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Egypt's Fledgling Urban Gardeners Hope State Stays Hands Off

From Alexandria to Aswan, urban gardening in Egypt is growing, especially on rooftops. The movement wants to be allowed to develop without the prying policies of a government that has other priorities.

Rooftop gardening in Egypt
Rooftop gardening in Egypt
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO — In addition to supplying fresh food, urban gardens add green space to cities, also providing critical cooling and air filtration that plant life provides.

At the recent Cairo Climate Talks, international experts said the trend is taking off in Egypt. From Alexandria to Aswan, interest in it is high, and the best hope for its future is for government officials to simply step out of the way.

So far, attention has focused mainly on rooftop gardens. Between the arid climate and the high density of Egyptian cities, there are few ground-level plots suitable for planting. On top of that, most of the soil in Egypt's urban green spaces is too toxic to grow food safely, explained Usama El-Behairy, a professor of agriculture at Ain Shams University who has run training courses on rooftop gardening across Egypt.

What Egypt does have in abundance are flat rooftops, where simple gardening set-ups can produce healthy food.

"When we started in 2000, we thought that people would refuse it," Behairy said. But suddenly we found that people were attracted. At the beginning, we were working with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. We were supposed to do 10 training courses, and each course would have about 40 people. And when we ended, we had 15 courses, and each course had about 50 people and a waiting list of about 100."

To his surprise, Behairy said, even people in cities like Qena, where agricultural land is available, were excited by the prospect of rooftop gardening — especially women.

Women are also the most dedicated and motivated participants in a pilot project in the informal Cairo district Ezbat al-Nasr, said Sherif Hosny, CEO of local micro-farm company Schaduf. His company is working there with support from German development agency GIZ.

Although such efforts remain small, proponents believe the idea is bound to spread. "We can't talk about urban agriculture as a movement, but it's at the seed level. We are just starting to do something, but the potential is really impressive," said Martin Buchholz, a German expert in design and technology for small-scale agriculture who has also studied projects in Egypt.

For now, projects like the one run by GIZ and Schaduf rely on funding from international donors, even though they emphasize income-generating schemes and help participants market their crops. The project in Ezbat al-Nasr, for example, only expects gardeners to meet about 10% of the start-up costs.

"In order to kick off, we subsidized the equipment heavily," said Carl Philip Shuck, head of GIZ's Climate Change Adaptation in informal Urban Areas project. "This is necessary in the beginning, and it's why international cooperation is here, but we also want to create a social movement behind rooftop gardening."

Garden gloves off, please

The Egyptian government has periodically announced initiatives to support urban gardening. The Green Rooftop project announced this summer promised to serve as a training project for youth, expanding from the roof of the Ministry of Education and Scientific Research to buildings nationwide.

But Behairy dismisses such projects as little more than media sound bites. "I heard about it, but I didn't find any details," he said. "Actually, we depend on ourselves for our work. I read a lot of things in the newspaper, but there is nothing actually happening."

Panelists said that the state's hands-off approach might be the best option for Egypt's urban farmers.

"When I think about what could stop the process of urban agriculture, I don't see anything that would hinder growth, other than maybe some kind of policies where it would all of a sudden become illegal to have your own garden," said Hosny.

Emily Mattheisen, who works on food systems as the Cairo-based global program officer for Habitat International Coalition, agreed. "In many cities in the global south, urban agriculture is already existingin the context of these very interesting networks of the informal economy. So it's how you can, maybe, just not intervene so that things continue to thrive," she said.

"In Cairo, we can't really discuss any policy for urban agriculture," Mattheisen added. "I don't think that's even a useful discussion right now, because agriculture policy is kind of a disaster. Nobody will argue that, whether you're working in government or civil society or business."

Egypt simply has too many problems with how it manages issues such as urban planning, land and building ownership, she explained. "To create an urban agriculture policy in Cairo would be like building a house with no foundation. It doesn't make any sense. It would crumble quickly."

Bureaucratic centralization is also a major problem, as is the fact that officials at the local level are appointed rather than elected.

"It would be ideal for local authorities to address this by issuing policies or creating enabling frameworks. But this is, of course, not possible at the moment," said Schuck. "Let's face it. If I talk to the local district or the governorate, yes, maybe they like the urban agriculture project. But can they issue a policy? Of course they can't. I don't expect from the national level that they bother themselves with an urban agriculture policy. There are other priorities in this country."

For any policies to be truly helpful, Mattheisen said, they would have to be rooted in a participatory political system where communities have a genuine voice in policy making. "I think communities really do know what's best for themselves."

Until communities are given that power, urban cultivators hope their gardens will be able to thrive in an environment of benign neglect.

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