With over 20 million people living in its midst, metropolitan Cairo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. With almost 20,000 people crammed in per-square-kilometer, Cairo has a higher urbanization rate than even downtown Manhattan. To say that space is at a premium in the Egyptian capital would be a gross understatement, one that the Hosny brothers are acutely aware of.
Born and raised there, brothers Sherif and Tarek Hosny never really did acquire a taste for the concrete jungle that Cairo was becoming. Tarek was especially alert to the chaos Cairo was and how starkly different it was from the green, planned cities in the west—which he witnessed when he attended engineering school at Stanford University, and did an MBA at the University of California, Berkeley.
In 2010, Sherif was visiting his brother who was working in the US at the time. Through twists and turns typical of finding your feet at that age, the brothers Hosny found themselves volunteering for Worldwide Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a global volunteer exchange in organic and sustainable farming in New Orleans, a city which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina only recently.
This is where they first witnessed the practice of hydroponic farming. Though far more complex than one can explain, hydroponic farming is a method of growing plants without soil, using mineral nutrient solutions instead.
This allows one to grow plants using considerably less water than soil-based farming, less space, and without pesticides.
“We were fascinated with this technique….this could work in any environment…doesn’t need any agricultural land,” says Sherif, who used this concept to co-found the Cairo-based green-tech startup Schaduf along with his brother not too long after that experience.
Lift it up
The word Schaduf is said to be Egyptian in its origin and refers to an ancient irrigation tool that lifts water to irrigation canals, still used by farmers in many countries today. Made up of a long pole held down on one end by a weight, and a bucket attached to the other end to lift water, Schaduf helped green farmlands long before technology came into the picture.
With their Schaduf, the Hosny brothers too are making their city of their birth greener, using its many unused rooftops. “There are a lot of unused rooftops in Cairo and a lot of people who can use the extra income,” says Tarek, now also the managing director at Schaduf.
The brothers launched Schaduf’s first pilot project in 2012, quitting their jobs and pooling their savings and combining their engineering background with their work experience at WWOOF.
The goal was to first work in low-income areas with families that could use the extra money. In order to raise awareness around their business, the two brothers partnered with several NGOs and planted their rooftops including the Building Foundation which is located in Mansheyat Nasr.
Mansheyat Nasr is a ward of Cairo famous (or infamous) for its Garbage City quarter, a slum settlement, whose economy revolves around the collection and recycling of the city’s garbage, and that lacks reliable critical infrastructure like running water.
Starting here allowed the brothers to show what a rooftop farm is, how it can work in the most downtrodden of neighborhoods, and why it could be easily adopted in other neighborhoods. In time, Schaduf was being approached by several underprivileged families living in low-income neighborhoods across the city.
With such families, the brothers follow a long-term process. In the beginning, Schaduf provides training for them, linking them with microfinance institutions next, so they can afford to have a rooftop farm. Once that’s arranged, Schaduf builds the farm, helps the families with managing it and at the end of the cycle, buying and re-selling the final produce.
Finding a balance
Over time, Schaduf has evolved into something more than just a rooftop farm startup, Sherif tells us. For one, people were now also requesting such farms not for income but for food safety.
This has allowed Schaduf to diversify and get on a firmer financial footing.
The startup’s model is now based on offering three different types of products. The first is the ornamental garden—creating green spaces in residential buildings.
The second is the wall garden, which works on both the decorative and heat insulation end of things, and the third is the rooftop farm—for underprivileged families and also, for people in upscale neighborhoods who are into organic farming.
The brothers have also adapted their products, personalizing them as per their target audience. In low-income areas, for example, Schaduf uses technology products that are more affordable. “We use material that is made out of recycled plastic ,” says CEO Sherif, giving one example of that effort.
Schaduf’s low-tech hydroponics systems cost around EGP2,500 ($280) for 20-square-meters of growing area in a 45-square-meters space, and are estimated to last for 10 years each.
Going forward, the two brothers want to develop a smart irrigation system that is based on the plants’ needs instead of it being based on a specific time of day. “We want to measure the moisture that the plants need at any given moment and then give it the water that it really requires instead of just giving too much water,” says Tarek, explain how that can further reduce costs by making the water use more efficient.
Commenting on the business model, Hisham El Rouby, Synergos’ regional director in the Arab World, believes that the Hosny brothers have been able to strike a balance that is crucial for the sustainability of a social enterprise such as Schaduf.
Synergos is a global non-profit organization that aims to reduce global poverty through inclusive partnerships that bring together the government, businesses, the civil society and the local communities.
In 2014, Sherif was selected by Synergos under the Mobaderoon Masr (Pioneers of Egypt) program, which supports established social entrepreneurs, startup social entrepreneurs and youth volunteers through technical and financial support, mentorships and access to peer and regional networks.
“In our region, we are not very used to the concept of social entrepreneurship, either a business or an NGO. The concept of the hybrid model of social enterprise with a successful lucrative business is new to us,” he says. “For a social enterprise to survive, it has to be financially sustainable. And for it to be financially sustainable, they have to take into consideration cashflow and profits.”
“And I think Schaduf has been successful with that. It found a way to create a much-needed equilibrium between profitability and supporting their social mission.”
“We have a lot of dreams for this project. We want to create jobs and hope for people who don’t have any source of income,” says Tarek. “We also want to change the face of Cairo. If you’re driving on any of the high bridges in Cairo, you will only see concrete and clutter. Imagine if all that unused space was replaced with gardens.”
Photograph by Sabry Khaled