Nerds on the Nile
The Fab Lab Egypt team risks arrest to cultivate startups
At a shared workspace in central Cairo, a 15-minute drive from the Nile, Mohammed Abuelhagag is working on a stem cell incubator. The bottom half, housing the motors, is made of laser-blackened wood. The top, where the stem cells will be grown, isn’t done yet. Sensors to track humidity, temperature, and air quality have yet to clear customs. “Here in Egypt, if you want to make something, it’s like a treasure hunt,” says Abuelhagag, 29.
He’s a regular at Fab Lab Egypt, a home for aspiring developers that’s become an early building block of the country’s tiny but growing tech scene. In the five years since the so-called Twitter revolution drove President Hosni Mubarak from power, startups, incubators, and angel investors have sprung up like shoots of grass after a drought. “The revolution showed me what people can achieve when they work together,” says Hisham Khodeir, a software engineer who helped found Fab Lab in 2012.
When I visit in March, a young couple is slouched on beanbag chairs, watching videos on cell phones. A man fiddles with wiring at a workbench. Aser Nabil, 21, one of the lab’s first members, shows me a wooden drone he’s been working on, then he walks me through the rest of the room: 3D printer, laser cutter, a machine to print circuit boards. Nabil ends the tour at a rack of jigsaws, drill presses, and grinders. “Anything that can cut you, bruise you, or burn you is here,” he says.
Since the revolution, violence and political
crackdowns have kept tourists and investors at bay. The country’s bureaucracy can also be punishing, and not just when dealing with customs. The World Bank ranks Egypt 131st out of 189 economies in ease of doing business. “Our regulatory framework is like our archaeology,” says Ahmed El Alfi, a venture capitalist from California who opened a Cairo tech hub called the Greek Campus in 2013.
Education can also be a challenge. When an entrepreneur named Ahmed Shaaban set up Simplex, a company making machines for woodworking and stone carving, he had to literally educate the market. “About half of our customers didn’t know how to use a computer,” Shaaban says. Then there’s the police. Hobbyists and professionals alike hesitate to carry their tech projects around Cairo, where cops could mistake them for bombs. In February, two interns at a hardware company called Integreight were arrested, possibly because they were carrying chips, and detained for two months. “Somebody once got arrested for carrying a voltmeter,” says Amr Saleh, Integreight’s chief executive officer. Saleh recently built a game featuring a large, red countdown clock. When he brought it to the office, he was careful to keep it tightly wrapped in a bag.
Fab Lab Egypt has twice been visited by men its members presume are police. Both times, they inspected equipment, asked some questions, and left. “In Egypt, you don’t know who came exactly,” says Omar Elsafty, the lab’s general manager.
Yet the country’s challenges also suggest its potential. “When you have a lot of needs, a lot of gaps, a lot of problems to solve, you don’t need to be very innovative,” says Saif Edeen El Bendari, a manager at RiseUp, which organizes annual tech conferences.
Last year the lab started making enough money—through memberships, workshops, and equipment rentals—to pay a few salaries and start setting up in other cities. Some regulars are starting businesses. “A few years ago, people didn’t know what a 3D printer was,” Elsafty says. “Today, they’re building their own.”
Abuelhagag, a former medical student who treated wounded protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011, plans to use his new engineering skills to create anatomical models for med students. He also hopes to turn his stem cell incubator into a cheap, open source research kit. “Tech, it’s something you can actually have an effect on,” he says. “Maybe this is how you can change the world, finally.” <BW>
Abuelhagag (left), Elsafty (center), and Nabil take a break in Fab Lab Egypt, without mysterious inspectors