Tahrir Square is a place where everything converges but I didn’t want to be a pedestrian there.

Crossing the street is not impossible. It just seems that way. You can cross a street anywhere at anytime but there’s no good time to do so. You just have to do your best to weave in and out of incoming cars, which swerve around you as best they can.

I asked Hashim about how people manage and he said that there are very few accidents or injuries. I shook my head and wondered if they were just very good at cleaning up after accidents, removing bodies the instant they hit the ground, and that’s why you didn’t see them. He assured me that it all works, in its own way.

With traffic like this, no one rides bikes, I was told. There’s no room for bikes on the roads.

Dina and I shared a taxi to the airport that began outside our hotel with her doggedly talking to the taxi driver for five minutes in Arabic before we started. “What did you say?” I asked her. “Oh,” she replied. “Just bargaining.” I was glad to be with her. The taxi driver beeped the horn constantly, coming up to two cars and pushing in between them as they moved aside. That’s how Cairo works.

Situated beautifully on the Nile, Cairo is a chaotic, crowded city with its own unique history and amazing culture. It has a proud and engaging maker community that is ages old and newly emerging. I was proud to witness the birth of Egypt’s first Maker Faire and get to know the people that its organizers brought together for the first time.

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