Tackling Egypt's Energy Crisis With Online Consumer Tools
As electricity costs climb in the face of energy shortages and a steep reduction in government subsidies, a new website helps consumers track their consumption and calculate costs.
CAIRO — When the lights come back on after a lengthy power outage, it's almost tradition in Egypt to utter cheers of el-noor geh (the lights are back).
It's a bit of a game, or at least it used to be, until power cuts became more frequent and severe over the past year, peaking last summer. These cheers have since been muted, replaced with mounting frustration.
But two website developers are giving new meaning to the phrase with a new online platform called "El-Noor Geh."
The website aims to raise awareness about electricity usage by using interactive tools to help people track consumption at home or at work.
Like many entrepreneurs that pride themselves on finding opportunity amid crisis and dysfunction, Essam Maged and Mostafa al-Khouly were inspired to address Egypt's persistent energy problem. Recent graduates of the German University in Cairo"s engineering department, both have been working at a web design agency for a little over a year now and have parlayed their experiences to develop the platform.
Consumption is tracked using three online calculators. One adds up the electricity bill based on the number of hours of consumption by electronic devices such as laptops, phone chargers, air conditioners, television sets and light bulbs. The second assists users who are looking to purchase a generator by calculating their energy needs and suggesting products according to their wattage and capacity. The third adds up how much consumers are paying in electricity bills for each electronic device based on official prices.
In addition to the calculators, the website also offers content on energy consumption, such as tips and tricks to conserve electricity and suggestions for energy-efficient products.
Maged says they want the website to be "an essential tool for anyone starting a new home or business on how to purchase household items," helping buyers through the decision-making process.
Rising prices, falling subsidies
Electricity has become a dreaded issue in most Egyptian households as prices increased amid regular power outages during the summer season's high consumption. In July, Electricity Minister Mohamed Shaker announced new tariffs for household and commercial entities that would decrease the state's subsidies for electricity by 67% over the next five years. With the government plan to gradually lift energy subsidies, the price of electricity will continue rising.
Power cuts are still occurring in several areas across the country because of a reported fuel shortage, and this makes citizens acutely aware of the national energy problem.
The El-Noor Geh developers say their core mission is to reduce energy consumption to the benefit of consumers.
"We are tackling the electricity crisis by aiming to decrease how much the average consumer spends on electricity, thereby reducing the consumption of energy at large," Maged says.
Khouly adds, "We're saving electricity for individuals and creating a more environmentally friendly society in the process."
At the height of the energy shortage last summer, the government created an electricity consumption meter that popped up on television screens to alert viewers to reduce their consumption. More often than not, the meter teetered between the critical levels of orange and red.
Some argue that providing citizens with subsidized energy for decades has made them less accustomed to thinking about conservation. But the problem lies deeper still, with high poverty and unemployment levels, compounded by stagnating economic growth over the past three years, making higher prices a highly contentious issue both socially and politically.
Power in the hands of the people
The website is also a way for consumers to be more aware of their energy burden, especially after complaints of faulty meter readings or inexplicably high bills have become more frequent.
May al-Naggar says that her electricity bills have more than doubled over the past year, and she now pays close to 950 Egyptian pounds ($132) per month. When she asked the man who collects the monthly electricity bill about it, he simply told her that there are new prices. But when she and her husband tried to decrease their consumption, "it didn't make any difference," she says.
Mohamed Khallaf, a resident of Cairo's Maadi neighborhood, says his bill increased from 350 Egyptian pounds ($48) to 850 ($118) in the past year. Even though he has made three separate complaints for faulty readings, the amount remains more or less the same.
Other complaints include defective meters, inept bill collectors or simply an accumulation of overdue bills due to inefficient collection. Often they are compiled into one bill that is due immediately, creating a lump sum that is burdensome for most people to pay at once.
These are all issues El-Noor Geh attempts to address by allowing people to calculate their own bills to avoid being potentially cheated by the meter reading, or to enable them to understand why they are paying as much as they are for electricity.
Their bigger focus remains changing consumer behavior.
"The solution is for us to amend our bad habits," Khouly says. As an example, he says it's wasteful to charge mobile phones overnight, which he says can cost millions in electricity consumption nationwide, as well as being harmful to the battery.
"Because we're a large country, when our little bad habits accumulate, they actually make a huge difference," he says.
You can't tell people not to turn on their air conditioners in the summer, Maged notes, but you can "tell them to buy energy-saving air conditioners instead."
The duo are optimistic that they will be able to deliver their message because they have the advantage of a background in website design. When an important message regarding a new initiative is lost, it is often because of the way it's presented, they claim.
They believe their website is both aesthetically appealing and user friendly. And it needs to be to attract people and convince them of its potential benefit, on both personal and national levels.
"There are people who are already interested in changing their habits, so we're giving them the tools to do so while trying to convince those who are not interested to also change their habits," Khouly says.