Blog / 23 May 2012

Unemployed Youth Regain their Pride as City Farmers: Green rooftops in Cairo

Unemployed Youth Regain their Pride as City Farmers: Green rooftops in Cairo

The Cairo House, that is Emad Adly's first thought when we ask him about his dreams. A dream that has become a reality, though it was later nipped in the bud by the authorities.

An ecocentre, where Cairo's youth could learn to deal with the urban setting in an environmentally friendly manner. A catalyst for the necessary transformation of Egyptian society in a sustainable direction. That was Adly's aim with the Cairo House. Courses on efficient water management, renewable energy and sustainable building; demonstration projects and leadership trainings; debates about the future: it was all going to come together in the new centre. By Western standards, this doesn't sound overly revolutionary, but in the Egypt under the old regime it was. The new building made of sustainable materials was located on the border of the Christian and Jewish neighbourhoods in the old centre. For Adly, the Cairo House symbolised the new Egypt: an inspirational meeting place to build a shared vision of the future. "That is what Egypt needs: a shared dream, a vision of where we want to go. This is how we can step into the future together with the young generations."

Dangerous dreams, the authorities concluded, and they took over the Cairo House before its official inauguration. The centre became part of the Ministry of the Environment and now houses public servants. "It is no longer the ideal place for changes in behaviour and inspiration," says Adly, who claims he has been "literally ill" for a long time because of this state of affairs. A good friend of his who works for the government explained that the independent centre's success posed a threat. People were saying: those activists are doing better than the government. That was unacceptable, and so the authorities took over. Adly: "I told them: you have to create your own dreams, not take away those of others."


Effervescent Cairo

To no avail - the Cairo House dream fell apart. Adly found new inspiration in the Egyptian Revolution, the successful uprising of mainly young people. Many changes still need to be made in the country, but the seed of revolution has been planted and will bear fruit. The visible result today is that young people have regained their self-confidence, which had been paralysed until recently by the hopelessness of their situation. Cairo is bubbling with many new initiatives, many of which focus on the introduction of urban agriculture and horticulture in the metropolis. Youth organisation AOYE (Arab Office for Youth and Environment) - which Emad Adly created when he was a student together with some fellow students - is hosting the GEF Small Grants Programme that is experimenting with this initiative and has a couple of demonstration projects. Under the name Food Sovereignty Project, they work with another group of young people to spread knowledge, e.g., through an online platform where aspiring and beginning city farmers can exchange experiences and tips. The goal, they say, is to break through the city dwellers' dependence on the poorly regulated commercial agriculture, horticulture and food industries, and, in turn, to reconnect the people who live in the densely populated city neighbourhoods to Mother Earth.

Greenies, or hippies, yearning for a time that will never return? Not at all, Adly insists. He talks about creative and promising initiatives. In the background stands the debate surrounding food security for the rapidly growing Egyptian population. The country largely depends on one single water source, the Nile River. Adly: "The current situation is that there's not enough water to satisfy the needs of 85 million Egyptians. So what will happen in the future, when there are 100, 120 or even up to 150 million inhabitants? We must get to work at once or things will go terribly wrong." He is looking for solutions in three directions: education, a mix of traditional values and new techniques such as drip irrigation and urban agriculture, and intensive cooperation amongst the Nile governorates.


A Gift from God

So how will all this pan out in, say, 20 years from now? Adly outlines well-organised societies, based on strong local communities that make optimal use of the natural resources such as water and fertile soils. In the Nile Commission, the river governorates work closely together, following the model of the European Union (Adly adds laughing: "Though without the euro"). 'One Nile, One Family', is their slogan. This strong state community - which cannot be compared to the current, relatively powerless consultative body - shares the Nile water equitably. There is enough for everyone. It is clear that agriculture, which from time immemorial has been using some 80 percent of the available water, can manage with much less. The starting point is to maximise reuse. By applying techniques such as drip irrigation, the farmers no longer waste water. They know that water is a gift from God.

One of the characteristics of the new society is the dominant mix of traditional values and state-of-the-art technologies. They work very well together, says Adly. "There are no contradictions whatsoever between the values and ethics of an Arab Muslim society and new techniques and initiatives. They go hand in hand." Is it not the Koran that stresses the need for carefully managing vulnerable natural resources such as soil and water, and for sparing nature? And the Holy Book is also clear on the use of new methods. Adly: "The Prophet Mohammed himself said that it is every Muslim's duty to gather new knowledge. Even if it comes from a non-Muslim country such as China. The message, in other words, is to work with everyone. In brief, the Koran can be used perfectly well when one is training local communities and working towards achieving sustainability."

Everyone takes part in the new society, Adly stresses, and everyone will receive his or her fair share. To realise this, however, it is essential that we engage the youth. They are the agents of change, a source of transformation and the engine behind revolutions. Look at the Egyptian Revolution. While it may initially be about more freedom and less corruption, in the future, the youth will fight for a more sustainable society. Their energy and skills are decisive in this struggle to be successful. In the absence of an active government, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) have the important task of educating young people on how to discuss the challenges their country faces and developing a shared vision of the future. Adly: "Instead of being participants in a programme, they then become active players who use their skills to build a better future."


Small Companies Rent the Rooftops of Buildings

For example, people will rent rooftops as city farmers. In the new Egypt of let's say 20 years from now, young people will have mastered the art of rooftop farming. They have probably learned from young people in Gaza who, forced to do so as a result of the Israeli blockade, have started this initiative some time ago. Through their pioneering work, they have clearly shown that urban agriculture offers great promise for the entire Middle East. There are many other places in the world where people who lack space become creative, and these people also serve as a source of inspiration. Thus, the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore are already producing 20 percent of all of the meat and vegetables they need to feed their inhabitants. And this percentage will only continue to increase, they believe. In turn, Adly is convinced that urban agriculture and horticulture in Cairo are a potential gold mine. He dreams of thousands of young people setting up small businesses and closing deals with flat owners for leasing their rooftops. Balconies, fallow land and neglected parks would be used for productive ends as well. With limited means but a dynamic exchange of experiences, poor city dwellers would be able to earn an (additional) income from growing vegetables and fruit.

Idealistic trainers from NGOs will discover that it doesn't make much sense to try to convince today's youth of the environmental benefits of urban agriculture, even though there are many. Poverty amongst the young is such that their main motivation will be earning an income. But, as the success of urban agriculture grows - Adly is convinced that at least one-quarter of the food needed to feed Cairo can be grown in this way in the future - so too will the understanding of the other benefits. The liveability of the city will improve since fewer trucks will be needed to transport fruit and vegetables from rural areas to the city, thus leading to a significant decrease in the suffocating air pollution - which is notorious in big Middle Eastern cities such as Cairo - that is a direct result of the traffic congestion. This will be further curbed by the purifying action of all those new green spaces. Urban agriculture also has a cooling effect during the hot summer days while, during the cold winter months, the green rooftops will retain the warmth. And, perhaps the most beautiful result, according to Adly, will be the return of the birds, bees and insects that abandoned the city long ago and this will be to the delight of many an inhabitant.

Urban agriculture is obviously not the only strategy necessary to solve all of the Middle East's problems, Adly is quick to point out. But it is an important part of the solution. "It helps the cities and their dwellers to become less dependent on industrial food production elsewhere. And it makes them more resilient. This is important, also with regarding climate change. Let's get to work fast, then, so our dream can become reality."

 Emad Adly, doctor and activist
While he was a first-year medical student at Cairo University, Emad Adly (1957) joined the 'medical caravans', an initiative to bring medical services to the city slums. He soon realised that the lack of hygiene and environmental problems were at the root of the most common diseases in the deprived neighbourhoods, which led to his slogan: 'Treat the causes, not the symptoms'. Ever since then, Adly has been active in environmental issues. During his student days, he helped set up the Arab Office for Youth and Environment; more than ten years later, the Arab Network for the Environment and Development followed. In 1996, Adly was one of the founders of the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development, headquartered in Athens.

Like all Egyptians, Adly has a special bond with the Nile. He lived for years on the island of Manial, located in the Nile where he set up many environmental and communal projects. In 2001, this led to yet another new organisation, the Nile Basin Discourse Forum, which he has since chaired. Adly is also a member of various national and regional water organisations, and he is the national coordinator of the GEF/UNDP Small Grants Programme and the Local Initiative Facility for Urban Environment. Since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, he has been involved in the international discussions surrounding sustainable development.

Emad Adly has written several books about the environment and sustainable development in Egypt and the Middle East, and he is the editor in chief of Montada Al Biaa (Environment Forum Newsletter) and the Sustainable Mediterranean Newsletter.

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