Hany El Miniawy

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2004
This description of Hany El Miniawy's work was prepared when Hany El Miniawy was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004.


Hany is introducing low-cost housing to low-income communities by producing appropriate local building materials, adopting a participatory approach for transfer of know-how, and using simple and fast building techniques. When applied nationally, Hany’s idea will address two of Egypt’s major problems: low-income housing shortages and inhumane living conditions in squatter and illegal areas.

The New Idea

Hany is introducing low-cost, environmentally friendly housing for squatter and other low-income areas in Egypt, an effort that will decrease the cost of housing by 30 percent. His idea has three main components. First, he is reducing dependency on expensive imported, mass-produced, and environmentally unfriendly building materials by participating with local communities to test and improve the properties of locally available materials, using simple non-polluting production and construction methods. Through experimentation with local ingredients used by the ancient Egyptians and the treatment of polluting materials such as rice straw, cement dust, and iron-fabric leftovers, Hany has been able to create low-cost, government-certified, environmentally friendly construction materials. Second, he is using building techniques that are easier, faster, and more affordable than the techniques currently used to build homes. Finally, he is transferring his know-how of building materials and techniques to youth in low-income, illegal communities, adopting a participatory approach and a mutual-learning process that incorporates local construction knowledge and styles.
Hany’s idea will allow local inhabitants of squatter areas to “upgrade” their homes in a cheaper, more efficient, environmentally-friendly, and participatory manner. From his example, the government can opt for housing upgrades as opposed to forced evictions and demolition as a solution to the increasing phenomenon of squatter areas. In addition, availability of low cost housing will reduce the expansion of squatter areas as people can then afford living in more organized areas.

The Problem

A growing population and the flight of rural migrants to cities over the past four decades has resulted in an unhealthily rapid process of urbanization and a tremendous housing shortage in Egypt. In addition, in the mid-1970s, responding to increases in demand, the price of land and the cost of construction soared to unimaginable heights. At the same time, as part of the neo-liberal development strategy adopted by the Egyptian government at the beginning of the 1970s, there have been significant cutbacks in government-financed housing, and the private sector has concentrated on more high-end luxury developments as opposed to affordable housing. The result has been a rapid proliferation of squatter and informal settlements—communities in which the housing, in most cases, does not have potable water, sewage facilities, garbage collection, or health and security facilities. The lack of services in these areas is the result of law 25/1992 which prohibits the provision of government services to illegal areas. This dangerous pattern of urbanization has exacerbated environmental deterioration as well as contributed to the deterioration of the health and well-being of Egyptians.

A 1995 World Bank report on the construction industry in Egypt states that 80 percent of housing built between 1966 and 1986 was shanty housing. Today, according to the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, 92 percent of real estate land in the urban sector and 87 percent in the rural sector in Egypt is not legally recognized—over 70 percent of which belong to the poor. The value of extralegal urban and rural estate amounts to US $241.4 billion. While the official 1996 census states that seven million people live in informal areas, the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights estimates that the population living in these areas is as high as 11,561,000. Out of a population of 70 million Egyptians, this figure indicates that more than 16 percent of the Egyptian population lives in informal areas. The problem has become so acute that in Cairo, people who cannot afford housing are living in cemeteries.

The government has responded to the increasing phenomenon of informal housing by either “upgrading” it or by forcibly evicting residents and demolishing informal structures to accommodate new developments and/or high-income housing. The latter approach is the most common, as upgrading is extremely expensive. The displaced residents of the informal area either resettle to housing compounds even farther away or they are given compensation to seek other housing arrangements. However, in many cases the eviction is carried out without compensation or the securing of appropriate alternative shelter.

Egyptian shantytowns vary in quality from houses made of adobe and cement to shacks made out of sheets of metal, cloth, and even cardboard. According to Hany, mass-produced building materials such as red bricks and reinforced concrete are unreliable because their costs are tied to international markets. At the same time, local building materials used by indigenous populations in rural and desert environments are often not resistant to harsh environmental conditions such as earthquakes and heavy rains. Hany’s work suggests that it is possible to develop building materials tailored to each local environment through a scientific process of testing and designing building materials, combined with construction training.

The Strategy

Hany's strategy consists of three main components: testing local soil for potential building materials, processing polluting materials and treating them to create new building materials, and training and transferring the know-how of such work to youth in local communities.

Hany’s goal was to produce low-cost housing that is appropriate to local conditions. He adopted a methodology that depended on using environment-friendly local material, and involving community members to ensure ownership, continuity, and the spread of the know-how. However, in a country where importing cement and building material is carried out by the state and powerful business people, it was challenging to get through the state’s bureaucracy in order to get the local material certified and approved. In order to convince the state, test the material, and build a body of supporters, Hany had to begin applying his idea, building techniques, and community involvement strategy in a number of projects in Cairo, Upper Egypt, and the desert, and let the results speak for themselves.

In El-Nassereya in Aswan, Upper Egypt, he built a settlement for the builders of the Aswan Dam, with the participation of local inhabitants. Beginning in 1992, as part of a university project, he worked with teachers and students in Azhar University (1992), Cairo University (College of Urban Construction and Planning in 1995, College of Engineering in 1998-2004), and Menoufeya University, to upgrade housing of the very poor neighboring areas, in order to test his ideas, and also to build support and recognition among academics and students while introducing them to different building techniques from the Western-oriented ones they were learning in the classroom.

To further spread his idea and in an attempt to gain more governmental and societal support, Hany has worked with various ministries, donors, and diverse communities. On a project financed by the EU and the Ministry of the Environment, Hany worked with 61 local Bedouins to create a visitors’ center near the monastery of St. Catherine, using local limestone, granite, and dolomite. He developed paving tiles (out of local clay and high iron-oxide content, local fine aggregate, and sand), bricks (using local clay), and plastering materials (out of local clay known as heeba) for the area leading to the Edfu temple. He has also developed 200,000 local bricks (made from clay from Qattamia, cement dust from Helwan, and sand) and used them in upgrading measures undertaken in the large informal settlement of Manshiet Nasser. Recently, he built the Dinishway Museum, financed by the Ministry of Culture, out of local and accessible building materials.

Perhaps most importantly, in each region that he works, Hany opens mobile construction and learning centers where he trains small groups of local youth on how to experiment with regional materials to create inexpensive and sturdy construction materials and build homes in a faster, easier, and more sustainable way. In a process that is based on dialogue and collaborative learning, Hany asks the youth for their ideas about construction, and together they create a new consensus. Youth come out of the training with the skills to create materials and build homes that are cheaper, easier to build, and environmentally-friendly; thus gaining a comparative advantage over other architects. To this date, Hany has trained and transferred his know-how to between 1,000 and 1,500 youth with the help of communities in Manshiet Nasser, Edfu, Upper Egypt the Delta, and Bulaq el Daqrour.

Hany intends to scale up through three strategies: First, to standardize the curriculum, structure it to work with the Mubarak Kole National Vocational Skills program, and use it with community members in the demonstration areas and within his mobile centers. It is estimated that 2,500 youths will be trained and certified as local builders at the end of five years. Second, he will create six demonstration models/mobile centers in six areas with the relevant ministries, civil society organizations and communities, with the aim of gaining support and creating a favorable public opinion. Finally, he will promote the idea of mass production of the local material at a governorate level by engaging the local business sector and by proving to them that catering to the needs of local communities can be lucrative.

The Person

Hany Miniawy was raised to believe that religion is not about appearances, but rather it is about leading an active and meaningful life from which people can benefit. His father was an accountant, but was forced to shut down his small accountancy firm during the time of Abdel Nasser. Hany started school in Victoria College in Alexandria, but later moved to a public school in Heliopolis in Cairo. In school, he was involved in sports, playing soccer and water-skiing, and both he and his brother became Egyptian national water-ski champions.

Studying architecture at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Helwan University, he questioned why architecture students in Egypt only learned about Western architecture and urban planning, neither of which was cost effective or appropriate for Egypt’s climate. After the Six-Day War of 1967, he felt there was “darkness” in Egypt and an atmosphere of despair and pessimism and so decided to travel to France and Germany where he worked for four years. In Germany Hany found an internship in an architectural office and entered many architecture competitions.

Hany moved to Algeria from 1974 to 1988 where he put his first architectural ideas into practice, treating the selection and production of building materials as a process that should be different for every environment, rather than offering pre-designed solutions. It was here that Hany developed his strong belief in involving the communities in which he works, making them an integral part of his projects. Rather than imposing solutions on the poor, he still strongly believes that it is important to incorporate their local knowledge and resourcefulness.

In 1988, Hany came back to Egypt because he was offered the chance to help design the “Madinat al-Uboor” with the Germans. He later won another tender for the design and upgrading of Greater Cairo, financed by the French. Soon after moving back to Egypt, he began addressing the problems of squatter areas and encouraged business donors and the government to experiment with his ideas in remote governorates.

Hany has always been creative in responding to local problems throughout his career, from his project to build accommodating housing for fisherman on Lake Nasser—housing that could be quickly adjusted according to the current tidal shifts—to his current mobile learning centers. Hany has also worked on “regional development,” including the agricultural development of desert land with Bedouins in areas between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa, and in the Western Desert. He was also in charge of the construction of the Egyptian section of EXPO 2000 which took place in Hanover, Germany. Hany has been working informally on his current project for many years, testing his idea through many avenues, but has only recently been able to devote himself full time to realizing his goal of providing safe and affordable housing for all Egyptians.