7.7 Billion

Better houses for the poor - and the planet

For its third project, social enterprise Hand Over built a school last year for 300 students in Abu Ghadan, a village 80km from Cairo.
For its third project, social enterprise Hand Over built a school last year for 300 students in Abu Ghadan, a village 80km from Cairo. PHOTO: HAND OVER

When Ms Radwa Rostom was a civil engineering student at Cairo's Ain Shams University, she participated in charity work for underprivileged communities in the city's informal settlement of Ezbet Abu Qarn.

Her concern did not stop there. After finishing her studies, Ms Rostom returned with a small team, aiming to improve the quality of life for local residents, most of whom live in poverty.

After graduating, she trained with environmental engineering companies to acquire the technical skills to carry out her ideas.

In 2016, the young woman founded Hand Over, an Egyptian social enterprise that integrates construction into community development. This year, it was nominated for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

"Many companies design and build grand apartments, airports and buildings using traditional methods, which only a certain category of person can afford," Ms Rostom says. "I wanted to build 'humane' housing for the marginalised, using eco-friendly materials."

She embraced an old method known as "rammed earth construction", using local eco-friendly materials such as gravel, mud, sand and cement.

In this way, Hand Over builds houses and community buildings such as schools and hospitals in traditional Egyptian architectural styles, such as mud-brick Nubian vault houses.

The technique is not only safer than modern construction methods, but also 25 per cent cheaper.

It also reduces heat and dampness within a building so that residents consume less energy, reducing carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions by as much as 30 per cent.

Hand Over's team started working in the Ezbet Abu Qarn slum, identifying the most disadvantaged families.

"Many people refused," Ms Rostom says. "They weren't keen because the houses looked simple and unusual."

But one family accepted, and their house became the company's first project.

Mr Ahmed Abdul Raada, the owner, says: "In my (former) house, each winter, snakes and rain came inside. I agreed to the project immediately. They took a year to build it, and rented an apartment nearby for my three children and me."

Three years later, his house is still sound. "The walls feel cold, despite the fact that it's 40 deg C outside."

The company's second project was a multi-specialist clinic in the remote village of Wadi Gharba in South Sinai, in collaboration with a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Catherine Exists.

A group of young doctors volunteered to work and live in the village alongside volunteer builders. Ms Rostom also lived in the area for more than four months until the project was complete.

Hand Over often collaborates with NGOs and local volunteers for community construction projects.

This was also the case for the company's third project - a school for 300 students in Abu Ghadan, a village 80km from Cairo, built last year in partnership with the social charity Man Ahyaha.

Hand Over estimates that more than 1,000 people - students and those in need of affordable housing - have benefited from its projects.•

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 30, 2019, with the headline Better houses for the poor - and the planet. Subscribe