The rooftop revolution

We investigate Egypt's urban revolution, turning rooftops into micro-farms and helping farmers in low-income areas

To view Cairo from the air is to be confronted with a startling sense of uniformity. As far as the eye can see, monuments of ancient civilisations, 20th century skyscrapers and informal low-rise settlements are caked in a thousand shades of tan: sand, dust and dirt cloak the landscape. Yet these days, if you look a little closer, you might see some spots of green – and growing opportunity – for Cairo’s 9 million residents.

Founded in 2011, an urban farming start-up called Schaduf is working to transform Cairo’s rooftops – often tenant scrapyards amassing decades of decrepit furniture and other rubbish – into healthy, sustainable and productive micro-farms that green the city and create a local, organic source of fresh vegetables. Using low-cost and locally available materials, Schaduf has developed a hydroponic farming system that helps low-income residents turn their rooftops into blossoming vegetable gardens filled with rocket, lettuce, parsley, dill, coriander, spinach and more, generating much-needed extra income in the process.

“We’re taking [local] produce, selling it in upscale markets, and bringing the money back to lower income areas,” explains Schaduf CEO and co-founder Sherif Hosny.

Born and raised in Cairo and with an MBA from the city’s American University, Honsy took an unusual route to the rooftops. He first worked in food packaging in Dubai, and went on to become managing director for Middle East and Gulf at Rio Tinto Alcan, part of the one of the world’s largest metals and minerals firms. It wasn’t enough, however. “I felt like I wasn’t adding a lot of value,” says the 34-year-old. So, like many who find themselves spinning their wheels in a corporate environment, he decided to quit and travel the world.

“We have a lot of unused rooftops, a lot of unemployment, and a good climate for growing”

Along with his brother and eventual Schaduf co-founder, Tarek, Hosny spent time with Worldwide Workers On Organic Farms, a global volunteer exchange in organic and sustainable farming. Working at an aquaponics farm in Louisiana, the two brothers had little experience in agriculture and so volunteered to help the farm’s owner run the business side of his operations. When the farm owner mentioned he was trying to find a way to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, they suggested he reduce the size of the aquaponic systems so that people could use it in their homes. While the product didn’t quite take off in Louisiana, it sparked another idea. “We also thought we could do the same thing for Egypt,” Hosny recalls. “We have a lot of unused rooftops, a lot of unemployment, and a good climate [for growing].”

In March 2011, on the heels of Egypt’s revolution, Hosny and his brother returned to Cairo to start building prototypes. “We had to make [the system] cheap,” Hosny says, if they expected Cairo’s low-income residents to be able to purchase it on loan, for which the acceptable range is between EGP2,000 and EGP3,000 ($290 and $440).

“Our first model cost more than EGP10,000 ($1,430), but people didn’t want to take loans that high,” he says. Eventually, they shifted away from aquaponics – which uses a fishtank with raised beds, with plants receiving nutrients from the fish waste – to a much simpler hydroponics system, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil.

“To learn about fish and vegetable farming at the same time is difficult,” Hosny explains. “Plus, power cuts in summer can be difficult for fish, when you consider cooling, heating, and water filtration.”

Today, the hydroponics systems cost around EGP2,500 ($358) for 20-square-metres of growing area in a 45 sq m space, and are estimated to last for 10 years each.

Cairo has always been host to a somewhat ad-hoc rooftop farming culture – many rooftops have geese or chickens – but this has never been formalised, connected or commercialised. Schaduf,  named for an ancient irrigation tool that is still used by farmers in many countries today, and which lifts water to irrigation canals for harvesting crops, aims to concentrate and commercialise rooftop farming in Cairo by developing clusters of 10 or more urban micro-farms in different neighbourhoods around the city.

“There’s less garbage on rooftops, and kids are playing on those rooftops because they are nicer”

The firm adds value by playing an active role in the process, from financing and training to creating market linkages. By teaming up with local microfinance institutions, they first help clients secure loans for setup, installation, seeds and fertilisers. Schaduf offers clients a month of free training on sustainable urban micro-farming, and then sends professionally schooled agronomists to stop by on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to check on each farm’s development. The final step is delivery to market: when the vegetables are ready to harvest, Schaduf purchases them from the farmers at fair market prices, and delivers them to local markets and restaurants.

Without the essential market linkage, the whole endeavour, says Hosny, would be unsustainable; similar government programmes have failed in the past. “If it doesn’t make profit, it doesn’t make sense.”

By aggregating farmers and bringing their produce to market – while taking a small cut to fund their own operations – the company is able to expand and thus extend its social and economic impact.

To date, Schaduf has trained more than 80 farmers at three training centres located throughout Cairo’s lower-income neighbourhoods. Around 40 rooftop gardens are up and running so far. Most residents in these neighbourhoods earn between EGP600 ($86) and EGP1,000 ($143) a month; from a 45 sq m garden that requires less than 30 minutes of labour a day, they can earn a further EGP200 ($29) to EGP300 ($57) per month – an additional income boost of as much as 40 per cent.

Yet increased income, according to Hosny, is only one part of the company’s social impact. “There’s less garbage on rooftops, and kids are playing on those rooftops because they are nicer,” he explains. “In addition, if we grow to a larger scale, you can decrease the temperature of the local micro-climate.” Plants, he explains, can absorb the heat and CO2 emissions.

Of course, it will take more than a few dozen rooftop gardens to improve the climate of one of the world’s most polluted cities, and at the moment Schaduf is taking small steps forward. “It’s something new, and people are still afraid,” says Hosny. “We’re starting with something small, so people can get used to it.” Schaduf will only be profitable when it has reached hundreds of farmers, so in the meantime it is also selling systems at a markup to hobbyists who want to build their own gardens.

The company has even installed mini gardens on the top of a handful of small buses that nudge around the city’s clogged streets. It’s mainly for show, but it makes a powerful statement: if you can grow vegetables in the thick smog of Cairo traffic, you really can grow them anywhere in the city. Slowly but surely, the green shoots of a rooftop revolution are emerging.