It is always fitting to start the New Year on a bright, hopeful note. The Coptic New Year is no exception, neither would Pope Tawadros II have had it otherwise. So when, on the eve of 12 September 2019 he marked the 1736 AM, Anno Martyrus, New Year Eve—AM is the Coptic calendar of the martyrs—with Vespers service and went on to honour seven Coptic young innovators and inventors, the congregation was thrilled.
David and Goliath
A week earlier, the Pope had honoured a young woman for outstanding achievement; she was a pharmacy student who, against all odds and adverse circumstances, won an International prize in clinical skills. Merna Hosny Fakhri, a fifth year student of Pharmacy at the British University in Egypt (BUE), described herself as David facing Goliath in the Clinical Skills International Competition held this year in Rwanda where she singlehandedly faced teams from 45 countries and won first prize. Ms Fakhri had headed to Rwanda to represent Egypt in the competition only to find out that, owing to some terrible misunderstanding, she was disqualified because no individual was allowed to participate, only teams of five. Her passion about participating, however, persuaded the panel of supervisors to allow her to do so as an exceptional measure. But she had only six hours to examine her patient and deliver her report, whereas the other teams had had four days to do so. When the winner was announced, it was Merna Fakhri from Egypt.
Pope Tawadros, himself a pharmacist, questioned Ms Fakhri about the details of the test case. It concerned a 72-year-old female patient with severe cardiac problems, Ms Fakhri said. She explained how she went about examining and analysing the case, the medication prescribed and the patient’s diet, the interaction among them, and what changes she finally recommended for better treatment. She won first prize. “So you formed a team with David,” the Pope remarked with a broad smile.
Treating Egypt’s hepatitis C
On Coptic New Year Eve, the Pope started off by announcing the names of the seven honourees who, he said, “have made us proud and happy”. Each, he said, would introduce himself or herself, and give a brief presentation of the innovation they were being honoured for.
It was heartwarming to see seven young, bright, bubbling persons go up to present their innovations or inventions, the fruit of their hard work.
First came Olivia Adel who introduced herself as a student of Pharmacy at the British University in Egypt. She said she had been honoured for her innovation by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi at the National Youth Conference in July 2019. She had also won international prizes.
Ms Adel had innovated a method to treat Hepatitis C (HCV) in Egypt through developing a natural ingredient to eliminate the liver proteins responsible for HCV infection. She did her research at the BUE, jointly with the State-owned Egyptian National Cancer Institute. Pope Tawadros asked Ms Adel what had led her to work on that topic, and she replied that she had been seriously interested in research ever since she was in her 9th year at school and, her father being a medical doctor, she was especially drawn to fighting disease.
The Pope asked in what way her current research would be beneficial, and whether or not it has been put into operation. Ms Adel said her research focused on the HCV4 virus which was especially prevalent in Egypt, and that it is still under experimentation, but that the cure rate was significantly high.
The Pope then called on Abanoub Gamal, a graduate of the Faculty of Pharmacy at 6 October University. Mr Gamal had succeeded in designing an apparatus that would extract the active compound in medicinal and aromatic herbs in 4 – 12 hours instead of the current average week when using prevalent extraction methods. He had been assigned to that task once he graduated, by his professor Dr Tareq Saad Makram, and was backed by a team of fellow researcher scientists and engineers. Mr Gamal explained that this extraction method would be especially beneficial for Egypt since growers export aromatic and medicinal herbs as raw material because the extraction process is a long, weary one, the result being that very few extractors operate in Egypt. With the new apparatus, Mr Gamal said, the extraction process would be much easier and the time needed would be significantly reduced.
Medicinal and aromatic herbs grow in sandy soil as well as on agricultural land, meaning desert growers could invest in cultivating herbs, isolating their extract, and selling it at guaranteed profit, and at the same time using the residue as fodder for their livestock. Mr Gamal made a comparison between planting a feddan of agricultural land with sugar cane, as typical in Upper Egypt, and planting it with jasmine. In the first case, he said, the revenue would amount to an average EGP8,000 whereas in the second, it would amount to EGP70,000. If, using Mr Gamal’s apparatus, the active compound in the jasmine is isolated as a paste that is later used to extract its essential oil, the feddan would yield 7kg of paste that could be sold on the International market for USD21,000, at today’s exchange rate some EGP350,000. A feddan of camomile could yield an extract worth some EGP50,000, and a feddan of marjoram EGP150,000. Herbs grow well in desert land, Mr Gamal said, and Egypt has an ambitious plan to plant 1.5 million feddans in the desert. “Why battle the desert by cultivating traditional crops that may give poor yield, when we could collaborate with it by growing herbs and extracting their active components at a lucrative profit?” he said.
Mr Gamal listed numerous gold and silver prizes he had won for his invention in international and local competitions.
The third innovator was Ihab Adel, a post-graduate student of computer electronics at Ain Shams University, who said his innovation involved two projects. The first was a fire control system that uses artificial intelligence to detect a fire in a building, using a network of cameras and sensors. As soon as a fire is detected, the system gives orders to specially equipped drones to fight the fire and release a gaseous material that surrounds it and limits it in one location so it does not spread. It also sends an alarm signal to the nearest fire station, using GPS.
If the fire was caused by individuals in the building, Mr Adel said, the security system orders drones equipped with an anaesthetic spray to move. The spray acts in a few seconds to render the culprits unconscious, and signals the police to catch them. Pope Tawadros asked whether these systems worked in closed or open spaces, and Mr Adel replied that they work only in closed spaces, “but we are working on developing them to operate in open places. He said the fire fighting system had won him an honour by President Sisi, as well as international and local awards in innovation fairs.
Fighting back pain
It was then the turn of Michael Sobhy to come up and talk of his innovation. Mr Sobhy introduced himself as a physician and researcher at Misr International University (MIU).
Mr Sobhy said his innovation aimed at preventing back pain and trouble that comes of carrying heavy loads, especially school backpacks for children and students in general. He invented a small-size ‘shelf’ carrier to be attached at the lower back through a belt tied at the waist. The backpack would be slipped across the back and made to rest on the carrier shelf which would then practically carry the load of the pack, supported by the muscles in the waist, which are much more sturdy than the shoulder muscles. The back and shoulders would thus be relieved of the burden. Mr Sobhy said his innovation, which won international and local awards, has already gone into production in small quantities, but is selling well on the market.
Next came Bishoy Kamal, an Agriculture student who made up a plant-based organic fertiliser which he named Kimetal. Kemet is ancient Egyptian for “Egypt”. Mr Kamal’s fertiliser helps rid the soil of excessive salinity, and accordingly increases and enhances crop yield and quality. It also helps, Mr Kamal said, to coagulate the particles in sandy soil, raising thus its ability to retain water and nutrients. The fertiliser, according to Mr Kamal, has been used with several crops including corn, potatoes, and beetroot; in all cases, he said, it yielded fantastic results. It has been endorsed by a number of international and local agriculture institutes and organisations, and has been listed with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture.
“What made you pick that field of research?” Pope Tawadros asked Mr Kamal. “I come from a family of farmers in the village of Deir Abu-Hinnis in Minya [some 250km south of Cairo],” Mr Kamal said. “I always had a passion for plants. I started innovating in that field since I was in my 8th and 9th years in school. My parents encouraged and supported my work so that now, in my second year in university, I continue innovating in that field. We are already producing the fertiliser, but on a small scale.” In reply to a question by the Pope, Mr Kamal said his fertiliser was sold in packages of 400 litres. Three such packages, he said, would be sufficient to fertilise one feddan of land by adding water and spraying the field. This means that a feddan may be fertilised for one season at the cost of EGP700 compared to EGP35,000 in case of using an ordinary organic fertiliser.
A beaming Pope gave Mr Kamal a word of encouragement and admiration.
It was then Mina Saad’s turn. He introduced himself as coming from Fayoum [some 100km Southwest Cairo] but, following a few attempts to talk through the microphone, got stage fright and asked the Pope if his friend Michael Sobhy would do the presentation on his behalf. The Pope affectionately agreed, after giving Mr Saad a kind “Of course, my dear boy”.
Mr Sobhy presented Mr Saad’s invention of a four-wheel motorcycle designed so that it could turn into a flying quadcopter by spreading the wheels horizontally to act as fans. The invention could be used in tourism, flying ambulances, navigating mountainous or rocky terrain, and to relieve traffic during rush hours or on bumpy roads, also by the military and police. The design, Mr Sobhy explained, has been applauded at numerous international innovation events, but awaits a sponsor to go into production.
Pope Tawadros then spoke with Mr Saad, gently drawing him to talk about his study of electronics, how he envisions that his design would see light, and what type and volume of sponsorship that would require. The pope concluded by asking the congregation to join him in a big round of applause for the young designer.
Lighting poles and grey water
Last but not least, Nessim Zakariya talked about his innovation. Mr Zakariya graduated with a degree in media, but works in the field of decoration and architecture, since this had always been his passion. He developed lighting poles in the form of decorative, pleasantly coloured date palms, powered by solar energy and equipped with WiFi for the public to access the Internet and to charge their cellphones. The poles would also carry advertisements, meaning they would generate revenue.
Mr Zakariya also developed another idea that would work to save water, a dire need as Egypt increasingly faces water poverty.
The idea is to exploit grey water, the runoff from household sinks, showers, wash machines or suchlike, by setting up a separate waste collection system for it. Grey water contains fewer pathogens than domestic wastewater, is generally safer to handle and easier to treat and reuse onsite for toilet flushing, landscape or crop irrigation, and other non-potable uses.
The seed that slowly grows
Once all the innovations had been presented, it was time of honour the young innovators. Pope Tawadros presented them with gifts, and had a group photograph with them, in addition to photos with each together with his or her family and friends.
“Ideas start as seeds that grow slowly until they bear fruit,” the Pope said. “We encourage and support our sons and daughters who have ideas or projects that promise to change our future for the better. This would benefit not only our beloved country, but the entire world, the whole of humanity.”
25 September 2019