Young Makers on the Rise in Egypt
The Second Maker Faire in Cairo March 26, 2016
The Pyramids. The Nile. The Egyptian Museum. They are all reminders of the timeless wonders of Ancient Egypt that surround modern Egyptians. Yet despite the enormous distance in time, the past as written in hieroglyphics and papyrus scrolls and the present that is etched with laser cutters and that scrolls by on Facebook want to be connected.
The more recent history, which they were part of, started with a revolution in 2011, the so-called Arab Spring, in which so many people, many of them young, became politically active, joining demonstrations in Tahrir Square. It succeeded in toppling the government but the revolution did not bring about the hoped-for changes in the country. Even so, the people had changed, their minds and hearts had changed. And this is what you can see Egyptians exploring, a sense that they actually could determine the future and discover new freedoms in creative expression and entrepreneurship. They were struggling to realize that they indeed could do this, somehow still seeking permission to arise.
The burned-out headquarters of Mubarek’s National Democratic Party, which last year stood out as a reminder of the revolution’s fury, had been completely demolished. Only sand and rubble remained in a fenced-off lot, next to the rose-colored Egyptian Museum. The people who pointed it out to me were smiling. It was a sign of change.
The First Maker Faire in Egypt
On March 7, the first Cairo Mini Maker Faire was held at the Greek Campus in Cairo, just off busy Tahrir Square. This…medium.com
What I learned from my visit last year and again this year was that the Maker Movement is closely identified with the young people who are seeking positive change in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world. They are unhappy with their government, their education system and their economy. Even if their country appears broken, they are learning how to fix things. They are happy being together, learning from each other and reaching out beyond Egypt to share what they can do.
I haven’t met a group of makers more enthusiastic than those I met at Maker Faire Cairo this year. Both its organizers and the makers were young, excited to be meeting each other and passionate about sharing their projects with the public. The average age of both groups, I suspect, was around 20, reflecting the demographics of Egypt where over one-half of the population is under 25. The maker movement in Egypt is also young and just now becoming aware of its impact.
Maker Faire Cairo, which dropped its “Mini” this year, doubled in size compared to last year with over 150 makers and 10,000 attendees. All of them filled up the GrEEK campus of the American University of Cairo. Fab Lab Egypt organized the event with support from the US Embassy and Intel. Lead producer Omar Elsafty and a team of young volunteers did most of the work putting on the Maker Faire. Omar was extremely happy with the turnout. There were people lining up on El Tahrir Street before the doors were open. Even a little rain late in the day, a highly unusual event in Cairo, did not dampen the enthusiasm.
I gave an opening talk. Dina El-Zanfaly kindly helped translate my talk. I had the sense that most of the audience understood English but they understood Arabic much better, so it was good to have the translation. After I was done, I offered to take a selfie and I was surprised by how well it turned out. I felt their desire to be recognized as a show of personal and civic pride.
At the center of the courtyard was an imposing 3.7 meter high Hulkbuster, created by Fouad Adel, a cosplay artist from Cairo. Fouad built the figure over 3 months. He said he learned to do it “through the Internet and trial and error.” On another side of the courtyard, there were pharaohs climbing the wall, which seem to fit with the playful nature of Maker Faire, yet strangely they are an architectural feature of the GrEEK campus.
“You can feel the excitement in the air” exclaimed Hoda Mustafa on Twitter during the event. The excitement around this year’s Maker Faire 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, I had the feeling that the makers not only were participating but they were able to articulate what coming together meant to them. “The most valuable thing really is understanding that you are not alone,” said Amr Saleh, 26, an Egyptian entrepreneur and creator of 1Sheeld. “I had so many people say that to me. You see everyone making connections. It’s a place for nerds, crafters, jewelry makers,” he added.
Samar Hamdy attended Maker Faire Cairo for the first time. 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 “to dream and reach for his/her goals.”
“The motivation and enthusiasm of young Egyptians was remarkable,” Hanan Dowidar told me, who is involved with the film, 1001 Inventions, a short documentary film on the 11th C. Muslim inventor, Ibn Al-Haytham. “Such grassroots interest in ‘making’ is inspirational.”
Here’s a one-minute video with drone footage of Maker Faire Cairo.
The Makers of Maker Faire Cairo
Let me introduce some of the makers I saw at Maker Faire Cairo and their projects.
Mahmoud Alaa demonstrated a small CNC machine from recycled computer parts, including a DVD player. Mahmoud said that “the main goal of making it was to make it very accessible and easy to make your own CNC.”
Osama Kamal is Founder & CEO at Shisan, a digital fabrication company founded in Cairo. Shisan produces FDM 3D Printers for the Egyptian market. “We will put out the first Egyptian metal 3D Printer in the near future,” he said. “It was such a great experience to be among the passionate makers, sharing our passion with the whole world.”
Mohamed Abuelhagag Hasan, who goes by “Hagag”, has a company called Imhotep, named after the architect and engineer in the age of the Pharaohs who was also known also as a physician for solving medical problems. Hagag went through medical training, but he he did not become a practicing doctor. Instead, he got involved in Fab Lab Egypt and that led him to exploring applications for digital fabrication in medical fields. Hagag believes there are other opportunities to apply making to medical problems in Egypt. The startup now mainly focuses on creating educational models for doctors and pharmaceutical and instruments companies and an ongoing research on preoperative surgical planning using 3D printed models for traumatic patients.
There were several origami projects. I particularly liked this complex 3D origami cobra snake. Aliaa Essam had her own handmade jewelry on display. Crafters exhibited a variety of arts and crafts, including handmade plush toys.
Icealex is a co-working space, tech incubator and makerspace in Alexandria.
A group from Space Technology Program at the Planetarium Science Centre of Bibliotheca Alexandria, Egypt showed a Can-Satellite (or Can-Sat) prototype. The prototype is built on a Raspberry Pi 2.
Samantha “Sammy” Payne is a co-founder of Open Bionics in Bristol, UK. Sammy brought her own brand of enthusiasm to Cairo but she also fed off the interest of the makers she met. Her talk, “How to Make Advanced Bionics Accessible to Everyone,” had a large, engaged audience. A former journalist, she became fascinated by the promise of robotic hands and she joined the effort. She mentioned an experiment to embed a smart watch in an artificial limb.
In a workshop she offered, she was glad to see that the gender split was nearly 50/50, although she noted that the girls were less comfortable speaking English. (I noticed that those waiting to get into workshops had formed two lines: one for men and one for women.) I asked her what people who attended workshop were expecting: “They were interested in how to print bionic hands,” said Sammy. “Many of them had downloaded the design files and were working on one problem or another, usually in a university context.”
Jon Schull from Rochester, NY of E-Nable Foundation also talked about 3D printed arms and hands. E-Nable is a community of volunteers who share 3D designs but also use their 3D printers to make free prosthetics for children and others in need.
Virtual Reality was popular. LIVIT is a group of Egyptian engineers exploring uses for Virtual Reality (VR) in education. “We are driven by our love for technology and our belief in the importance of revolutionizing education in Egypt,” said Shady Ahmed, co-founder of LIVIT. “We are working on a series of original, scientific and interactive educational experiences in VR.”
“We were amazed by the positive responses and feedback we got from Egyptian youth; full of excitement and ready to help to bring this idea to life,” said Shady. “We are up to the challenge and full of confidence that the collaboration between Egyptian engineers and science communicators can revolutionize the education in Egypt.”
A time-lapse video, shot from the LIVIT booth at Maker Faire Cairo, shows people taking turns trying on the headset:
May El-Dardiry is a teacher at Maady STEM School for Girls and STEM Maadi Lab Manager at Fab Lab Egypt. “We are more of a community where we encourage each other to learn,” she said, adding that she wanted them to think independently. There are 300 girls in the school and about 1/3 of them are in the lab. She said that the motto is “Eat. Study. Laugh.” “I treat them like my sisters , my friends,” said 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, one of the Maady STEM students, a 12th grader, demonstrated her project, “An Interpretive Hand for the Voiceless.” It was a prototype of a glove that was able to recognize sign language and translate it into text messages or even text-to-speech. The prototype uses Arduino and has lots of wires hanging off a rather large black glove but Nourhan says she has it working.
In the KidZone, children were placing over their heads trash-can camera obscuras. It was another version of virtual reality, dating back a thousand years. This activity was organized by a group called 1001 Inventions, which is the name of a short documentary film on the 11th Century Muslim inventor, Ibn Al-Haytham. Born in Iraq, Ibn Al-Haytham lived in Cairo and he wrote a treatise on optics, (Book of Optics or Kitab al-Manazir) having discovered essential properties of light and how we see. It led him to invent the camera obscura. The film features a quote of his:
“If learning the truth is the scientist’s goal… then he must make himself the enemy of all that he reads.”
There were plenty of activities for kids, which you can see from the photos in Facebook for Maker Faire Cairo.
“Snowball” is a drag and drop development environment for both physical and digital computing that looks good for young makers, especially those who are familiar with Scratch. Hesham Mahmoud, a co-founder of a company called Creative Bits, showed demos of Snowball. He said that its goal is to help “more people learn programming.” Snowball can also help “non-technical people to make projects that help blind people and the handicapped to access the computer.”
Two projects from Fab Lab Egypt were exhibited together: the super-large PVC Speakers by Ahmed El Banna and Mohamed Kamel’s colorful VU Meter, which you can see in action on a Facebook video. I saw them late in the day when it was darker and the colorful lights and sound were attracting a crowd.
Also in the mix was interactive light wheel by Mohamed Hossam and Mustafa Bahaa.
Amr Saleh and 1Sheeld
Amr Saleh is a model for emerging maker entrepreneurs in Egypt. Smart and friendly, Amr was the first to run a Kickstarter in Egypt and his product 1Sheeld is doing well. His small company, Intereight, has about seven people. 1Sheeld is an Arduino shield that connects to your smart phone, providing access to the sensors that are on-board.
During his final semester of university, he 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.’” While the revolution influenced Amr and his peers in a variety of ways, he said that it wasn’t a motivation for him to become an entrepreneur and work independently. He had already come to that conclusion on his own. “I wanted to do something different,” he told me. He and his colleagues at the university entered an engineering competition and won a prize for a “smart breadboard.” After graduation, they decided to focus on developing a commercial version but after several months working on a prototype that was unsuccessful, the group pivoted and began working on what became 1Sheeld. “We didn’t think it made sense for people to have buy a different shield for each project to add sensors and control to Arduino applications when those sensors already existed on your smartphone,” said Amr.
“I wanted to do something different.”
I asked Amr if he learned about Arduino at University. The answer was no. After working on the smart breadboard projects, he and his CTO took at Arduino workshop at Fab Lab Egypt. It was taught by Omar El Safty, this year’s Maker Faire organizer who must have been about 18 at the time. The first Arduino project was developed by the CTO, and Amr recalls that “its purpose was to prank me into thinking something was wrong” with the apartment they shared. Their hands-on experience with Arduino led them to recognize the market need for 1Sheeld.
He ran a Kickstarter with a goal of $10,000 and 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 US but there were people from 55 countries, including Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Their first run of boards was 2000 with 1300 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 said. One of them was using 1Sheeld to control a microscope with his cellphone. His 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 are working on a new product for home automation.
“The entrepreneurship community in Egypt is very supportive,” said Amr who has started organizing Hardware Startup Meetups in Cairo.
There are real challenges on many levels in Egypt. “Ordering wireless components and getting them through customs is difficult,” said Amr. You can build drones but you can’t fly them. Some of the challenges are even more serious. Two of his interns were going back home, riding a bus. 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,” said 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.”
Fab Lab Egypt
At the core of the maker movement in Egypt is Fab Lab Egypt. It is located in the Mohandessin district of Giza. Fittingly, Mohandessin means “the engineers” in Arabic. The Fab Lab is a modest space, with bean bags, tool cabinets and 3D printers. It is a social club at the crossroads of art, science, technology and business. Sherry Lassiter of MIT’s Fab Foundation who came to Maker Faire Cairo said that there are about 10–12 Fab Labs or Makerspaces in Egypt.
When a group of us stopped by Fab Lab Egypt on the Friday before Maker Faire, its work tables were occupied by makers finishing up projects for Maker Faire. Mohammed Ahmed was working on a case-mod in the form of the Transformer “Bumblebee”, and he didn’t look close to being finished. Yet on Saturday, he was there with his project. “I continued working on the project at Maker Faire,” he told me.
Aser Ihab Nabil gave us a tour of the space, taking some of the older projects off the shelves such as a purple hexapod robot.
Two of the co-founders of Fab Lab Egypt are Hisham Khodeir and Dina El-Zanfaly. Dina shuttles between Cairo and Boston, where she is a PhD candidate at MIT. Hisham, a graduate of the American University of Cairo, is a successful entrepreneur, running a company that does localization of software and content into the Arabic language. Fab Lab is in the same building as his business.
Hisham told me that the Arab Spring of 2011 changed him, and caused him to want to “leave the bubble I was in.” That led him to starting Fab Lab Egypt and now organizing Maker Faire for the second year. Hisham is quiet and thoughtful. I have the sense that he provides the stability and direction not only for Fab Lab Egypt but also for the young makers who come there.
Sam Almahy was shooting video for Fab Lab Egypt at the event. I grabbed lunch with him, visiting a traditional koshari restaurant. Over lunch, 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 said. He meant that the recognition and encouragement that makers received from each other was the most important thing. Just a pat on the back. It was that simple.
Mohammed “Beco” Elbeek uses the laser cutter at Fab Lab Egypt to create a variety of products including custom notebooks. He brought many of them to Maker Faire and was happy with the sales.
Yasseen Farouk Shehata started a hackerspace in Upper Egypt in 2011 but it closed after six months. Upper Egypt is a region south of Cairo on the Nile. “The talent leaves for Cairo,” said Yasseen. “We don’t have professional makers in the region.” He hopes to be able to re-establish a new place in the future, although he himself has re-located to Cairo.
Mena Effat and Rabab Hassan are co-founders of the Karakeeb Makerspace in Alexandria. Karakeeb means “junk” in Egyptian Arabic. Mena and Rabab came to the Maker Faire with 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. They are 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 Maker Faire 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 told 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 had the opportunity to visit Mena and Rabab at the Karakeeb Makerspace in Alexandria later in the week and I will write about it in a future story.
As I mentioned there were quite a few people who came in costumes, everything from steampunk to superheros. Cosplay enthusiasts are creative and playful, and it’s good to see them at Maker Faire, posing for photos.
Angela Bermudez is a noted cosplay designer and she came from Costa Rica to share her costumes and tell her story to an appreciative audience who were inspired by her.
Several people commented that you might rarely see cosplay at events in Cairo. Amr Saleh thought that the revolution had changed people particularly in this way: “they were now more comfortable and confident expressing themselves.” The revolution made people realize they have a voice and while political freedom has not been fully realized, many of them realize they have a new creative freedom and those at Maker Faire were excited to be showing off, if you will. They were raising their hands and their voices, wanting their own creative force to be recognized. Creative expression requires taking a risk and when it meets with encouragement, it flourishes. A maker culture wants to nurture this creative life force that the ancient Egyptians called Ka.
There was an after-party for makers on the day following Maker Faire 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 over city.
After sunset, we turned our backs to the city to sit at tables for dinner, but then the city 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, learning from each other and believing in the progress they are making.