Tons at a time: Cleaning up the Nile

Omneya Yousry, Tuesday 14 Mar 2023

Using innovative and socially empowering techniques, the VeryNile programme has been establishing neighbourhoods that value the environment and combat litter, writes Omneya Yousry

The Nile
The Nile


The VeryNile programme is the first to develop methods for cleaning up the Nile that are also intended to promote the importance of protecting the environment as a whole and use innovative and socially empowering techniques to assist local communities.

The programme was started by the social enterprise Bassita in 2018 with a view to cleaning up the Nile from inorganic waste. Environmentally friendly technologies were developed to balance the social and environmental impact of the work, particularly with regard to the risks of plastic waste. The programme also crosses boundaries owing to its commitment to action and its ability to bring together volunteers and partners from many backgrounds and industries. 

While the Nile is both a symbol of Egyptian culture and the lifeblood of Egypt, it is also one of the ten rivers, according to the World Economic Forum, that transports 90 per cent of the rubbish that ends up in the oceans. By cleaning up the Nile, raising awareness of the need to reduce plastic waste and empowering local communities, VeryNile thus ensures that its impact is not only evident on a local and regional level but also on a global one.

“Founders Alban de Menonville and Salem Massalha were inspired to act by realising the extent of the problem of rubbish from the Nile ending up in the sea. Plastic waste from the Nile accounts for almost one third of the plastic that ends up in the Mediterranean every year. But the problem is not only with the Nile and the Mediterranean: it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish,” said Farouk Shafie, the 38-year-old business development manager at VeryNile. 

At first, people helped VeryNile organise sporadic beach and Nile clean-ups. But then there was a desire to take part in a more long-lasting campaign to reduce pollution in the Nile, one in which the daily removal of trash would take place. 

“The Qursaya Island, a neglected island in the middle of the Nile in Cairo, was found to be the ideal beginning point for this king of initiative after exploring various locations. There are about 1,500 people living there, primarily farmers and fishermen,” Shafie said. 

VeryNile discovered a way to sell the plastic that is collected and to use the money as funds that can be re-injected into the project, as a result carrying out its work in a sustainable and consistent basis by teaming up with local fishermen and organisations willing to buy the plastic and either recycle it or convert it into energy.

“The biggest challenge was and continues to be selling the plastic, as VeryNile pays each of the more than 60 fishermen partners a price higher than the market price for each kg of plastic they collect. Ensuring that the revenue generated can cover those costs, as well as the costs of the workers who process and segregate the collected waste and for transporting 10 tons of plastic waste to partners each month, has always been the single biggest challenge,” Shafie said.  

He added that another obstacle in VeryNile’s awareness-raising efforts has been changing people’s perceptions about plastic, especially single-use plastic. This is an ongoing problem that the organisation continues to work on, he said.  

Fortunately, VeryNile has many supporters in the shape of institutions and individuals. “We have a lot of people and organisations behind us who support our cause. The Drosos Foundation and the Ministry of Environment were the first partners of VeryNile. Drosos funded the pilot project and continues to support it, and the ministry has provided legal support and a protocol licensing VeryNile to clean the Nile anywhere in Egypt,” Shafie said. 

“Currently, key partners for the project include the Coca-Cola Foundation, which is supporting VeryNile to build additional boats, partner with more fishermen, and increase the facility’s capacity, Cemex, which is also supporting our growth and buying all the waste we are unable to recycle to convert it into energy, and the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, among others.”

In order to provide volunteers with the chance to learn about the cause and take part in it, VeryNile organises events on average four times a month. The team is comprised of 13 full-time employees, six workers for the processing of the collected waste, 60 or more fishermen partners who collect waste from the Nile and are paid per kg of waste collected, 11 full-time employees in the upcycling workshop producing products from plastic bags, and 14 part-time employees in the VeryNile shop. 

“VeryNile has managed to reach the goal of consistently collecting and recycling waste from the Nile, but we continue to aim higher and want to collect more tons of waste. We currently collect 10 tons per month, but we are aiming to collect 70 tons a month within three years,” Shafie said. 

Fortunately, there has been more and more positive attention paid to the work, as the population grows more conscious of environmental problems linked to plastic waste. Regarding the team’s next steps and future plans, Shafie said that “we want to partner with more fishermen, build an additional two cleaning boats on top of the one we have, increase the size of our waste-processing facility to be able to absorb a higher volume of solid waste, and pilot a waste-management system on the island so that the waste of local residents doesn’t end up in the Nile.”

VeryNile’s website and social media platforms also list other activities for those who want to know more.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: