#10 hunger
Megan Detrie

Above the Roofs of Cairo

In Cairo, a citizen-led movement is growing to transform the city's rooftops to greenery.

Herb gardens and bushels of tomatoes are slowly replacing the ubiquitous satellite dishes on Cairo rooftops: Agriculture experts, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and entrepreneurs have turned to urban gardening as a way to improve air quality, food safety and offer poor families in Cairo a second source of income.

The result, says Osama al-Beheiry, a professor at the Faculty of Agriculture at Cairo's Ain Shams University, is a blossoming popularity for green rooftops, and a growing number of projects to facilitate the spread.

Pioneers in soilless agriculture

Schaduf is one such company, looking to improve income amongst the city's poorest residents by installing soil-less agriculture systems on rooftops and then helping participants market the harvest at nearby farmers markets. Soilless agriculture systems use water that is recycled through a closed irrigation system. This means the plants waste little water and fewer pesticides to stay healthy. Irrigation water is mixed with a nutrient rich solution.

Sherif Hosny, the founder of Schaduf, says that the company has been able to offer cheap materials such as bricks to build the growing containers, making the project more accessible to the urban poor. Though earlier models relied on wood shelves stacked on top of each other to create a vertical growing system, now, the system is a single layer of bricks. "It changes how much you can grow," he adds. "But we found a lot of people just couldn't have the initial investment. But there's still potential once the system is running to invest and expand it."

The idea came while Hosny and his brother were volunteering on a farm in the US soon after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans. "The guy who owned the farm wanted to help families who were in the hurricane, so he created a model of farm that was just smaller and meant to work in backyards," tells Hosny. "After we moved back to Egypt, we thought it'd be a cool thing to do with unused rooftops that could benefit the retired, or women who don't work for cultural reasons."

"We thought it'd be a cool thing to do with unused rooftops that could benefit the retired, or women who don't work for cultural reasons."

To help scale Schaduf from a handful of test sites in the upper-class district of Maadi to a bigger project in surrounding low-income neighbourhoods, he explains, the focus was on micro-finance and social entrepreneurship. Now, the LE 2,000 system is affordable for the working poor through micro-finance schemes aided by Schaduf. Already, the company has set up 20 or so micro-farms, half of which are being tended in low-income neighbourhoods.

"We got a lot of requests from upscale neighbourhoods that we initially turned down," says Hosny. "But we decided our vision was trying to make people eat locally grown food and it doesn't matter who grows it." He adds: "There's a general interest in the social responsibility element, as well as the environmental element. Besides there are many benefits to rooftop farmers." Though growing, Hosny warns, in a city of 20 million people, the interest is still limited.

Low-tech growing systems for the poor

But Hosny is not the only one excited about greening urban spaces. Beheiry, the professor from Cairo, says that in recent months interest in personal gardens has expanded quickly. A decade ago, Beheiry began projects with the government to increase awareness of urban farming. With an established centre on the university campus devoted to offering advice and wholesale supplies to aspiring urban farmers, Beheiry adds the idea is gaining momentum, though government support has dropped off in recent years.

"The country is passing through big changes with the revolution and the ongoing political issues. So every time we thought 'ok, this is dead, no one cares,' it started to pick up again." But lately, there has been little real government support, Beheiry tells, so "we have learned to depend on ourselves. After the revolution though, interest began growing rapidly. This was really strange for me, because people had forgotten about everything then, and now they are thinking about it and looking to install different innovative systems."

Beheiry works with schools and community groups to set up low-tech growing systems. These systems can be built from anything, he stresses. "We have tables made from wood and plastic, that are ten centimetres deep and the drainage water is reused again for irrigation," he says, adding that it is possible to build a table from recycled items such as detergent tubs, plastic bottles or old tyres. Items easily affordable or findable even for the country's poor.

Whatever the cost, Beheiry says the benefits are worth it. Cairo has some of the worst air pollution in the world. The World Health Organization said breathing air in Cairo, a densely populated city of 18 million people, is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. According to Beheiry, green spaces, like those provided by micro-farms, could help clean up the air. The cultivation of 1.5 meter squared of rooftop space can produce enough oxygen to meet the needs of a single adult for a year.

"The cultivation of 1.5 meter squared of rooftop space can produce enough oxygen to meet the needs of a single adult for a year."

"These spaces consume CO2 and produce oxygen. They reduce the temperature of the city and help keep the apartments below them cool, all while providing fresh vegetables," explains Beheiry. He also believes they help reduce something known as the urban heat island effect that grips Cairo each summer. Cairo's lack of green spaces, the unshaded pavement and rooftops mean the city has markedly warmer temperature than surrounding regions.

The rise in temperature brings more air pollution, increased energy use and a larger number or respiratory issues. Rooftop gardens, however, provide much needed shade in an already uncomfortably hot city. Indeed, both individuals and community groups have become increasingly aware of the need of greater green spaces in this densely packed city.

Seed bombs

A local community group, Nawaya has been working to bridge the gap between the country's rural and urban populations by teaching sustainable agriculture and urban farming. The group has held workshops on soilless growing, as well as teaching sustainable agriculture practices. In October, the group, along with other local NGOs, made "seed bombs". They marched through different neighbourhoods in Cairo throwing the bombs – a fertile ball of clay, compost and seeds – to raise awareness about the benefits of green spaces.

Though the event "Bazoor Baladi" drew media attention, organizer Aurelia Weintz of Nawaya warns that outreach can be difficult: concepts how growing practices and fertilizer usage can relate to the individual health of the consumer is "not something you can link easily in a sidewalk conversation." But, she admits, attitudes are changing.

"The concept of grow-your-own isn't new to Egyptians, who often grow ornamental flowers on their balconies."

"In the last two years, there's been an increase in demand for people having rooftop gardens and being able to grow their own food. There's also a growing interest in abating pollution, but it's a certain class," Weintz says. She adds that the concept of grow-your-own isn't new to Egyptians, who often grow ornamental flowers on their balconies, but most Egyptians are disconnected with how their food is grown.

"Even if its just a little, three kilos of tomatoes a year, that you don't put any chemicals on and you plant it in good soil, then you're reconnecting with your food," says Weintz, adding "This country needs to work on that relationship with food. Where potatoes come from a chip factory – there's a very cut off relationship."

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