Adapting technology to local needs in Egypt

literacy lessons Egypt
Siwan women taking literacy lessons on the tabluter, a customized computer set-up. (UNDP Egypt)

By Marwa Elnokrashy and Karim Ezzeldin


  • 8,800 women have learned to read and write
  • 5 more oasis communities will benefit from the programme

Siwa, Egypt—Fatma Ibrahim, a poor mother of six, has been illiterate all her life. As a child her hardworking parents made simple handicrafts and sold them to make ends meet.

Like many girls growing up in Siwa, the largest oasis in Egypt’s western desert, Ibrahim was deprived of an education due to her family’s poverty and a community tradition biased against girls’ education. These factors, in addition to the oasis’ harsh living conditions, resulted in an illiteracy rate reaching 40 percent among women there, who make up half of Siwa’s population of 23,000.

In 2008, UNDP’s ICT Trust Fund —established with the Egyptian Ministry of Communication and Information echnology—joined forces with the World Health Organization, Vodafone Foundation and the Siwa Community Development and Environment Conservation Association to launch a US$300,000 initiative aimed at both eradicating female illiteracy and helping women to find new or better employment.

In addition to teaching 8,800 women how to read and write, the initiative is providing women the kind of skills and materials needed to effectively take control of their lives and surroundings. For example, the programme put a special emphasis on computer skills, so in addition to providing training in business development and problem solving, it equipped the participants with their own personal computers.

As a result, women who enrolled in the programme learned to read and write, improved their agricultural and handicraft production abilities and acquired online marketing skills. Siwa women now promote their products through a custom-made online store (http://

Aware of prevailing social norms in the oasis, programme instructors brought the classes into women’s homes. They transformed the traditional tableya—a low, round, dining table around which rural Egyptians sit cross-legged and eat—into a socalled tabluter. A tabluter is a customized, ergonomic computer embedded in the tableya; the computer hosts a single central processing unit that can run up to four independent computers. The newly tailored tableya is foldable, making it easy to carry around from home to home. In 2012 alone, the initiative trained 120 women on the device, in addition to 10 more who were taught how to be literacy instructors, ensuring the ongoing life of the project. Fatma Ibrahim was among the first group of women to complete their literacy programme on a tabluter.

As a result, for the first time in her life, she has fulfilled her dream of being able to read the Holy Koran on her own; she is also able to help her children with their studies. Ibrahim did not stop at reading and writing. She joined the programme’s business development training course and eventually opened her own successful tailoring business. The business not only helps her make money but has also created employment opportunities for her neighbours, who now work as tailors for her.

“When I first joined the literacy classes I was told that learning to work on computers can make our lives easier and help reduce inequality between men and women,” Ibrahim says. “I found in computers life itself. Now I can read and write, I can earn my living and give my children a better life. And as a mother, I am a better role model for them to follow.”

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