A major step towards recognition of Cairo’s garbage collectors

Carina Kamel
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After three years of discussions, debates, legal advice, and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures, the Spirit of Youth NGO – which represents poor people who collect and sort Cairo’s garbage – has finally been given the green light to organize the garbage collectors into a syndicate.

At a street party, the Spirit of Youth NGO and three hundred garbage collectors – or “Zabballeen” as they are known in Arabic – celebrated their newly formed syndicate. The event was covered by two TV channels and attended by government officials and a member of Egypt’s parliament.

Cairo’s Zabballeen continue to live in squalor on the edge of a metropolis. They still have substandard water, sanitation, roads, clinics, schools and services. Their neighborhoods are known as ‘garbage villages’. But now, after six decades serving the capital, hundreds of them have taken the first step to being a legitimate part of the economy.

The creation of this workers syndicate and the formal acknowledgment that comes with it are long overdue for Cairo’s garbage collectors. Like their fellow waste workers around the world, Cairo’s Zabballeen are the invisible entrepreneurs on the frontlines of city cleanliness, recycling value chains and environmental protection. They fight on a daily basis for their legitimate right to equal entrepreneurship, the same rights enjoyed by the formal corporate sector which invests in waste management.

The Zabballeen are entrepreneurs by nature. In the wake of a massive wave of migration from rural villages to cities in the 1940s, they instituted the first organized garbage collection service for Cairo – a city that today is home to nearly 20 million inhabitants who generate 14,000 tons of household waste per day.

Cairo’s 120,000 collectors draw on their enormous capacity for hard work. They set off before dawn, travel door to door, and take away – for free! – what we consider ‘trash’. Through sorting and recycling, they turn our waste into valuable materials that set off a value chain which reverberates across Egypt and beyond. And remarkably, at great human cost, they recycle 80% of what they collect, which is the highest global recycling rate in the world. Despite this, their industry never gets included in national accounts, GDP figures, employment statistics or capital investment accounts. That’s because they form part of Egypt’s vast ‘informal’ economy.

In the mid-1990s, CID Consulting began surveying the sector to measure its magnitude, markets, investment portfolios and employment potential. In 2003 we piloted a scheme to ‘formalize’ recycling. We documented the complexity of the process and the corruption of local authorities. In 2009 we teamed up with the Gates Foundation and the Spirit of Youth NGO to address key challenges, including licensing collectors into companies, formalizing recycling workshops, and organizing workers into a syndicate.

We held meetings with the General Authority for Investment (GAFI), which oversees small and medium enterprises or SMEs in Egypt, and began the eleven-step process to establish recycling companies. For all the government’s shortcomings, it has to be said that GAFI proved invaluable, dedicating a day for the mountains of paperwork required and acting as a go-between for the recyclers and the Kafkaesque maze of government agencies involved: the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Finance, and even the Governorates of Cairo and nearby Qalyoubiya.

On the street level, we held weekly meetings in each of Cairo’s six collectors’ neighborhoods. We visited individual recycling workshops and talked the workers through the bureaucracy. We formed alliances with local lawyers who offered their services pro bono and reached out to international legal experts who had fought similar battles in other countries.

There is still a lot to do, but we are registering more companies every day and expanding membership to 3000 companies in the capital and beyond. Rest assured Cairo: your local garbage collector is here to stay!



Editors Note
Laila Iskandar, Founder and Chairperson, CID Consulting, Egypt; Chairperson, NGO Spirit of Youth Association, Egypt; Social Entrepreneur, Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum

CID Consulting works with Cairo’s garbage collectors, introducing them to environmental initiatives that recycle organic waste into raw materials and manufactured goods.

Carina Kamel, Senior Correspondent, Arabic News,  Al Arabiya TV


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