Off with those lights

When the lights come back on after a lengthy power cut, it’s almost tradition to hear cheers of “el-noor geh” (the lights are back) echoing repeatedly from the neighborhood’s children, or maybe even yourself if you’re feeling particularly playful.

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 this summer. These cheers have since been muted, replaced with mounting frustration and, at best, a bored roll of the eye.

Today, however, two website developers are giving a different meaning to the phrase with a new online platform they call “El-Noor Geh.” 

The website aims to raise awareness on electricity usage by using interactive tools to help people track their consumption, whether it’s a household or business, and essentially telling consumers that even if the lights are on, it doesn’t mean you should keep them on.

Like many entrepreneurs that pride themselves on finding opportunity during crisis and dysfunction, Essam Maged and Mostafa al-Khouly were inspired to create a solution to help 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 utilized 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 produces educational content on energy consumption, such as blog posts that provide tips and tricks on how to save electricity or suggest energy efficient products, while detailing how much consumers would save with each.

Maged says the goal is for the platform to serve as an “an essential tool for anyone starting a new home or business on how to purchase household items,” helping buyers through the decision making process. 

Electricity has become a dreaded issue in most Egyptian households as prices increased amid regular power outages during the high consumption of the summer season. In July this year, Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker announced new tariffs for household and commercial entities that would decrease the state’s subsidies for electricity by 67 percent over the next five years, to reach LE9 billion instead of LE27.4 billion. With the government plan to gradually lift energy subsidies, the price of electricity will continue rising.

Power cuts are still occurring in several governorates across the country due to a reported fuel shortage, and this makes citizens acutely aware of the national energy problem.

The founders of El-Noor Geh say their core concern 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,” says Maged.

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 this past 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 was teetering 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 energy 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.

The website is also a way for consumers to be more aware of what they owe, namely 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 LE950 per month. When she asked the man who collects the monthly electricity bill, 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 Maadi, says his bill increased from LE350 to LE850 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 in order 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,” says Khouly. He gives an example of charging 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.

Maged interjects by saying that even if people are unaware of their bad habits, they will start taking notice of them when their electricity bills double in cost and realize that they need to save on electricity.

El-Noor Geh is mainly targeting people in their twenties, newlyweds, small business owners, those who would be keen on saving money wasted on electricity consumption and who also have the technical knowledge to use the tools provided by the online platform.

“We’re changing user habits, not in a mass way, but rather by focusing on individuals. If every year you pay LE1000, I want you to pay LE700,” says Maged. “You can’t tell people not to turn on their air conditioners in the summer … but 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. Most of the time an important message regarding a new initiative is lost because of the way it is presented, they claim.

They believe their website was developed in a way that is aesthetically appealing and user friendly. And that is exactly what they will need to attract people to use the platform and convince them of its potential benefit, on both a personal and national level.

“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,” says Khouly.

Passant Rabie 

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