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10 March 2015 / marouhhussein

Solar Cities: A Greener Cairo

Photo credit: Banan Abdelrahman

Photo credit: Banan Abdelrahman

With its nearly 20 million inhabitants, Cairo, can seem to be lacking any aspect of a green city–but for those looking hard, the green shoots of sustainability are everywhere.  In fact, dense, urban living is probably the best thing humans can do to make a more sustainable world and advance themselves economically.  Yet within those efforts lay lessons about the challenges and opportunities of making Cairo a greener city.

The hustle and bustle of everyday life, along with high levels of extreme poverty, often discourages people from thinking green and taking positive initiatives, as they often struggle just to get by. According to the Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), poverty throughout Egypt is now at 26.3% and continues to increase. Due to the extraordinary levels of poverty across Egypt, many people have been forced to find ways to make a living in fast, inexpensive means, often at a cost to long term health and environmental conditions. An example of this can be found in the neighborhood of Manshiet Nasr in Cairo. Its original inhabitants known as the “Zabaleen” (garbage pickers) have as part of their entrepreneurial strategy, incorporated into their neighborhood a variety of different kinds of compost, recycling materials, garbage, etc. in order to make a living. The items are collected from across Cairo and used to create unique inventions in their homes that they can sell or to burn for gas because the neighborhood is not connected to Cairo’s gas network.  While this has clear long term health and environmental repercussions, it should be pointed out that numerous studies have shown the result of this system is one of the most efficient, and lowest-waste systems in the world.

Despite the bleak health and living conditions in Manshiet Nasr, one organization, Solar Cities, is working to improve living conditions. In 2012, native resident of Manshiet Nasr, Hanna Fathy, worked with her partner and social entrepreneur, Thomas Culhane, to develop solar heaters for the neighborhood’s residents. Solar heating systems use energy collected from the sun to produce heating and hot water for use in residential, commercial and industrial facilities. Solar heating systems are commonly found in developed urban and suburban areas but can be difficult to find in areas like Manshiet Nasr and other poor, neglected urban areas. Beginning with a single solar heating system, Solar Cities has gone on to obtain funding for 13 more solar heaters throughout Manshiet Nasr and Darb-al-Ahmar, another poor urban area in Cairo.

Photo credit: Banan Abdelrahman

Photo credit: Banan Abdelrahman

Unfortunately, as worthy as the work of Solar Cities has been, solar heating has not gained many supporters in other poor urban areas for several reasons. The first and most common reason is because of start-up costs. On average it costs $3,500 Egyptian Pounds ($650 USD) for one system. For the majority of Cairo urban inhabitants, this is an extremely unreasonable and expensive cost. Other reasons include the fear of change and misconceptions about the effects of having a solar heater in the home. Due to the rarity of solar heaters in the Cairo’s poor areas, many fear that using solar energy for heat could cause diseases and other negative consequences for those living in the home. Many of the inhabitants of Manshiet Nasr were not familiar or educated about solar heaters and rejected the idea because of the “unknown.”

It is easy to say that sustainable projects like solar heaters are imperative to properly redeveloping poor urban areas throughout Cairo, however, it is important to consider several factors when doing so. The majority of Egyptians living in poor urban areas have not been educated about the benefits of innovations such as this, and do not have the financial means to support new innovations for their community and home. Due to these factors, there are a series of necessary steps that must be taken when promoting sustainable projects in Cairo’s poor urban areas:

  • Affordable or even free options must be available for poor inhabitants;
  • Residents must be educated about the advantages of adding and/or developing new sustainable innovations;
  • Residents should be involved in the creation or implementation of projects, for example building solar heaters, or other sustainable options for them;
  • Residents need other incentives to support sustainable changes, such as income generation.

“Green economy is the best means to attract more investment and create more job opportunities. Many developed and developing countries set a good example,” said Helmi Abul-Eish, chairman of the Egyptian National Competitiveness Council (ENCC). Unfortunately, supporting an economy that aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment has not become a priority of how projects are conceived or implemented in Egypt. Egypt must start looking for modern sustainable innovations when developing, especially in poor urban societies.  Not only will this avoid future health, environment and physical issues, but it can also be cost efficient.


Sarah Elbery is a recent graduate of Rutgers University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Planning & Public Policy and Middle Eastern Studies. She is currently an MPA candidate at Rutgers University with a concentration in International and Regional Development. 

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