Schaduf: Watering Cairo's rooftops to life

Text by Ieva Maniusyte

Photography by David Degner and Amanda Mustard

Videography by David Degner

Sherif Hosny, Tarek Hosny and Abdulraheem Ali bring urban gardens and rooftop agriculture to Cairo in an effort to make all the city greener.

Not many people living in urban areas are used to seeing public buses with micro farms on their roofs. Yet the streets of Cairo generate smiles and oxygen that way.

Sherif Hosny, Tarek Hosny and Abdulraheem Ali have been living in Egypt for their whole lives, and found themselves not wanting to settle for the usual urban panorama. “[Climate is] everything that is external to us”, says Sherif Hosny. “[And] it affects us in every way – it affects our health, our mood, the way we see life, the way we look at things.” So the two brothers and friend told themselves that their surroundings can and have to be green, whether it’s roofs, walls, or streets. This is how a social enterprise called Schaduf was born.

“We have started with this idea about three years ago, just the idea of growing food on the rooftops,” Sherif, older of the Hosny brothers, starts telling their story. Sherif is 35-years-old, with curly ashen brown hair, green eyes shining in his face, framed by a slight beard and a mustache.

3 years ago, he gave up his career in business development and operations as the Middle East and North Africa Managing Director for Rio Tinto Alcan, leading international mining group. He and his 30-years-old younger brother, Tarek Hosny, then became a co-founders of a social enterprise, named after the ancient Egypt’s irrigation tool, shaduf, or also spelled shadoof, still used by many farmers today. Their tiny team slowly grew – their passionate friends, such as Abdulraheem Ali, joined in, and the company currently consists of 10 inventors, giving life, literally, to Cairo’s empty urban spaces (even those that are vertical).

Sherif Hosny of KarmSolar at one of their projects in the western desert outside Cairo. Photo by David Degner

Schaduf uses soil-less hydroponic farming, and, to those gardeners who love to muck around in soil, the water-based plant growing isn’t an appealing technique. But, as Tarek points out, Cairo didn’t really have a choice. With the  arid climate of Egypt, applying just the right amount of water to the soil is crucial: too much or too little water can immediately kill the plant, because of the lack of oxygen or excessive dryness. And scarce agricultural land isn’t a blessing either. But as soil in natural conditions serves only as a reservoir for water and nutrients, water containing crucial minerals and adequate aeration let plants thrive on the rooftops without a grain of soil.

These are the gardens that Schaduf initially set up for their target group – low-income Egyptians, aiming to lift them out of poverty while offering micro loans in a form of rooftop gardens. But the campaign soon expanded, and now Egypt’s climate enthusiasts can also invest in greener rooftops. Sherif attributes such success to a simple understanding: “If you want people to start growing food on their rooftops, and really having a greener environment, it has to have a social impact and an economic impact to make sense,” he says.

And rooftop farms are indeed quite profitable: three 20 square meter gardens can fill the family’s pockets with 300-500 Egyptian pounds ($42-70) a month. The ponds with brick sides, and a waterproof liner on the inner surface, are filled with water and covered with sheets of floating Styrofoam to plant seeds. For Schaduf, each of these gardens cost 2,500 Egyptian pounds ($358), but with weighty (in Egyptian standards) extra income, micro-loans are paid off in less than half a year, if goods are sold successfully.

But being well aware that average families have little knowledge about business and marketing, Schaduf is now also directly buying up the and pesticide-free produce from individual families’ farms, and then reselling it to the retailers in bulk.

“We really hope to see a different Cairo in the next five years,” continues Sherif. “That while you are driving on the highway, you could just look next to you,” he goes silent for a second.  “And instead of seeing empty rooftops, you would see a lot of greenery around… We haven’t covered the whole Cairo in green, but I still feel that can happen.”

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