Police raid, building collapse… Dodging destiny, the Cairo Hackerspace team took to the road as nomads, driving a microbus through Egypt to meet the country’s makers.
It had almost disappeared from the radar, when Cairo Hackerspace finally gave a sign of life… on the road. Since October 15, the team has been traveling through Egypt on a microbus converted into a mobile lab. The objective of the Maker Express is to meet the country’s maker communities and stimulate new third-space start-ups.
It was a choice to be free, but also a necessity, following the closure of Cairo hackers’ original home, as explained to us by Tarek Omar, director of Cairo Hackerspace and pilot of the expedition: “This year, we faced a couple of problems with our physical space, so we were thinking about long-term solutions to keep our space running.” That’s when they came up with the microbus.
For nearly a year now, Egypt’s oldest hackerspace, active since 2009, has been accumulating mishaps. It all started on December 28, 2015, when the authorities raided Townhouse Gallery, the contemporary art center that hosted Cairo Hackerspace. They searched the space and the computers, checked ID, interrogated staff… Then without further explanation, some 20 Internal Affairs agents, the Department of Emigration and taxes decided to close down the center, despite intervention by lawyers from the Egyptian Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression.
Ten days later, they authorized its reopening, before retracting. The situation was fuzzy. Fablab Egypt, whom Makery met in Paris in early April, had no further update. But Cairo Hackerspace’s fate was sealed on April 6, when part of the historical late 19th century building collapsed.
We are very sad to announce that the building that hosts Cairo Hackerspace had collapsed this morning. pic.twitter.com/wziTvd9D9P
— Cairo Hacker Space (@CairoHackers) April 6, 2016
— Cairo Hacker Space (@CairoHackers) April 11, 2016
The hackerspace team rushed to save what could be salvaged, just in time before the demolition order was issued by the authorities, who began gutting the space on April 11. Two days later, however, the building is finally saved. But Cairo Hackerspace found itself homeless. That’s when the idea of a mobile hackerspace, already brewing for a few months, became reality.
5000km in three months
Zagazig, Mansourah, Damietta, Port-Said, Ismailia… The Maker Express began its journey in mid-October, visiting the big cities of the eastern delta of the Nile and the Suez Canal, before continuing on toward Upper Egypt. Equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, electronics, robots and educational tools, the microbus is scheduled to rally some 20 cities in three months—not including the trips in between, totaling some 5000km in often trying conditions.
— Maker Express (@makerexpress_) October 16, 2016
“We also used this moment to rethink our impact on the larger making/coworking community in the country,” Omar adds. “A mobile makerspace affords us the chance to expand our reach and show spaces and people outside of Cairo what the philosophy of a hackerspace/makerspace really is.”
Three mechanics, one navigator, but also developers, graphic designers, a photographer… A dozen people are participating in the expedition, with three physically on board, with the support of S3Geeks (Saeedy Geeks) as partner in Upper Egypt.
“Most of our challenges have to do with logistics,” says Omar. “There is a daily struggle to keep the bus in good health, as we are covering sometimes hundreds of kilometers in a day. We’re also going to some new and unfamiliar places for our team, so finding and budgeting for accommodation and other needs is another challenge.”
“Sometimes we’ve slept outside (on the beach, if there is one) or in the bus, and that’s been an adventure.”
Tarek Omar, director of Cairo Hackerspace
“We’re not just targeting makerspaces and hackerspaces, as this is still a burgeoning movement in Egypt,” says Omar. “We’re also visiting and working with coworking spaces, start-ups, and culture centers. In the three-month course of our tour, we hope to visit about 150 such spaces and inspire even more to start up.”
Learning from connected plants
At each stage, the Maker Express deploys its arsenal of workshops and lectures, including a coworking talk by Ahmed Saied, founder of Eshbook and partner of the trip, coupled with a temporary lab where people can learn to use digital fabrication machines. Their main workshop, dedicated to the Internet of Plants (IoP), teaches people to plant a smart garden, make and connect sensors, manage the needs and the growth of the vegetables through a dashboard… It’s a crucial topic in a still very rural society that faces chronic water shortage.
“By educating people on how to manage water usage in their plants with some simple knowledge of electronics and hardware, we’re essentially advocating for more sustainable and environment-friendly lifestyles,” says Omar. “With the coworking talk and the pop-up makerspace, we are advocating for community-building and showing that ideas and goals evolve better when shared.”
Next steps: Luxor on November 16-17, then Aswan on November 20-22, before heading back north via the Red Sea. The final stop is planned in Faiyum on November 29, before the hackerspace finds its marks again in a temporary space in Cairo. Unless it remains nomadic…