Hand Over: A Sustainable Human-Centred Approach to Solving Egypt Housing Problems      

To create a real community development, each segment of the community has something to contribute. That is the principle behind Hand Over, a human-centred award winning social enterprise solving housing deficit in Egypt.

Similar to Latin America’s TECHO, Hand Over provides alternative housing solution for slum dwellers while empowering architecture and civil engineering students to design and implement sustainable shelters using the rammed earth technique. To ensure continuity, Hand Over also trains local residents on construction techniques so that they can build their own house with their own hands.

Behind this initiative is Radwa Rostom, a Civil Engineer and DO School Fellow who through her passion for community development is providing housing solutions with locally sourced and environmentally friendly materials. To her, living in a decent and humane place should be “a basic need that should not be optional for anyone”.

With a growing population rate of about 2 percent per year, housing crisis continues to be a serious social problem in Egypt, especially in the slums and poor urban communities. According to a report by the National Population Council, more than 15 million people live in slums across Egypt and around 41% of them live in Greater Cairo. About 35% of them are at risk of collapsing.

In this interview, Radwa told us how Handover is solving housing deficit “not only for the underprivileged communities but also for high and middle class segments” in Egypt.


What’s the story behind the creation of Hand Over?

The idea of Hand Over started when I was studying at College. I was volunteering with students that were helping unprivileged communities with basic needs. We used to give residents of these areas food, clothes, classes for the kids and the elderlies. It was satisfying for me to some extent, but when I went to the areas where we used to work, I felt they are in need of a great intervention in terms of the infrastructure of the place where they live in, most of us were engineering students and I felt responsible to help them with what I know most. I was very affected by the status of their houses and I felt that this was a basic need that should not be optional for anyone to live in a decent and humane place.

What has been the greatest challenge of running this social enterprise Hand Over ‒ and how have you been able to manage it?

The greatest challenge is that we are trying to change people’s mindset. We are trying to change the norm. There are several NGOs who are working in the field of housing and rehabilitation of slum areas but we are trying to do it with a different approach, that is more human centred and in a sustainable approach. To convince the people and the community of the techniques we are using is not usually an easy thing to do and to convince them that building with natural and local materials doesn’t show that you are in a less social standard, it has to do with the more comfort you will get and the more affordable prices of your home. The interest of the communities we are working in is not really driven by environmental stewardship and sustainability and this is what we aim to change and not only for the underprivileged communities but also for high and middle class segments. We want to promote for such practices in the building industry in general.

Hand Over works mainly in the slums. How do you see your work making an impact on the wider society and how do you ensure the sustainability of the project?

Our vision after doing several intervention around the country and around the region is to proof our concept and validate and create a model that is replicable, flexible and sustainable that could be used anywhere for upgrading and rehabilitation of informal settlements. Besides this main vision, we are already promoting for the sustainability practices in the building industry. In general, we are offering the same services for private sector companies also to sustain a steady revenue stream for our company and to create awareness and spread the knowledge about such practices in different segments of the community.

Hand Over uses earth materials for its buildings instead of bricks and concretes.  How sustainable is this in a modern society and to what extent will this affect the advocacy on climate change?

The earth construction is one of the techniques that we use. Our scope includes using and exploring any sustainable, locally sourced and environmentally friendly materials. Speaking about the Earth construction, it has many benefits for the climate and for the community and also from the economical side. It is an environment friendly solution, we mainly use earth materials such as mud, gravel and sand, we add a small percentage of cement to stabilize the mixture. It reduces the carbon emissions resulting from the manufacturing of the other materials commonly used (such as concrete or steel) and also it does not use any heavy equipment in the construction process. Of course, it still has its own limitations as it is labour intensive and you cannot build high rise buildings with it, the maximum that has been built is six stories, but it is convenient for our own applications and we are following the latest researches on how to improve it and how to make it more cost-efficient.

You empower architecture and civil engineering students together with slum residents to build sustainable houses. Why is important to use the participatory model in your community work?

We adapt the human-centered design approach in all our projects, which is basically a technique of how we can work involve our beneficiaries in all the stages of the project so we can identify the issue clearly from them and also identify the solutions that are relevant to them, this way guarantees that you don’t depend on your own assumptions in identifying the issue or in creating the solution, also including the students and fresh graduates is a main pillar in our projects because we believe that the education aspect is very important and also it is one of our missions to spread the knowledge and awareness of such practices through workshops, sessions and hands-on experience. Also, we believe that each segment of the community have something to contribute with in order to create a real community development, that’s why we called our enterprise “Hand Over” because each one is handing over their part until we reach to our vision.

How does Hand Over go about measuring its own impact on the people or community it works with?

We are trying to create a monitoring and evaluation system where we can keep track of the impact of our projects on our direct and indirect beneficiaries. We maintain a good relationship with our beneficiaries and ask them for feedback so we can improve our work in the coming projects. We identify several Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) so we can assess our performance in general as an enterprise and our impact on the community in specific.

As for our KPIs, we mainly measure it by the number of local residents that we served our worked with, who benefited from our service, we also measure it by the number of students and participants who got engaged in our workshops and projects and who changed their mindset about the typical construction filed and who gained new knowledge about sustainability practices in their field, we also measure it by the number of clients or individuals who approach us to require some services for their houses, whether consultancy or implementation. Another indicator is the numbers of partners and clients that we have and the number of completed projects and the number of potential opportunities locally and regionally.

What projects are you most excited about right now and what should we expect from you in the nearest future?

We are currently working on three exciting projects, the first one is a community center in a small village called Al-Tarfa in Saint Catherine in Egypt. It is a collaboration with an initiative called “Catherine Exists”. They aim to develop the community and the local in Al-Tarfa village and we are collaborating in this track to build a space where it can offer education, health facilities and areas that encourage intercultural dialogue and tourism as well.

The second project is an open space in a region in Cairo called “Stabl Antar”. It is a collaboration with “Open Architecture Collaborative” chapter in Egypt. Our role in this project is to help in the construction of areas that could be used as workshop places for the local residents. We also helped in facilitating some workshops and community meetings.  The third project is a collaboration with a Lebanese partner and a lebanese NGO to implement a sustainable shelter for the refugee camps in Al-Bekaa Area in Lebanon.

We added another dimension for our work. In order to be able to promote for the sustainable techniques of construction and for the sustainability in general in the construction field, we found the need to address also another segment of the community to spread this knowledge and awareness and to create a development approach, not just bottom-up but also up-bottom. We added more departments to our organizational structure to guarantee that we reach to our vision and to guarantee a sustainable revenue stream for our organization.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing people working in rural communities as you do?

As I mentioned earlier, it is mainly revolving around changing people’s mindset and behaviour. Second would be to validate all the assumptions anyone have for the community they are working with, third would be to build a good and trusted network with the local residents, through collaborating with existing initiatives and NGOs.

If you could leave behind any message about the impact of community development to achieving sustainable development to the global community, what would it be?

I would say that it is a main pillar to reach to a real sustainable development and to create a global impact. Community development is everything that is related to individuals that form the future, it includes basic needs of housing, food and medical services, it includes education and awareness, It includes intercultural dialogues and connections with other communities.


Photo Credit: Radwa Rostom/Hand Over

Busayo Sotunde is a prolific writer with special focus on Business, Entrepreneurship, Reproductive Health and other development issues in Africa. Her articles have been published by different outlets including Investing Port and Ventures-Africa.com. She has a penchant for reading and sustainable development. Follow Busayo on Twitter @BusayomiSotunde

Subscribe to our mailing list