Sowing the seeds for true sustainability, Nawaya are reviving the art of agriculture in Egypt. We speak to Aurelia Weintz and Laura Tabet about their work and find out what we can do to help...
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This old saying is often just that; a saying that bares little truth to how the modern world looks at the necessary act of charity. One organisation, however, is getting it right. Founded in 2011, encouraged by the revolution, Nawaya is a non-profit organisation that’s reviving the essential agriculture industry in Cairo’s suburbs; areas that were once fully-dependent on farming in all its green glory. Rather than giving the ailing areas money or food, they’re teaching them how reinvigorate the lost art of agriculture, using new, cost-effective and environmental methods. We talk to founding member Laura Tabet and recent recruit Aurelia Weintz to find out how Nawaya is changing farming day by day…
So really, on a scale from one to living in the sewers, how fucked is Egypt, environmentally speaking?
Laura: It’s pretty bad!
So how did you guys start?
Aurelia: Nawaya as an idea before the revolution, just a really raw idea. For the past two years, we have just been building a team of people who are interested in the issues that rural Egypt is facing and we kind of evolved as this network or platform where different people that have different interests could be involved in creating some missions that are relevant to sustainability, the environment and agriculture.
Laura: So we were three co-founders : Adam Molyneux-Berry, Sarah El Sayed and myself.Each of us had different backgrounds that you kind of complete to get this integrated approach to how we would see environmental challenges be solved. Adam comes from a business development background, Sarah from environmental education and myself from community development and extension services for farmers. So the three of us getting together made the idea more solid because we need to have this kind of integrated approach which relies on insuring that the needs of the communities we work with are met by the programmes that are developed. We’re focused on educating, rather than just going in to rural areas and developing something for them, so we work hard on creating good materials and a strong curriculum to help them improve and learn. Apart from the farmers we work with, we also invite city dwellers to our headquarters in Fagnoon, to have a horizontal exchange and share ideas. They go home having learned new ways to be environmentally responsible and the farmers in the area get a sense of purpose when they find others so interested in their way of life.
What was Nawaya’s first project?
Laura: Our first project was focusing on developing a demonstration centre. When you’re working with farmers, often they won’t leave believe anything until they’ve seen it for themselves; until they’ve tried it themselves and learned about it. So we needed to create a location where people could come and learn. Once we did that, our first workshops were on soil and composting at our Fagnoon centre.
What was the initial feedback from the community there?
Laura: I think revolution helped a lot in instilling a much more collaborative attitude but it’s still the case that young people don’t want to farm anymore, so it’s been a challenge on that side. The problem with rural activities these days is that the government provide farmers with seeds and pesticides and just tells them what to do, without making sure they know how to treat the crops, or if the soil is suitable. That, with the incredible waste problem in these areas that aren’t covered by government services, has all but destroyed the culture of farming there. The young kids think they might as well drive a toktok for a living.
How do you go back changing that mind set then?
Laura: There needs to be an interest. We can’t just be here advocating, we need to be demonstrating too. We’ve applied for funding to give an intensive two-year training for 20 young farmers that are going be selected based on criteria that are willing to understand that farmers need to think about their own problems and solve them, with an open-mind and organisational skills. One of the main problems of farming is that farmers are not organised, they’ve become completely dependent on the government.
What do you think is the biggest problem for the government that has let the waste problem get so bad?
Aurelia: Capacity. But to be fair, in terms of recycling, Egypt is doing pretty well. The mentality of recycling, reusing and repairing here is actually pretty awesome and that’s something about the Egyptian people that I really admire.
Laura: But another problem is the sense of ownership of a place. I feel like Egyptians don’t have that, they don’t see this the streets and the rivers are their own. It could be the government’s job, but after the revolution they realised is that can’t handle it on their own so they created a licensing system for the private sector to get involved. Of course that doesn’t work very well, because we don’t have the mentality here that we should pay to get waste removed.
What are the most important things you find yourself needing to teach the farmers you work with?
Laura: Well just understanding the natural cycles. Right now, the way it works is that the government switches the water on and they water their crops, and then they switch it off and they stop. If they need ingredients for the soil, they go to the gam3eya and get whatever is on offer. If they have an insect problem, they just spray pesticides without knowing the correct way to do it. We try to get them back in touch with the way things should be, without government interference or regulations.
What can the average reader do to help out?
Laura: Get involved. When we make a bridge and we bring the Cairenes to the farmers, the farmers can see that they value their work. Having more of that exchange with the rural community and coming and supporting products that are being produced by farmers is the first step. If our project is successful were going be launching five products, farmed by this community and take them to market. We haven’t finalised yet, but they’ll probably be meat and dairy, based on the needs of the area.
Do you have any upcoming workshops for Cairo peeps to get involved in?
Aurelia: We’re hoping to have a workshop on how to build a rocket stove in early June. Basically it’s an easy-to-build, fuel efficient way too cook using wood fires, in an L-shaped stove. It’s really easy to do and uses up very little wood. The women in the village we work with love it!