Cairo, Egypt: On Cairo’s rooftops and vacant land, people are coming together with visions of cultivating a different sort of development in the city. Community groups, social entrepreneurs and individuals are responsible for this new growth which intertwines local development and environmental consciousness in an effort to achieve food secure neighbourhoods.
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) stated in The State of Food Insecurity in the WorldReport (2011) that the urban poor are particularly vulnerable to current global increases in food prices. In Egypt, urban agriculture offers the opportunity to address these problems holistically. Aspirations for urban gardening in Cairo were first voiced through international institutions in the early 1990s.
A decade later, FAO in coordination with the Egyptian government launched the “Green Food from Green Roofs” project. This project offered a policy-based approach to developing food production. In contrast, the current growth of urban agriculture echoes the citizen-led change witnessed in Egypt last year. These new initiatives operate at a local level, with objectives that prioritise local change.
Having spoken to a collection of the leaders of these projects, it is clear that each group aims to enchain a wider reaction within Cairo’s communities. They are working with other NGOs and individuals to begin small-scale gardening projects on balconies or rooftops – and setting up trainings in agricultural techniques.
The groups are also well-informed of previous projects, and they have developed innovative techniques to overcome problems. Schaduf, a social enterprise managed by two brothers, aims to lift people above the poverty line through an income generated by the sale of garden produce. Sherif Hosny, joint-CEO, says previous projects required residents to sell produce themselves, yet they were ill-equipped with the business and marketing savvy to make a profit.
His business now buys produce from individual families then sells it in bulk to retailers. Schaduf’s CEO Hosny is however quick to point out that there is nothing novel about urban gardening in Cairo. He says on one of the rooftops where his project is operating, residents were already tending to healthy populations of goats and chickens.
A number of small farmers use two of Cairo’s Nile Islands entirely for agriculture. The new projects are also seeking to develop current systems. For example, Schaduf focuses on developing hydroponic agriculture which grows produce in mineral rich water, without soil. The One Thousand Garden Project coordinated by Slow Food also uses agroecology, which draws on traditional farming practices and seeks to make use of them in modern contexts.
Solace in an urban jungle
The Permaculture Project in the Heliopolis neighbourhood of Cairo is also working to reinvent the status quo. This project is the vision of one man, supported by a motivated group of neighbours and volunteers. Gamal El Nehry, the project’s visionary, dreams of a transforming Cairo’s public spaces into aesthetically beautiful areas where people can meet and spend time together.
The rows of flowers and trees which blossom in the Permaculture Project’s garden give a taste of the Cairo he envisages. “People have become isolated,” he says, “and this garden is an opportunity for them to rediscover each other…for us to come together and understand our differences”. The Permaculture Project’s vision for Heliopolis also includes better use of under-utilised spaces so that they can support the community’s food security by producing more nutritious fruit and vegetables.
The NGO Nawaya’s farm-focused projects are also bringing together Egyptian society through workshops in Cairo in which city dwellers and farm workers meet and work together in order to learn new agricultural skills. Its founders note that city dwellers are interested in learning about these techniques, and that such workshops offer a “social platform for dialogue”, making each group aware of the others’ challenges.
This sentiment is echoed by Marta Messa, Coordinator of the One Thousand Gardens Project, who states that each garden is a “chance for a shared experience … a place where the diverse experiences of the community are applied and appreciated”. The issue of food sovereignty is also key for the One Thousand Garden Project, which aspires to create gardens that grow clean safe food as well as inspire pride in local products.
Food insecurity is a security issue
During parliamentary discussions earlier this month, many Egyptian MPs stated that the food issues in the country had become a matter of national security.
These urban gardens are very much a product of modern Cairo, and the obstacles they encounter demonstrate the political and social context of a changing Egypt. Groups highlight the difficulties in generating support in some parts of the city where residents see farming as a lower class activity. Many people are also unaware of environmental issues involved. Furthermore, sourcing funding remains a challenge, and government support is lacking.
Yet The Permaculture Project speaks with optimism of the forthcoming local council elections, which are set for July or August of this year. They hope that having elected representatives in Cairo’s local councils will increase support for their work. They also hope to be able to build similar support amongst MPs, with the objective of working alongside public institutions to develop the city.
It was of course the famous 2011 Egyptian revolution which brought about these political changes. El Nehry notes that Egyptians were brought together in 2011 by an eminent political threat, but that this alone does not establish deeply rooted changes in society. Rather, he believes that there are many underlying layers of social problems which must be addressed and working with gardens teaches people to be responsible at a micro-level.
This, he adds, can translate into a greater social consciousness in political and other issues. “All it takes is to sow a few seeds to create beauty and food,” states El Nehry. The flowers and herbs which the Permaculture Project has cultivated in Heliopolis are testament to these words – and these sentiments are being repeated across Cairo by groups of motivated individuals.
Through the practice of gardening, they are aspiring to build a Cairo with sustainable community resources and a cleaner environment. Their produce is making a peaceful, yet determined stance against Cairo’s polluted roads and the problems of poverty and food shortages. In other words, they are directly addressing the social, economic, and environmental problems currently faced by a country in a state of change.
Source: This article was originally published by Think Africa Press on 12 March 2012. Author: CATRIONA KNAPMAN.