Leadership and Change
An NGO Champions Solar Energy in EgyptPublished: May 04, 2011
When Nabila Mokhtar Elkady looks out at the desert panorama of her native Egypt, the environmental activist from Alexandria doesn't just see empty space. Instead, she sees opportunity in the form of solar power and other renewable energy. She launched an organization called Environmental Protection & Use of Solar Energy to spread the word about her vision and raise awareness about renewable solar energy. "If you're keen about doing something good, other people will join you in your project," says Elkady, a 2010 graduate of the Women Entrepreneurial and Leadership (WEL) certificate program sponsored by the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative and conducted through the American University in Cairo. "But before people will commit to you, they have to see results," she adds through a translator.
A 48-year-old who trained and worked as an agricultural engineer, Elkady says she "always had an interest in environmental awareness." In 2000, that motivated her to take a good look at alternative energy use in Egypt. Elkady found there was a lot to be desired." I was always involved in agriculture, which can benefit from solar powered initiatives," she says. "But in Egypt, there's not a lot of awareness about solar energy, and there aren't that many projects."
Room for Improvement
Several solar and wind energy initiatives have been sponsored by the Egyptian government, "but they tend to be locally focused projects," notes Tarek Hatem, professor of strategic management, international business and entrepreneurship at the American University in Cairo. "It's not a nationally coordinated effort, so we really don't see a huge push for alternative energy here, and we're not engaging the entire nation. There's plenty of room for improvement."
Frustrated by what she saw as a lack of action on the part of the government, Elkady decided to try to do something about it. She had a long history of being involved with volunteer movements -- including her role as the first woman to serve on a village-level agricultural board -- so she had a solid grounding in working with volunteers and in dealing with bureaucracies. "I started out small," Elkady says. "At first, my husband [who is also an agricultural engineer and worked with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a specialized agency of the United Nations] and I used our own funds to establish small, pilot solar energy programs in some villages using volunteers."
It was important to get some results early on, she notes, since "people often remain indifferent to ideas until you can prove that they'll work." But Elkady soon recognized that her solitary efforts weren't enough to make a big difference. "I realized that we would need a team of people who could remain focused on the goals," she says. "I also knew that the team leaders would need the right mix of technical background and charisma so they could spread the word and get more people involved."
It took Elkady about a year to get those people on board. "In our culture, everyone wants to be the leader, or No. 1 person, but I had to find people who could work as a team," Elkady notes, adding that the time spent searching for the right people was worthwhile, since it enabled her to establish a long-term, viable organizational structure.
From the beginning, Elkady says that she planned to establish the group as an NGO, or non-governmental organization -- instead of working within the government -- as a way to avoid bureaucratic obstacles. "Government agencies are often too rigid," she says. "I wanted the flexibility of an NGO."
But establishing a viable NGO meant finding funding sources. Through her own research and by networking, Elkady was able to connect with organizations like the United Nations Development Program's Global Environment Facility, or GEF, which supports climate change abatement and adaptation, conservation of biodiversity and other efforts across the globe.
The GEF provided her with funding to establish a small solar water heating project in a village "to minimize the consumption of traditional fuel and promote the use of available alternatives of solar energy for domestic water heating," according to the organization's website.
"Historically, one of the main challenges of establishing an NGO in Egypt involved getting approved by the nation's security agencies," notes American University's Hatem. "That could take a long time and could discourage some people."
The next big challenge was securing funding, Hatem adds. "For the most part, Egyptian NGOs have to depend on finding donors from other nations," he says. "In the past few years, we have seen more NGOs established here, but many still struggle with issues like sustainability and management. The successful ones tend to pay a lot of attention to funding and other sustainability concepts, and they will also work hard to recruit the people to help manage the organization."
Today, Elkady's organization has projects across Egypt and is leveraging her reach by partnering with other NGOs in cities like Cairo. Through another organization, the Social Fund for Development, Elkady's group has secured funding to train women entrepreneurs and to provide them with loans for start-up capital. "It's a multiplier effect," she says. "By providing technical and other education and financing to these women, they may become independent and can then train other women in a similar way."
While Elkady believes that other women can accomplish what she has done, she admits that it takes organizational ability and perseverance. Before even trying to launch an NGO, the leader has to find out all she can about the issue she plans to address. Before launching Environmental Protection & Use of Solar Energy, Elkady enrolled in a solar-energy study program run by a Swiss organization. Then, to sharpen her organizational skills, she enrolled in a project management course in Jordan. "First, you have to follow your heart," she says. "Be passionate about what you're doing so other people will understand it. You may face legal and societal obstacles, but if you believe in what you're doing, you'll find a way around them."