Could Hand Over make sustainable construction the new norm in Egypt? – Interview with founder Radwa Rostom

Photo: Hand Over

Egypt’s urban landscape seems to be in a permanent state of being under construction, with swaths of land being home to rising concrete and steel structures across the desert.

With rising concerns over economic activities affecting the environment in ways which will make the planet uninhabitable for humans, modern construction methods and materials have come under scrutiny.

The energy and water intensive materials of cement, concrete, and steel are orthodox across Egypt and with the current rapid pace of development, they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

However, there is one construction and real estate company that is radically diverging from this trend. Hand Over was founded by Radwa Rostom (who is also the CEO) in 2016 to offer an environmentally sustainable alternative to the sector. And it’s not with any futuristic, high tech solutions either. Hand Over go back to traditional materials and construction methods to address the needs of several communities around Egypt, while ensuring their projects achieve development within the confines of environmental sustainability.

Business Forward had an exclusive sit-down with the civil engineer to talk about the origins of Hand Over, how it came to be, its current successes, and what’s to come in the future.

What is Hand Over and what do you do?

Hand Over is basically a social enterprise. We are a design-and-build firm. We are specialized in environmental solutions and specifically Earth construction techniques. In a nutshell, Earth construction is basically we build with Earth materials. We build with sand, gravel, and mud. The main concept is to find an alternative for the construction techniques for the construction industry. We want to build cost effective and environment friendly buildings and structures for different segments of the community.

When we first started, we wanted to design and build spaces that would make less privileged communities be more developed. We were focusing on houses, on community buildings, on schools or any kind of building that would make these communities more developed.

Besides our design-and-build activities, we also have another core value in the company which is knowledge transfer. We always do workshops and sessions and hands-on training so that we educate the coming generation of what Earth construction is.

How did Hand Over begin conceptually?

I was always interested in environmental practices and I could never relate it to construction activities because they were very separable, at least from my background and my studies. We never heard the word sustainability in my major. Through some studies and through some readings after I graduated, I just learned that there are alternative techniques and we used to build with them before in Egypt.

How did Hand Over become registered as a company?

It was legally incorporated as a limited liability company. That was the journey after building [our] first house. I [applied] for a fellowship with Echoing Green and Ashoka and I got the two fellowships in the same year. [Echoing Green] are an NGO based in the US and they support social entrepreneurs from different countries.

The competition that we won that funded [our] first prototype was a competition called “Women from Resilient Cities” [and] was organized by the World Bank. One of the prerequisites for the winning team is to register their ideas. That was another motive, to start looking at the idea in a more formal way, not just an initiative or a project.

Then I knew about the term “social enterprise” but I know that it was not legally implemented in Egypt. We are working as a social enterprise but we cannot be legally registered as a social enterprise so I felt that it makes more sense to register as a limited liability company acting as a social enterprise.

How difficult was it to register as a company? What were the obstacles, the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the processes etc?

It wasn’t difficult at all. That was surprising. Someone connected me to a legal accounting firm. These are the kind of firms that usually walk you through the registration of a company. It wasn’t really a hassle at all. You just need to set a certain capital for the company. You need to have more than one partner so my husband is the partner with me at the company. And you need to set up the kind of activities that you can anticipate working on, even in the future so you can just put it in while you’re registering at once.

We had the company registered in a couple of weeks. The financial grant from Echoing Green also allowed me to have a team.

How and where did you learn these sustainable construction methods?

In the beginning, it was basically reading and searching the internet. A friend of mine introduced me to a couple of people here in Egypt who work with these techniques and one of them is now working with us and the team. He is the head of the design and implementation team. In 2015, when we were about to start the construction of the house of the pilot project, I travelled to India to take proper training in these techniques. [In] India, they have a place called the Earth Institute where they teach you how to build with earth, how to test your soil. That was the main proper training that I got in this sector. Afterwards, I started collaborating with [Egyptian] experts and we decided to teach these techniques to students.

Did the Egyptian labor market have enough workers skilled in these methods to begin your initial projects? And if not, how did you transfer these skills?

We were not actually looking for skilled laborers in this technique. In some regions around the country, you can find people who are aware of these techniques. Earth construction [has] a very wide range of techniques. For example, in Upper Egypt, there are still very few people who build with adobe bricks but because of this cultural barrier or cultural mindset, they don’t want to do it anymore. But in terms of skilled laborers, you can find very specific laborers who are specialized in specific techniques.

We decided from the very beginning [that] we don’t want to have our own skilled and trained laborers who will go with us whenever we do any project. What we actually want to do is to see who is willing to work and we bring them in and we invest a couple of days in the beginning of the project to train them, to teach them about the techniques, even listen from them if they have their own ideas, if they’ve heard of someone before who [did] something different. We try to learn as much as we can from them and we teach them how to do it.

Describe what you believe are the major, most important problems with Egypt’s construction and real estate sectors.

I would definitely say the stability, the opposite of innovation. People have just settled on certain ways of construction. I wouldn’t talk about the designs or the finishes or the interior. I’m actually singling out construction itself like the skeleton of the building. For years, people have been using the same methods, the same techniques, maybe the only innovation was high rise buildings or very complicated projects. If we’re talking about the scale of the residential or the commercial, is just one type, one scale, [and] one methodology. I’ve read this article, they were talking about the construction sector in Egypt and the Middle East and how it’s been very rigid.

What’s in store for the future?

We see this kind of potential and we know that it cannot be done unless we interfere in this big industry of construction and real estate development. This is what we’re working on at the moment. We’re in conversations with people who are responsible for these very fast-paced developments. We’re also looking into policies. We’ve worked with the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and they are encouraging these kinds of practices. How can we also move into the other governmental bodies and maybe start having these kinds of discussions?

[We’re] definitely working more on the awareness and education side. We still see that we have a lot of people to talk with and to educate. Now we’re working with some schools, not just universities. We’re looking into other markets as well. We’re looking into other similar markets to us.

Also, bricks is another line that we’re trying to introduce. We thought maybe we don’t have to be contractors all the way. We could be suppliers. We could be producing our own bricks and just sell them. We could just design to whoever wants us just to design. We’re trying to be more flexible [and[] introduce different services so that we can we can take a bigger market share.

There are lots of ideas and lots of plans. Definitely we will be continuing with our community projects and community services, our community development projects.

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