First Published in Philanthropy Age Magazine in October 2014. Tearsheets below.
On the outskirts of central Cairo, in the shadow of the Mokattam hills, some 70,000 Zabaleen (literally ‘garbage collectors’ in Arabic) collect, sort and recycle nearly two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s daily municipal waste output – all 10,000 tons of it.
Originally from Upper Egypt, this majority Coptic Christian community has gone on to thrive in the one sector that has hitherto only been addressed begrudgingly: waste management.
In the Manshiyet Nasser neighbourhood of Mokattam, the largest congregation of Zabaleen live and work in and amongst the rubbish they collect. Specially built apartments tower over a maze of narrow streets where the ground overflows with the municipal waste of almost 12 million Cairenes. When the wind picks up, the air becomes saturated with a grimy dust while clouds of flies attack any decaying organic matter.
On first inspection, the area seems to be a pungent, anarchic mess of people, buildings, narrow alleys, cars and rubbish. Yet within the apparent chaos, the zabaleen families are able to achieve a diversion rate that would arouse the envy of waste management corporations worldwide.
“The Zabaleen are now recycling about 85% of the garbage they receive.” Explains Ezzat Naem, the head of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate. By comparison, the EU is aiming for a recycling rate of just 50% of household waste by the year 2020.
Originally subsistence farmers from Upper Egypt, the Zabaleen arrived in Cairo in the 1940s and began working in coordination with the existing garbage collectors, who hailed from the western Oasis governorates.
“When my people first came here, it was the Wahaya (Oasis people) who were collecting the rubbish.” Explains Naem, “they would simply take it to the outskirts of the city and leave it to dry in the sun before maybe selling it back to people as a fuel for fire.”
With the sudden influx of Upper Egyptians, the Wahaya quickly began contracting the new migrants to specific areas of Cairo. It was a business partnership that persists to this day. “Families have been working the same areas for over 60 years.” States Naem. “For example, my grandfather started by collecting garbage in El Koba Gardens, my father continued collecting the garbage from El Koba and my brothers today still collect the garbage from El Koba!”
Yet while the routes may have remained consistent, the incredible proficiency of todays Zabaleen is the result of a long evolution in their operations of collection, sorting and recycling.
The early Zabaleen would simply use the organic waste as a source of food for their livestock and just ignore most of the inorganic materials, instead preferring to dump them in landfills. Local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) spotted an opportunity and in the 1960s they began visiting the Zabaleen to buy leftover inorganic materials like paper and metal, which they would then process and resell.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the Zabaleen themselves started recycling proper. Microloans provided in coordination with a World Bank program allowed the Zabaleen to begin their own recycling, thus forgoing the third party SMEs. With advice and help from local NGOs, the Zabaleen entered a new period of efficient recycling that continues to outstrip most European and US cities today.
In Manshiyet Nasser, the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) NGO was established in 1984 with precisely this goal. The NGO was determined to help the Zabaleen make the most out of their situation in both an environmentally safe, and economically sound manner.
For over 30 years, APE – with funding from local and international donations – has been offering the residents of Manshiyet Nasser help and guidance through an ever-expanding range of programs and workshops.
“The main objective when we started was to simply help them in the recycling of rubbish,” Says Hany Al Arian, the current director of APE. “Right now we have diversified to: the production of recycled products; programs for women; pre school for the kids; and of course, health coverage for the people.”
In spite of the Zabaleen’s obvious proficiency in recycling, the working conditions remain a major health concern. The Zabaleen and their families spend their days surrounded by potentially infectious, disease-ridden garbage. “We are especially concerned for the women. They are the ones sorting through and categorising the inorganic waste their husbands bring them.” Explains Al Arian. “We have been doing a number of awareness, treatment and prevention programs on good health practices for the Zabaleen.”
Since 2007, Al Arian estimates that APE has spent some EGP 17 million (USD 2.4 million) on treatments alone. “Hepatitis C, Diabetes, Anaemia with the blood, Glaucoma. These are all major problems here.”
On the ground floor of one of APE’s buildings lies their small treatment room. A small congregation of women wait patiently outside to see the doctors, happy just to have a healthcare option so close to their homes.
Outside the main block, a small school is hidden among some recently planted trees. Packed with young children, the small classrooms overlook an eco garden built by APE in 2002, replacing what had once been a large composting plant.
“It was important that we gave these children something to do, some preparation for school and to keep them away from the streets.” Says Al Arian explaining that they accommodate children anywhere from birth up to the end of primary school. “Right now, we have approximately 650 children altogether coming to our schools.”
A common set up found with APE is to have the women working in APE’s recycling facilities, while their children cared for in the school not 200 meters away. “One of the most important things we at APE can do is to empower the women here.” States Al Arian. “But empowering the women is not enough; you have to educate the men. So we are also trying to do some workshops to broaden their minds.”
One woman who found exactly such an opportunity with APE is 38 year-old Aida Ghaly. “After I was married, I became very lonely so I came to APE looking for something to do. I quickly learnt embroidery and now teach it to other girls.”
“My husband was happy because I was nearby, had work that would help our income, and APE were able to help me when I had my children, [post natal] and in providing early education for them too.”
With her embroidery, Ghaly joins around 200 women who help to create recycled products from paper and textiles. Close to the rooms where the women work, a huge array of their products is on offer for sale, from bags and birthday cards, to pillow covers and coin purses. “We have maybe 200 different design styles, but we modify and add new ones everyday.” Explains one of the workers proudly.
“The income made by selling our recycled products should make the program self-sustaining, but since the revolution we have had trouble on that front.” States Al Arian. “Because the local economy is in such trouble, people are less willing to spend and we are having to look more to overseas markets.”
In spite of the successes of the Zabaleen with the help of NGOs like APE, in the early 2000s their community was dealt a massive blow when the Egyptian government decided to instead contract four multinational waste management corporations.
A 15-year contract was signed that stipulated the multinationals needed to maintain a recycling rate of just 20%, while the Zabaleen were told to stop collecting altogether. The income loss of the Zabaleen coupled with the needless waste ending up in landfills meant that only a few years into the contract, the experiment was already considered a desperate failure.
“These multinational companies came with a European attitude, they weren’t aware of what the zabaleen provided.” Explains Naem. “So they placed large [skips] in the streets, instead of going door to door. They asked the residents to bring the garbage down to the street. Of course the Egyptians refused.”
“We are the only people in the whole world who will go into apartments and collect your garbage from your front door.” Says Naem proudly. “Now they are subcontracting the Zabaleen through the Wahaya, adding another layer where income is lost for the average Zaabal.”
However, with the Multinationals’ contracts due to end in 2017 and with APE continuing in their work with the Zabaleen community, Naem is optimistic for the future. “Now the Government is beginning to acknowledge us and we are cared for a bit more. I feel the future could be very bright for my people.”