How Hany El Miniawy Designs Low-cost Homes for Egypt’s Poor, One Community at a Time

Published May 18, 2010 in Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, University of Pennsylvania

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El Miniawy, 63, has a square face and the calm demeanor of a man who is unfazed by crisis.  Trained in France, Germany and Egypt, El Miniawy speaks fluent French, German, English and Arabic. His language is both idealistic and practical. “There is a huge gap between demand and supply of housing in Egypt,” he says. “Most of the poor Egyptians live on the peripheries — in the desert, in villages, on the outskirts of cities. This gives rise to a huge informal housing sector that is built without government permission. Millions of people live like this without health insurance, bank account or savings.”

Working on El Miniawy’s project

What is the scale of the problem? “Have you heard of Hernando De Soto?” he asks, chuckling in reply.

Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto and the Institute of Liberty and Democracy (ILD) that he founded have worked in Egypt for several years. In his book, The Mystery of Capital, De Soto states that the poor in Egypt own a staggering $250 billion in ‘dead capital,’ or money that operates outside the law. Even if you include the Suez Canal and Aswan Dam, says De Soto, the size of Egypt’s dead capital is 55 times the size of all Foreign Direct Investment into the country, and 50 times the amount of bilateral aid that Egypt has received over the last 200 years. De Soto estimates that as many as 92% of all Egyptian buildings and 90% of businesses and people operate outside the law. A bulk of Egypt’s wealth, in other words, lies with the poor, and the reason is because of a moribund unfriendly government.

“In Egypt, the person who wants to acquire and legally register a lot on state-owned desert land must wind his way through at least 77 bureaucratic procedures at 31 public and private agencies,” writes De Soto. “This can take anywhere from five to 14 years. To build a legal dwelling on former agricultural land would require 6 to 11 years of bureaucratic wrangling, maybe longer. It explains why 4.7 million Egyptians have chosen to build their dwellings illegally. If, after building his home, a settler decides he would now like to be a law abiding citizen and purchase the rights to his dwelling, he risks having it demolished, paying a steep fine and serving up to 10 years in prison.”

El Miniawy founded ADAPT (Appropriate Development Architecture and Planning Technologies) to try and change all that, at least in the housing sector. Working with his brother Abdel Rahman El Miniawy, Hany has built more than 21,000 low cost homes for poor and marginalized communities in Egypt and Algeria. But his impact is larger because his techniques have been repeated and imitated, thus indirectly benefiting some 200,000 people.

ADAPT uses three strategies to build low-cost homes. First, rather than import mass-produced and expensive reinforced concrete and bricks that the poor cannot afford in the first place, ADAPT runs the local soil — whether it is in the Nubian desert, Alexandria or the Sinai peninsula — through a series of computerized lab tests to determine soil composition and durability. Second, the ADAPT team designs cement mixes by adding iron ash, rice straw, cement and brick dust to local clay and soil, and then tests their cement mixes and building techniques for safety and durability against factors like wind erosion, earthquakes and the stresses of a modern multilevel building.

Lastly, they enlist local help. Wherever it works, ADAPT has a mobile training center where they teach local youth their techniques. Thanks to this training, the construction work continues long after ADAPT has moved on to other projects.

Looking for the Truth

According to the Egyptian Center of Housing Rights, out of a population of 70 million Egyptians, some 11.5 million people or 16% of the population live in informal housing. The poor in Egypt have land but no deeds. They own property without proper titles; they build structures without permits, and they live in constant fear of demolition. The problem is exacerbated in cities like Cairo, where people who cannot afford homes live in cemeteries. Compounding this is the cutbacks in government-funded public housing for the poor and the fact that the private sector has concentrated on the more lucrative luxury development of properties.

Migration of the poor from rural to urban areas in search of jobs only makes the whole thing worse.  The government’s method of dealing with informal housing is to forcibly evict residents and demolish these informal structures or attempt to upgrade them. Part of the problem is law 25/1992, which prohibits the provision of government services like potable water, garbage collection, or health and security to illegal areas. As a result, Egyptian shantytowns have temporary homes made of adobe, metal sheets, cloth or even cardboard.

While upgrading these squatter settlements is the most cost-effective and humane method, the government is usually at a loss about how to improve these densely populated settlements. Demolishing them and paying the residents a small amount for resettling elsewhere seems not only easier, but also more lucrative from the government’s point of view. This history has led to a deep level of distrust between government officials and informal housing colonies. ADAPT befriends the residents and offers the government a face-saving way out of this complicated problem. It offers options and solutions to both sides. For a fee, the government gets a trained architectural firm that is willing to do all their dirty work for them.

ADAPT uses this fee to subsidize their operating costs, including equipment, raw materials, labor, training, site preparation, testing the raw material in soil mechanics labs and fees for notarizing lab results. Since the cost of their buildings are 30% to 50% lower than the norm, ADAPT is able to get the government to finance most if not all of their projects. Occasionally, they get outside funding as well. “Our funding methods are crazy,” says El Miniawy. “Between the talking and the building, we have no time for anything else, not even to put up a website.”

ADAPT’s biggest strength is that it brings together community and government towards a common goal. It works with the local Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and master builders to spread the word and increase community acceptance and cooperation. ADAPT also forges liaisons with manufacturers to get volume discounts on building materials, a tricky prospect since much of the importing of cement and building materials is done by the state and powerful business people who had little interest in certifying the local materials that El Miniawy tested and wanted approved for construction. In the end, it was sheer persistence that paid off. El Miniawy kept applying his ideas and building techniques, built community support for a growing number of projects in a variety of geographic landscapes and simply let the work speak for itself.

Hany El Miniawy with Ashoka Founder, Bill Drayton, and Muhammad Yunus

ADAPT also seeks investors who can participate in large scale projects. For example, El Miniawy convinced the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to finance projects in Luxor, Giza and other tourist sites where informal settlements marred the approaches to heritage sites. In Cairo, the ADAPT team and the local people created 200,000 bricks made from Qattamia’s clay, Helwan’s cement dust, sand and bricks to upgrade a large informal settlement of Manshiet Nasser. Cairo’s Ministry of Culture financed ADAPT to build The Dinishway Museum out of local low cost materials.

When El Miniawy began his work in Egypt 20 years ago, squatter settlements were suspicious when the ADAPT team showed up. They thought that the government was going to demolish their homes. “We needed time to gain their trust. Now, with experience, we can do it in a few minutes. What’s nice is that when we start in a new area, we take people from the old area and they make a presentation to the new area. The sad truth is that because of their knowledge of the local dialects and the way they talk, they can communicate our ideas better than we can.”

Since 1992, El Miniawy has worked with students and teachers at Azhar University, Cairo University’s College of Urban Construction and Planning, its College of Engineering and Menoufeya University to test his ideas and spread the word. Teaching his principles of appropriate architecture to academics and students, he believes, will not only gain support for his projects, but will also introduce Egyptians to building techniques that are different from the Western ones they are learning in college. “Housing is one of the human rights,” El Miniawy states. “What is our role as architects?”

Read the full article at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/arabic/article.cfm?articleId=2460&language_id=1

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