Egypt: Rooftops Empower the Poor

Egypt: Rooftops Empower the Poor – Published on allAfrica (first on IPS), by Cam McGrath, 3 January 2010.

Cairo — In one of the poorest and most populous neighborhoods of Cairo, Hussein Soliman and his family live in a small apartment that is a model of clean energy living.

The two solar panels and bio-gas unit on the roof of Soliman’s building in Darb El-Ahmar provide hot water and cooking gas to his two-bedroom apartment, reducing his family’s carbon footprint and energy costs.

The clean energy appliances, made mostly from recycled material, have reduced his household’s waste have meant that “my gas and electricity bills are much less than before,” says Soliman. They shaved nearly 50 percent off the utility bills. 

Soliman ventured into clean energy in 2008 when he joined Solar CITIES (Connecting Community Catalysts and Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems), a development initiative spearheaded by U.S. urban planner Thomas Culhane. The project leverages local experience and innovation to develop cheap and robust clean energy technologies adapted to the rigorous operating environment of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ in development and part of the problem is precisely that so-called ‘experts’ come in and try to promote products and designs that are inappropriate for the local community,” Culhane tells IPS.

Culhane and his German wife, Sybille, have brought on board as innovators the residents of the low-income neighborhoods in which they hope to make the greatest impact. Their designs for solar water heaters and bio-gas digesters have evolved through experimentation, group brainstorming sessions, and “jumping into dumpsters to find materials that might work.”

Using recycled materials, Culhane’s team was able to put together a solar water heating system for under 500 dollars. The system’s solar panels are built from scrap aluminum, glass, old copper pipes and styrofoam insulation. It uses two recycled 200-litre shampoo barrels as tanks, one for storing the water heated by the panels and the other as a backup water supply …

… “It’s hard to convince people here to invest in clean energy,” says Hussein. “As a household why should they invest up to 1,000 Egyptian pounds (182 dollars) in bio-gas when it costs just six or seven for a butagas cylinder, which lasts two weeks and is much easier to handle?”

Due to Egypt’s heavily subsidised gas and electricity, it may take up to 15 years to recover the costs of a Solar CITIES solar water heater or bio-gas digester. The cost recovery time is expected to fall as the government proceeds with plans to phase out energy subsidies in the coming four to seven years.

Hussein says having people who are part of the community involved gives the Solar CITIES initiative more credibility. But the project’s success will ultimately depend on whether it can produce a cheap, durable and efficient model for the community.

“If the people see a good example, they will tell each other about it,” he says. “Whether it succeeds of fails, everyone will know the same day.”  (full text).

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