Surviving Coronavirus challenges in Upper Egypt: Saved by masks

Niveen Wahish , Thursday 16 Jul 2020

Ahram Weekly finds out how one NGO has helped its beneficiaries in the Upper Egyptian Qena governorate survive the challenges of the coronavirus

Saved by masks
veteran economist Heba Handoussa

Throughout the 10 years since its establishment, the Egypt Network for Integrated Development (ENID), a NGO, has had to deal with many challenges in Upper Egypt, the area where it is working.

Tackling poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, its usual activity, has represented important challenges, but ENID has never before been faced with a challenge like that posed by the Covid-19 coronavirus.

ENID, known as Al-Nidaa, Arabic for “the calling”, manages three socio-economic programmes focusing on employment generation, with the beneficiaries being women and youth. Among the areas the NGO works in are small-manufacturing, labour-intensive projects.

“We decided to focus on handicrafts for women and youth because they are low-cost in terms of capital requirements and they produce traditional cultural products that are threatened with extinction by mechanisation, especially products made for the tourist market,” said veteran economist Heba Handoussa, the founder and managing director of the NGO.

However, she said, these products can be subject to swings in demand depending on the tourism season. This year, just as Egypt was seeing the beginning of the first booming tourism season since 2015, the coronavirus emerged to damage the market.

Not only were domestic sales of handicrafts affected by the closure of their main markets in domestic tourist areas and beach resorts, but international orders were put on hold as well. Among those was an order by the British Museum in London for products handcrafted by the NGO beneficiaries.

The museum has been a major importer of different types of handicrafts, not just ancient Egyptian items, but also Coptic and Islamic items like brass lanterns and other arts, Handoussa commented.

The villages where ENID has been working already had clusters making pottery and basketry, so in addition to these the NGO succeeded in introducing 26 new crafts and helped to revive some that were threatened with extinction, such as the Hegaza woodworking started 100 years ago by Jesuits in a village of the same name and carpet-making skills threatened by machine-made rugs.

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the NGO had had to halt production because “we were worried about the women because they were vulnerable, and we did not want them to get infected and infect each other,” Handoussa said.

They started working in small shifts and in highly reduced numbers in the premises where the work is carried out.

ENID implements a “one village one product” programme of the kind that was popular in Japan when the country was developing in the 1960s. Apart from handicrafts, the NGO has also made leeway in the ready-to-wear garments sector.

“Ready-made garments have more outlets in terms of demand, if one does things cleverly and flexibly,” Handoussa said, adding that ENID had been able to establish the first ready-made garments factory in all of Upper Egypt.

They had rented from the governorate a big space originally designed for raising poultry. This had three buildings of two floors each, and they reinforced and repurposed the buildings for factory purposes at a cost of LE3.4 million.

One of three buildings now specialises in brass heritage items, with another floor given over to the weaving of klims. Another floor is used for making beaded fabrics for weddings and evening wear, and another is used for making wooden furniture.

With the coronavirus outbreak starting early on in Luxor on the border with Qena, Handoussa said ENID had wanted to do something to help. “We were keen to help Upper Egypt, Qena, and the women working there,” she said, so they embarked on a project to convert the ready-made garments factory to make surgical masks using international assistance.

ENID now produces 7,000 masks per day and plans to double its capacity when a second production line arrives.

IMPACTS: Funds were raised through the “Kemama” campaign overseen by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Egypt in partnership with the UNDP’s Alternative Finance Lab (AltFinLab) and Neya Foundation.

Saved by masks

The masks are sold to the Ministry of Health and other government bodies at a low price. “We want this to be a long-term business, and we want to become known for our perfect production of medical masks,” Handoussa said.

The ENID mask factory has been licensed by the Ministry of Industry, which has promised that once the coronavirus crisis is over it will help export them to Africa. “Our wages are not high, but for the women they mean a lot because they receive a small sum for each mask they make. With production in volume, this all adds up,” Handoussa said.

There are around 50 women benefitting from the first production line, with mask production becoming a source of a stable income. “There will be demand in Egypt for masks for a significant period of time, and instead of importing them we can make them locally,” she said, adding that more than 600 women in 17 villages in Upper Egypt have been trained by ENID and are ready to produce more masks.

When ENID was launched, the governorate of Qena was the second poorest in Egypt after Assiut, but the villages there have come a long way since then.

Handoussa explained that every three years a new poverty map is produced based on Egypt’s Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES). This lists the 1,000 poorest villages in Egypt, of which 92 per cent are in Upper Egypt, and where more than 50 per cent of the population are below the poverty line.

The latest HIES, produced in 2018, shows that compared to the HIES produced in 2015 poverty has declined in every governorate having significant numbers of villages, despite the fact that rural areas in Egypt are generally much poorer than urban areas.

“We were pleasantly surprised that even though poverty levels had increased to 32.5 per cent, there had been an improvement, even though slight at times, in the rural areas of the southern governorates,” she said.

That impact has been to a large extent thanks to the government’s Takaful conditional cash-transfer programme, which helps the poorest of the poor, she pointed out. The same survey showed that among the villages that had improved the most were the ones in Qena, where poverty had declined in absolute terms by 14.5 per cent in three years.

“That was miraculous because Qena has 3.2 million people. So, we know we must have done something right,” Handoussa said.

ENID works in 70 villages out of 166 in Qena, and Handoussa believes that its success has been due to the quality of its intervention.

“Giving a job opportunity to a woman in Qena is sure to pull an entire household out of poverty because she is adding to the household income. She is spending her income in efficient ways, and she is given information about the importance of education and healthcare for her children,” she said.

“We give job opportunities not only to the poorest of the poor but also to those who are illiterate,” Handoussa said, explaining that ENID insists that its beneficiaries pass the government exam for illiteracy before they are given the opportunity to train for a job.

“That has been an incentive, and they have really studied. We do not carry out social interventions for the sake of interventions, but with a view to the economic empowerment of the population,” she added.

The beneficiaries also receive awareness-raising sessions on good practices for rearing children, health practices, and even political rights to prepare them for local elections. According to Handoussa, more than 90 per cent of the women have never had a job, whether literate or not.

For ENID, the coronavirus has been an opportunity to show donors the work it has been doing over more than nine years, with a view to its becoming viable as a long-term foundation working in Upper Egypt.

It was originally a programme of the UNDP, and since “the UNDP was happy with our work, they extended the programme with us until 2022,” Handoussa said, adding that ENID was nonetheless an independent foundation receiving funding from multiple donors.

One of the toughest challenges facing their work has been rural-to-urban migration by young men. “We used to go through the costly process of teaching the men in the villages a craft like pottery and copperwork at the hands of masters, but then they would disappear and travel to Cairo to seek jobs in the construction industry,” Handoussa said.

That being the case, they decided to focus more on women, except for agriculture, which is considered more of a man’s job.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Saved by Masks

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