Greening the cityscape

Mahmoud Bakr , Tuesday 23 Jan 2024

An environmental awareness centre in a popular district of Cairo has expanded to include recycling and cultivation activities, creating a ripple of self-sustainability, reports Mahmoud Bakr

Cultivation activities



As a school principal in Cairo, Nabil Mahrous’ interaction with students exposed a significant gap between theoretical education on environmental conservation and practical applications on the ground.

Observing students cutting down trees, damaging the environment, and burning garbage, Mahrous recognised the need to bridge this gap as abstract concepts alone could not effectively convey environmental values to children.

This realisation fuelled Mahrous’ vision for a dedicated space where these ideas could be practically demonstrated, coupled with environmental and scientific school visits to ensure a tangible connection to the concepts taught.

This led to the foundation of the Environmental Awareness Centre of the Plant a Tree Foundation in Cairo, where the dedicated people in charge showcase creativity and set exemplary standards in environmental protection and sustainable development. They have transformed the area around the centre into a green space, serving as an outlet for the local community in some cases suffering from overcrowding and pollution.

The centre is located in the Hadaek Al-Qobba neighbourhood in Cairo at the intersection between the Misr and Sudan streets. It is nestled between tall buildings, villas, ancient palaces, and the remnants of older gardens.

Now CEO of the foundation, Mahrous prides himself on the transformation that has taken place in the area thanks to the power of grassroots initiatives and community-driven efforts to create positive change within a challenging urban environment.

“A few years ago, I visited the Sanabel Charitable Association that owned the plot of land the centre stands on. I proposed to the Board of Directors the idea of renting the land — about a feddan — and transforming it from a garbage dump into a centre for environmental awareness,” Mahrous said.

“The association not only welcomed the proposal, but also went a step further by saying, ‘if you are going to clean it, take it for free.’”

This was a realisation of Mahrous’ long-held dream, stemming from his deep-seated passion for the environment and nature. His commitment to sustainable resource utilisation had developed over the years, ever since he had worked for the Ministry of Education and progressing to the role of a school principal and then the visionary behind Plant a Tree.

“We embarked on our mission in a spirit of dedication, collaborating with a team of 40 volunteers. Over three months from March 2016, we removed 140 containers of rubbish. In June the same year, the site was officially inaugurated, serving as an educational hub for environmental awareness for both children and adults,” Mahrous said.

The centre now features a waste-recycling programme that converts waste into high-quality organic fertiliser, a farm cultivating medicinal and aromatic plants, a fish farm, and an apiary. It also serves as a haven for birds and animals fed with organic feed.

It houses an educational and training centre welcoming school and university students, as well as female breadwinners from neighbouring areas. It aims to provide training in agriculture and waste-recycling practice more generally.

“During the waste removal, the team conceived the idea of recycling and repurposing the waste they found. They repurposed old wood to craft a grape trellis, used iron to create stands, and transformed old car tyres into plant containers. Plastic water bottles found new life as components of green walls in areas where traditional agriculture wasn’t feasible. This marked the inception of our first recycling and investment programme, targeting common waste materials such as car tyres, plastic, cardboard, and wood,” Mahrous said.

“As we delved deeper into resource utilisation, the team developed ideas for cultivating high-value medicinal and aromatic plants. We explored methods of propagation and set the goal of selling these plants at half the market price. The initiative extended to include the Moringa tree, known for its numerous benefits, besides herding goats and hosting birds. The concept of establishing an apiary then arose, where bees could thrive on the nectar produced by the flowers of the cultivated plants. This approach resulted in the production of some very good honey.

“The centre plants stevia, a healthy alternative sweetener to sugar, thyme, rosemary, basil, the clary palm, laurel, dragon fruit, which sells for LE160 per fruit, and Jatropha. Some 47 per cent of the weight of the Jatropha fruit is oil that can be used to make environmentally friendly aviation fuel,” Mahrous added.

 “Our Moringa tree has now grown to a height of 14 metres. This multi-use tree boasts numerous benefits owing to its wealth of antioxidants. The honey derived from its flowers ranks among the finest, and the tree offers a remarkable 24 different products. Its leaves can be used to make a nutritious drink or as a food item resembling moloukhiya and spinach. The seeds can be processed to extract oil, and the tree’s water-purifying capabilities enhance its versatility.

“Feasibility studies indicate that the annual yield from one feddan of Moringa trees could be worth LE350,000,” Mahrous said.


CULTIVATION: The centre is “committed to cultivating medicinal and aromatic plants and other botanical resources for environmental awareness,” Mahrous said.

“A key aspect of this involves avoiding the use of chemical fertilisers to preserve the benefits of these plants. This led to the innovative idea of producing organic fertiliser by recycling organic waste.

“If we use artificial nitrate, urea, and phosphate fertilisers, we defeat the purpose,” he added, saying that the centre had decided to use organic fertiliser instead, made by recycling organic waste with the help of specific types of earthworms. Varieties such as the red wiggler, tiger, and African nightcrawler are imported to feed on the organic waste, transforming it into fertiliser through a process known as vermicomposting.

“Internationally recognised as black gold, this method of producing organic fertiliser represents a sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to organic waste management,” Mahrous said.

One imported worm, Eisenia Andrei, acquired in 2016 at a cost of LE6,000 per kg, has brought tremendous benefits. “This worm has the capacity to transform two tons of waste into a ton of fertiliser,” he said. The resulting vermicompost can be sold at LE20 per kg for small quantities, with the price reaching LE10,000 per ton.

“Moreover, the worms multiply, with a kg of worms, priced between LE700 and LE1,000, multiplying to four kg within two months. This makes vermicomposting not only an environmentally beneficial initiative, but also a profitable project and one particularly suitable for young entrepreneurs,” he said.

Garbage problems can be problems of perspective, Mahrous said. “The reality is that by placing organic waste in a designated area with a sufficient quantity of worms, the waste can be transformed into ‘black gold’ compost. European countries have been utilising similar methods for years, enabling them to meet some of their fertiliser needs without relying on chemical alternatives,” he said.

The centre offers training sessions on cultivating medicinal and aromatic plants, establishing and managing apiaries, and making vermicompost. It also focuses on empowering women through environmental projects that not only contribute to sustainability, but also generate income.

Women are encouraged to initiate small-scale projects on their balconies, rooftops, or skylights, growing crops such as medicinal and aromatic plants and incorporating them into family meals.

Mahrous said that the centre has provided free training to nearly 400 women on waste recycling. Participants are encouraged to bring organic waste from their kitchens, including leftover vegetables, as a form of participation.

“In return, they receive a plant, such as basil, and are instructed how to grow it, understand its benefits, and learn that a single basil leaf can provide the equivalent of 10 times the amount of calcium found in milk. Therefore, if a woman cannot afford to buy milk for her children, she can supplement her salad with basil.

“The Ministry of Irrigation has signed a cooperation protocol with the centre, and approximately 60 engineers from the ministry attend weekly training sessions to learn about modern irrigation techniques, new agricultural technologies, and strategies for water conservation.

“The centre has signed another protocol with the Central Climate Laboratory affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture. This focuses on training students from faculties related to the environment. It also coordinates with the regional training sector under the ministries of water resources, irrigation, and foreign affairs and has hosted over 40 officials from 40 African countries.

“The training sessions aimed at acquainting them with modern agricultural technologies, water-conservation practices, and the cultivation of plants suitable for climates characterised by water scarcity.”


CHALLENGES: Among the challenges encountered during the project, Mahrous identified some having to do with the cost of facilities.

“After we had successfully cleared the site of waste, the landlords expressed an interest in renting it to the centre for LE12,000 a month after initially offering it for free. They suggested it could serve as a parking area. It was difficult for us, after having funded the project from our own personal savings, to pay LE12,000 a month for rent.

“Following negotiations, the rent was ultimately reduced to a more manageable LE3,000 per month,” he added.

Salah Arafa, a professor at the American University in Cairo and the scientific advisor to the centre, is the founder of the New Basaysa Association dedicated to cultivating the desert and the visionary behind the Internal Migration Association. He advocates rehabilitating the New Valley governorate as a “Wadi Paradise” as an incentive for internal migration among young people.

Arafa has called for the implementation of an initiative to be called the Green Army that would cultivate the desert and ensure food security and would draw inspiration from the White Army of doctors that provide healthcare services.

Ramadan Abdel-Aziz, the public relations officer at the Plant a Tree Foundation, joined the centre in its first phase when the call to transform the area was initiated.

“The centre has become a valuable asset and a blessing for the residents of the neighbourhood,” he said, adding that “it takes a hands-on approach to teaching children about plants. After the training, each child is given a plant to take home, allowing them to personally care for it. This tangible experience not only brings joy to the children, but also ensures that the information imparted during their visit becomes ingrained in their minds for a lifetime.

“The hope is that they will share the stories and knowledge they acquire at the centre with their families and friends, further spreading awareness about the importance of environmental conservation.”

Abdel-Aziz noted that the centre is open daily for visitors, including school and university students and their families. It not only provides breakfast, but also offers educational activities such as teaching children drawing and music skills.

It trains local housewives free of charge, with Nadia Shawki, director of the centre’s Training Department, saying that it has trained over 7,000 women and 400 families through the Training of Trainers (TOT) model.

This equips women with the knowledge and skills they need to train others on environmental awareness and recycling organic waste. Each woman trained shares her knowledge with approximately 40 others. Some women have achieved a degree of self-sufficiency in growing vegetables and medicinal plants, while others have implemented compost projects, Shawki said.

The centre supports the women in marketing their products, especially useful in the currently challenging economic environment.

“The centre’s work has inspired many people to plant their balconies and rooftops, creating a ripple effect of self-sustainability and environmental awareness. The success of this experience suggests a need for similar initiatives throughout Egypt’s neighbourhoods and villages,” she concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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