They first gained attention for pioneering the highly innovative concept of rooftop farming, using simplified aquaponic farming technology to aid low-income communities in creating an alternative source of income on their own rooftops. However, since then, Schaduf – led by brothers Sherif and Tarek Hosny – has moved on to further green pastures, pushing new grounds in the field of sustainable landscaping and vertical gardening.

Nowadays, Schaduf has expanded well beyond its Cairo beginnings, even going so far as to create a foothold in other countries. Having worked on projects with Tatweer Misr and in Gouna, the foundling company has come a long way since its early days, and is looking towards further growth.

Invest-Gate speaks to Tarek Hosny, Co-founder and Managing Director of Schaduf, to learn more about the company’s current projects, future plans, and challenges.

How did the idea for Schaduf come about?

It’s a long story. Sherif and I both established the company, and we had long had an interest in agriculture, whether landscaping or farming. So the interest was there, and we both have a background in engineering, so we are also interested in technology and things that have an innovational aspect. Sherif was the first to hear about farming without soil, that is to say aquaponics, which involves fish farming along with farming vegetables.

It was a new idea and we felt like we wanted to explore it and try it out. That was the beginning; we created a farm, and it’s considered the first aquaponic farm in Egypt. It started off as something small, but we did it and it worked well. From that, we thought of taking fish out of the equation, since people weren’t very amenable to it, then we thought of trying traditional soil farming. From there, we thought we wanted to grow greenery throughout many places, whether for agriculture or for aesthetic purposes, like our vertical gardens.

Can you explain the basic idea behind aquaponics?

The main idea behind aquaponics is that fish produce wastes [faeces] which have nitrogen, which in turn can provide nutrition for plants through a closed system. That’s the main idea.

What projects is Shcaduf currently working on?

We’re currently working on several projects; we just finished a project with Unilever, in their new factory. That was a traditional landscaping project; although, of course, we always try to introduce new ideas related to sustainability, such as ensuring that the plants do not consume a lot of water, and to build water-effective irrigation networks.

We’re currently also working in a mall in Sheikh Zayed, which will have green walls across its facade. The designer for this project is Italian, and he tried several companies, some foreign, but nobody really knew how to apply it. It’s different than other vertical gardens because there are gaps with different shapes and sizes. This was a challenge, but we like the challenge of figuring out how to implement something. This is the architectural aspect that we like, along with the green aspect.

Other projects include one we are about to start in Gouna; there’s a large wall there that we are going to create. Other than that, there are smaller projects, for example in someone’s residence, or a restaurant.

We also do landscape design, and we’re working with Tatweer Misr in Ain Sokhna.

You started off more in the realm of community outreach with the rooftop farming, but now you’ve headed in quite a different direction. Why is that?

Indeed, when we started we were focused on rooftop farming, and in particular on areas with low incomes. This is still ongoing until now, and we are trying to expand these projects. But we decided to expand the idea, because people don’t have to grow for agriculture alone. People may also want to grow plants for aesthetic reasons, and this in itself has a lot of benefits, whether for one’s health or for the general environment. In terms of health, anyone who has plants has a better sense of calm or well being. There are a lot of studies clarifying the health benefits of plants. This is in addition to the environmental benefits, such as purifying the air, increasing oxygen, and so forth.

For us, any time of agriculture is positive, especially since there is a lack of greenery in Cairo in particular.

Which low-income areas did you focus on with your rooftop farming projects?

We work in 6th of October, and in Ezbet el Nasr in Maadi, but in the upcoming period we will be focusing on Helwan.

Did you face any challenges at the beginning or now in undertaking your work, whether in terms of the outreach programs or in the general environment?

We always face challenges of course, especially as we aim to be the on the frontlines of the market and the first to try out new things. For example, we were the first company in Egypt to try out rooftop farming, as well as the first to try aquaponics, hydroponics, and green walls in Egypt. We’re always trying to be innovative, which takes a long time to convince people of the idea.

Do you have any operations outside Egypt?

We have some partnerships outside Egypt, but they’re still in the preliminary stages.

What was the actual impact of the rooftop farming projects on the lives of the communities they were conducted in? Did you receive positive feedback?

In terms of feedback from the people who were involved in the project, we thought that the main reason for doing it would have been for financial reasons, to supplement their incomes. However, what we discovered is that many people said the money they earned was minimal, and not enough to support them alone, but was rather a secondary activity. But we figured this would be the case from the beginning. If someone only works on it for one or two hours per day, of course they wouldn’t be able to gain a large income from it.

Nonetheless, people found that there was something positive in the project, in that they were trying something new; the feeling of planting something yourself is positive. In addition to this, the people who live immediately under these rooftops told us that the temperature improved greatly in the summer. So, of course there are benefits to the project.

Are there any environmental benefits to the vertical gardens, or are they purely for aesthetic value?

The vertical gardens have a lot of benefits, on top of which is that they create heat insulation for buildings. The plants absorb 80% to 90% of the sun’s rays, and they do so without reflecting them, and whereas some materials maintain that [heat] energy within them, allowing it to eventually seep into the building, whereas plants absorb these rays and use them to grow. As such, it majorly decreases the temperature.

The other aspect is that plants purify the air, and provides sound insulation. There are many benefits.

What is your vision for expanding in the upcoming period?

We want to continue what we are doing and expand in it, but, personally, I think it’s very important that we continue focusing on how we can provide water using new methods, because this is the problem that we will all face in general, whether it is an individual in his home or a developer building a compound or the country as a whole. It will affect us all. In all cases, we have been working on this for a long time in terms of research, so we want to build on this.

Part of this could be controlling water supplies through sensors that can identify what the weather is like, and if it’s cold, for example, the plants won’t need much water. Another thing is ensuring that each plant receives the water it needs without wasting water. There is also water recycling, and many other things that can be done in this regard.

Do you face issues with the soil in the landscaping work that you do in new cities and suburbs, and is it generally considered sustainable to grow this amount of land there?

Of course, the idea that each person has their own garden means that a huge amount of water is being used, and besides that, it requires a lot of upkeep. Within the environment we live in, this isn’t the most suitable thing, but there has to be a balance between something that might be unsustainable and the idea that someone might want their own garden. For example, instead of not planting at all, there can be plants but not grass grown in the area; there is a compromise to be found to allow people to enjoy the place they live in.

Are there any foreign companies that have done what Schaduf does on a massive scale?

The idea of rooftop farming as a project for low-income people was our invention, but of course aquaponics is an internationally used concept. We innovated a way to simplify it in order to be able to use it on rooftops.

As for green walls, we were shown a picture of something like that in France and asked to create something like it in 2012.