Last week @Hazem and I braved the Cairo traffic to visit Mesaha, Rasheed22 and Megawra, three initiatives about which I had heard a lot and was very curious to learn more. What follows is an account of what I understood about the initiatives, how they work and the challenges they face [Ulli, Ahmed Rabie and Dina] are deeply involved and I hope they can correct me where I make mistakes...
... is a mix between a co-working space in downtown Cairo and a community-development collective founded by a group of 28 people after the January 25 revolution. What makes them unique is the a sophisticated business/sustainaibility model and deep involvement with each project that uses the infrastructures. Also, unlike most of the co-working spaces I heard about in Cairo, they are less focused on startups and more on cultural projects (I think):
"Mesaha's main goal is to support different initiatives and working groups with providing the physical space, the networking opportunities, and the technical support as well as the learning space. However, startups and companies and individuals working on their personal projects are included in the community as co-workers where we can provide the physical space for them and they contribute with paying some money."
During our conversation Dina (involved in running the co-working space) tells me there was a feeling that young people were looking for spaces which would nurture their efforts to contribute towards improving their lives beyond personal careers and developing those of their communities. Like many other interesting initiatives in Egypt, Mesaha is a child of the revolution (my interpretation). The popular uprising unleashed a tidal wave of creativity amongst many young people. Even though many of those dreams have been cruelly crushed in the aftermath it is like something came unstuck as a result...a sense of collective agency perhaps? A collective of people [all Cairenes?did they know one another? what did they have in common?] decided to get Mesaha going: I am unsure as to the step by step of how they took the first steps, and built it to where it is now (any idea @Hazem ?)"
"we have 28 co-founders, at the very first beginning they were interested to start this project so each of them contributed paying some money to rent the flat and to buy some essentials, they know each other and the thing they have in common is their passion towards helping working groups and initiatives, and their experience in working with youth activists and the problems that they faced finding a "space" that acts as a hub for their ideas and activities."
The Mesaha crowd places a lot of emphasis on hosting and personalised matchmaking between complementary projects and people in their community. Which also results in their being up to date with what is happening in all the projects (which is also a necessity to be "safe" in the current political climate). They very kindly offered to host an adhoc community get together on the thursday where we convened a small group of people to discuss possibilities of codesigning, prototyping and testing a sustainable model of networked collaboration. Who knows, maybe even getting some kind of network barter going?
"Mesaha's sustainability is mostly depending on the contribution policy that we talked about, different people contribute with different forms to make sure that their space is sustaining, some of them meet at Mesaha but they don't necessarily know each other"
The social contract seems to be that people can contribute to maintaining the infrastructures in different ways: it's pretty adhoc. Basically they get to know you and your initiative to understand how they could support you. And in return they ask how you can contribute: for some people it's money, with others it is helping manage the space and taking on community management responsibilities:
"Trust and transparency are among our values in Mesaha, that's why we care about knowing everything about our initiatives and working groups as well as sharing with them all the information about Mesaha, our commitments, our story, our principals, our rules ...etc."
The main challenge is sustainability as money is really tight and in order to not draw unpleasant attention from authorities it is important for Egyptian grassroots initiatives to steer clear of "foreign" money. Right now they have two full time hosts that are employed by a local institution (I think) in a kind of indirect support, resource sharing in a very direct way:
"We don't have employees as you mentioned, but we're in partnership with some organizations that help us in the placement of passionate workers for a certain period of time at Mesaha to help in managing the space and to work on definite assignments to develop Mesaha. ( Current partners: Action Aid global platform from Jordan - and Lazurd fellowship, Gerhard center, AUC)"
I'll get back in touch with them and follow up on our conversation, leave questions in the comments please so I can build a good case study to share!
Hazem and I took the metro (works pretty well by the way) across town to Heliopolis where you find @labanita's Rasheed22 coworking space in a charming old building. When we walked in Ulli mentioned the space was undergoing some changes as they were in the process of setting up a pickup point for organic farm deliveries in the space.
As I write this I realise I never asked Ulli how they got started, how the space is run and what kind of initatives they run. It's clear they do a lot of different things though: The venue is filled with prototypes of all kinds of products, from locally produced organic energy bars to bags made from recycled event banners (the kind you hang on top of the stage at conferences). I'll need to look up the documentation from Spot The Future to see if I can find the basics...
What I did gather is that some of the challenges are ones faced by anyone running any kind of community platform, whether it is a physical space or an online one. That of building a shared working culture and sense of personal responsibility for maintaining and developing common infrastructures which enable the work...More soon here
The story of reviving al-Khalifa area and the community service centre here.
See Case Study & notes here