advertisement
advertisement
  • 07.10.17

This Young Palestinian Engineer Is Helping Rebuild Gaza With Waste

With little cement getting into the territory, Majd Mashharawi had to come up with a creative solution to help rebuild.

This Young Palestinian Engineer Is Helping Rebuild Gaza With Waste
“I just want to say that if you want something to happen, you can make it possible.” [Photo: courtesy GreenCake]

Three years after Israeli forces bombed the Gaza Strip–during a 50-day siege that destroyed nearly 18,000 homes and damaged another 153,000–most of those homes have yet to be rebuilt. In part, that’s because Israel drastically limits the amount of building materials that are allowed to cross the border into Gaza. But two Gazan engineering students created another solution: making high-performance bricks out of local waste.

advertisement

“From 2014 until now in 2017, there are some houses that are still destroyed and their owners cannot get any building materials due to this situation,” says Majd Mashharawi, who created the new product with her fellow student Rawan Abdulatif (Abdulatif is no longer involved in the company). “When I was a student in the fourth year of college I was thinking, ‘How can we put an end to this misery?”

Construction materials were first banned entry into Gaza in 2007 when Israel labeled them “dual use” and argued that they could be used to build bunkers or for other military purposes. Even after the war in 2014, only limited materials have been allowed in, and only a fraction have gone to rebuilding housing. One report estimates that only about a third of the cement needed for reconstruction has made it over the border. The short supply means that even if someone can get materials, they’re expensive. Tens of thousands of people are still displaced or homeless.

As Mashhawari and Abdulatif considered replacements for cement, they realized that they couldn’t access some chemicals that they wanted, and then started experimenting with different materials for building blocks. One early experiment, which they called “papercrete,” used waste paper instead of sand and aggregate to make blocks. It worked, and helped provide a solution for paper waste; Gaza doesn’t have any recycling systems. But the product was more expensive than ordinary cement. They also experimented with clay blocks but realized that the high temperatures needed for firing the clay used too much energy to be a sustainable solution. Eventually, they started working with another material: ashes from the wood and coal that’s burned locally for energy. Around six tons of ashes typically go to landfills each week.

The design process was challenging, and more than 100 samples failed early tests. “The laboratory I used to test the samples sometimes made fun of me and said, ‘What are you doing? People are going to build houses from garbage, are you serious?'” says Mashharawi. “It was very hard in the beginning.”

“The laboratory I used to test the samples sometimes made fun of me and said, ‘What are you doing? People are going to build houses from garbage, are you serious?'” [Photo: courtesy GreenCake]
Mashhawari, now 23, faced even more challenges as a woman. “People are very traditional–they think women are supposed to stay at home and cook and have babies, not work like men, especially in the field of construction,” she says. “Whenever I went to the factory, the workers looked at me and said, ‘Oh, lady, just step aside and we can do your work.’ Many of my relatives told me, ‘Instead of wasting your life doing your blocks, go and get married.’ It was very hard in the beginning for society to accept the fact that women can do something.”

advertisement

The students started to develop the prototype in August 2014, and by early 2015, had a working prototype of what they call GreenCake–blocks made with ash that are cheaper than ordinary cement blocks, and can be made at half the weight (“cake” refers to the fact that the product has an airy structure). The design isn’t the first to incorporate ash in bricks; many other processes use fly ash from coal. But the new design uses a different type of larger-grained ash, and a different process that cures the blocks using steam instead of high-temperature kilns, saving energy.

Mashhawari now rents space in a factory, employing up to 10 people at a time to produce the bricks, but is seeking investment to expand. [Photo: courtesy GreenCake]
After tying for first place in the Japan Gaza Innovation Challenge, a competition that recognizes projects that help improve life in Gaza, samples of their bricks were taken to Japan, where testing facilities verified fire resistance and other factors that no lab in Gaza had the ability to verify (Mashhawari also later traveled to Japan to work with engineers to refine the product). A local startup incubator, Mobaderoon III, helped them fund their first production in September 2016. The startup constructed a pilot building as a demonstration, and customers started to place orders. Mashhawari now rents space in a factory, employing up to 10 people at a time to produce the bricks, but is seeking investment to expand.

“It was very hard in the beginning for society to accept the fact that women can do something.”[Photo: courtesy GreenCake]
She’s currently visiting Boston to attend a fellowship which helps young entrepreneurs launch businesses–and she’s actively meeting with American business leaders to help connect them with other entrepreneurs in Gaza who haven’t yet had the opportunity to make their ideas real. The design is also a finalist in the 2017 Index Award.

“I just want to say that if you want something to happen, you can make it possible,” she says. “In the beginning, I didn’t think I would reach this stage today and that I would get all of what I dreamt–that it would be possible even to travel, and to [meet with] people, and get investment. It’s not impossible if you believe in it.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

More

Video