Exclusive: Meet Radwa Rostom, an Egyptian Entrepreneur Attempting to Revolutionize the Construction Industry
By Kareem Sheta
Today’s article features one of Egypt’s most multi-talented women who was mentioned for two years in a row in Arabian Business magazine’s list for the most influential young Arabs under the age of 40! Combining between the challenging fields of engineering and entrepreneurship, Radwa Rostom established her enterprise, Hand Over, to revolutionize the construction industry by designing and building structures using sustainable eco-friendly materials that help impoverished areas throughout Egypt while also targeting the private sector.
Hey Radwa, it’s great to meet you. Please tell us a little about yourself.
I am Radwa, a Civil Engineer, a change-maker and someone who doesn’t settle for what is available but always try to find solutions for our pressing issues that also meet my passion and interest.
How did you come up with the idea of Hand Over and tell us more about it?
The idea first came to me when I was studying at college. I used to volunteer with student activities, one of them was “Alashanek Ya Balady (AYB)” I was a member in “eliminating illiteracy” program, so we used to visit kids and elderly women every week and teach them Arabic and English. Part of our job required doing surveys for their families.
During one of the visits to the families, I was checking the house they live in and it was in a very bad shape and I felt more responsible to help them live in a safe and humane house more than teaching them, being an engineering student and studying construction. The idea kept in the back of my mind, I never took any steps when I was in college, I was not sure what exactly I should do. I graduated, got a job; the idea was there but also with no actions.
I started to know more about the environmental practices in my field, and I was not totally satisfied in all the jobs I worked in, each job fulfilled one part but there were other parts that were not fulfilled. I was dreaming of a job where I can still build structures, help the communities who need these services the most, and do it in an environmental way.
That’s how the idea of “Hand Over” was shaped through the years. “Hand Over” is a social business where we aim to utilize sustainable and naturally sourced materials to design and build beneficial structures, targeting unprivileged communities and the private sector.
We accomplish this through a Human Centered Design approach, which mainly focuses on the beneficiaries and how they could be included in all the steps of the projects and how their needs are fulfilled. We also focus on spreading knowledge and backing our work with research and experiments. Our vision is to revolutionize the construction industry and provide an alternative that could be used in creating sustainable communities and upgrading existing ones.
Would you say using sustainable eco-friendly materials is easier to use than say bricks or concrete?
It is easier in the sense that the techniques we have been adapting the last years were manly earth building techniques, they didn’t require heavy equipment or any sophisticated approaches and the materials are sourced locally and so it is easy to be taught to the people. In terms of spreading these techniques, it is still challenging, in terms of convincing people, from all the segment, that it is a better alternative in terms of cost, habitat and for the environment.
It says here that you recruit people and deliver sessions to empower civil or architectural engineering students. How come and why not hire professional experienced engineers?
At the beginning of most of the project we undertake, especially the projects targeting the community development approach, we recruit a team of students; we deliver a series of sessions and workshops discussing several topics such as earth construction techniques and environmental design. The reason why we recruit students and not professionals is that our model is built on a collaborative approach, where we try to bring together different stakeholders of the community and each one supports with his part to complete the project. The students’ role is to use their effort and time to contribute to the project by working on the designs and supporting in the construction phase, besides they get to learn about new topics that are rarely discussed in their university curriculum.
I understand you outsource the work to the citizens of the slums as well so they can learn how to sustain the project. Could you further elaborate on this matter?
We don’t have a fixed staff of builders that build all the projects that we do. In every project, we recruit labors and builders from the community, we train them, we teach them a new skill, so they have a sense of ownership to the buildings and also they would know how to maintain the buildings after we leave.
I’m sure funding is a pressing matter for any project. What are some of the top challenges that you face to raise money for Hand Over?
I wouldn’t say it is an easy thing but I also wouldn’t say that it is impossible. Most people wouldn’t pursue their dreams because they are too afraid that they won’t find funding. You just need to be very clear about what you want to do and how you are going to do it. Your plan should reflect your passion and persistence. In our early stage, we needed to outsource seed funding because we were still in the proof of concept stage so we needed to build our portfolio. We are a social enterprise, registered as a limited liability company, so we are a for-profit business, now we are focusing on sustaining the company through the services we offer.
Will the enterprise help the private sector as well?
As I mentioned earlier, we are a social business and we have two main tracks, one is focusing on developing impoverished areas through the structures we design and build and the other track targets the private sector, whether house owners, real estate developers. We believe if we want to create a revolution in the construction industry we need to be targeting all the segments, and not only focus on one of them.
What are some of the future plans for the enterprise?
We were recently granted a new project, with the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and UNDP, to rehabilitate Abu Galoum natural protectorate. In this coming phase, we are also focusing on nourishing our commercial track and getting into the construction market, besides delivering educational programs for university students and graduates. We also have an upcoming event, a photography exhibition that will showcase our work and the work of other renowned architects and builders who are passionate about sustainable architecture like us. The invitation is open to anyone. It will start on Saturday, May 5 and last for eight days in Beit Elsura in Al-Maadi. Here is the link to the event
At the end of this interview, would you like to send our readers a message?
My message would be for anyone who has an idea that he or she is passionate about it, take the leap of faith, put all your effort in and do your best. It will either work out which is good or it won’t but it will be much better to give it a try instead of regretting never doing it or wondering “what if”. And while you are in this purist, always surround yourself with a good support system, whether a team, your family and friends, your mentors and celebrate the small wins because they will lead to bigger ones.