Mohamed is trying to create employment in rural villages and communities by reviving the profession of paper-making that involves recycling agricultural waste, that is otherwise burnt and contributes to an already overwhelming pollution problem. He is drawing on the Egyptian reputation and tradition for making paper- reviving a traditional industry. The paper products he is promoting are not just paper but include wallpaper, decoration paper—all very competitive in today’s world market. He has studied the global market for handmade paper, therefore he is producing a different type, creating a new niche for his paper in the national and global markets. He is not competing with Japan, but, producing and marketing a new type of paper. In order to cut costs he is adopting falfal machines to beat the pulp, thus he is using new and appropriate and inexpensive machines. His vision is for communities not only to produce hand-made paper and paper-products, but to continually generate and innovate, creating new paper-products. Rural villages in Egypt could become like Japanese villages where people are always innovating high quality products suitable for marketing.
Mohamed is a master architect, reviving an old profession—that of “paper-making.” His idea also preserves the environment by developing alternative functional and creative uses of the agricultural refuse generated by different agricultural communities in Egypt, and addressing the soaring unemployment rate by creating new job opportunities. He wants Egypt to seize the opportunity offered by the growing market for handmade-paper products abroad, and to gain an international reputation for handmade paper, like it’s age-old reputation for papyrus-making. Mohamed’s center is the first such initiative in the Arab world and could be an inspiration for similar collaborations between artists and community development workers.
Mohamed’s idea is to create centers of excellence in different governorates, educational institutions, and NGOs, where traditional and artistic environmentally-friendly methods of paper-making are revived and conveyed to new generations of unemployed youths and unemployable university graduates, through using agricultural refuse such as rice straw, Nile flowers, banana leaves, etc. He understands that a significant environmental impact will not be achieved until paper-making goes to scale. Traditional techniques used by Egyptians through history combined with new techniques gained from his knowledge of different paper-making techniques around the world will be used to revive the profession of papermaking which has died in Egypt in spite of the growing need for it not only in the Arab Region but also globally.
Mohamed’s work has great economic potential for Egypt. Handmade paper has become one of the major rural village industries in India, generating employment and requiring little capital in rural villages. There are around 3800 handmade paper units producing Rs 1.28 billion worth of products, and providing employment for 28,000 rural artisans. The last decade witnessed rapid growth in export as a number of handmade paper and paper products manufacturing units have become one hundred percent export-oriented units and contributed to increasing the foreign exchange of the country.
Mohamed is linking the idea of income generation with environmental protection. New jobs will be generated that are dependent on the use of agricultural refuse, with its long-term positive effect on the environment. In the long-term, farming communities will learn to make paper from available resources, thus creating jobs, generating income, and promoting awareness about the importance of preserving the environment; Finding out about the environment’s productive and income-generating uses, farming communities will have an interest in preserving their environment. Mohamed is targeting mainly farming communities and schools in these areas; and sees drop-out, unskilled, and unemployed women and men as untapped assets that can be empowered with the skills to make paper out of agricultural refuse, thus providing them with jobs that will allow them to bring income to their families and positively contribute to the development of their communities. Since women represent a significantly greater percentage of those unemployed in rural areas, Mohamed believes that they can be catalysts in transforming farming communities all over Egypt
Currently, he is concentrating on developing the product. He has deals with Alexandria Bay and El Fustat market, the Alexandria Library, and a number of interior-design and art shops to market his products. He has hired El Graabawy, a marketing expert as his consultant in order to find ways to penetrate the local and ultimately the international market. He has learned from the experience of the papyrus industry in Egypt that it was not a lucrative business because it focused only on tourists, and therefore he will market his products widely to Egyptians and ultimately abroad.
The decline in artisan skills together with the globalization of world production and markets, have contributed to raising the levels of unemployment to unprecedented levels and have led during the past few decades to numerous social ailments. Official government statistics estimate that unemployment is at 8% but economists estimate that unemployment has reached double-digits, reaching close to 30% (Ahram Weekly). Moreover, most job opportunities are available in the major cities, while unemployment is higher in rural areas. Economists at a recent conference estimated that 52 per cent of total unemployment in 1998 was in rural areas. Unemployment and poverty has contributed to the rise in extremism. One of the reasons for the high unemployment is that education in most universities is not related to market needs.
His work is going to contribute to alleviating the problem of rural unemployment.
Over the past years, there has been a marked decline in artisan skills, including paper-making, which has been historically inherent to Egypt. Egypt’s unique tradition of paper-making from plant fibers goes back to Pharaonic times and the papyrus industry. The making of papyrus was revived by Dr. Hassan Ragab and his papyrus Institute and has enjoyed success in the tourist industry. Dr. Hassan Ragab revived the planting and production of papyrus, creating a papyrus factory and a tourist attraction, the Pharaonic Village. Dr. Ragab was hugely successful in producing and marketing papyrus to tourists, however, he did not manage to spread the know-how across Egypt. As a result, after his death, part of the factory has been turned into a museum about former Egyptian presidents and the other part is being used for storage purposes;
And the Research and Display Center for Papyrus has been turned into Gold’s Gym. His only son is uninterested in continuing the business, and since Dr. Ragab had taken a more business-approach to papyrus-production and did not invest time in spreading his idea and technique, the know-how is at risk of being lost forever. A second project, an award winning community development project, targets the population of garbage collectors, the “Zabaleen,” by training them on making paper products through the recycling of paper and cloth. The latter which has an environmental and community aspect, however, markets its products mainly to the foreign community in Egypt, does not use agricultural refuse, and does not produce enough to fulfill the growing demand for handmade paper products.
Apart from the clear environmental and employment aspects of Mohamed’s work, there is a big market and demand for the hand-made paper Mohamed is making. Recently the Alexandria Library asked him to make the covers of 1000 books in hand-made paper. Interior design shops use imported hand-made paper to make the covers of lamps and catalogues. There is a demand for recycled paper and cards, but these are usually imported, or available in very limited quantities and designs from the Zabaleen. Abroad, in developed countries like the United States, European countries, and Australia, there is great demand for these products, including handmade paper bags, handmade paper photo frames, handmade paper diaries, handmade paper boxes, handmade paper greeting cards, handmade paper albums etc.
In Egypt, the refuse of plants causes immense damage to the environment. Farmers, unable to rid themselves of plant refuse, such as rice straw, banana stalks, etc. resort to their burning, adding to an already overwhelming problem of pollution. Agricultural areas whose inhabitants only depend on farming for sustenance are suffering because of the large agricultural refuse they generate. Gezeiret Mohamed for instance is a village of 50,000 inhabitants on the Nile near Warraq, north of Cairo. Like a great many of its counterparts, Gezeiret Mohamed is characterized by extreme poverty and high illiteracy (30-40%). Farming is the main occupation of the inhabitants, and bananas constitute 80% of the local production. Banana plantations are characterized by a large volume of refuse from the changing leaves and plants. In this village, the volume of refuse from bananas, together with that generated from onions, garlic, and rice constitute a serious environmental and health problem, since most of it is burnt or left to rot in the fields. These rural villages are characterized by a lack of environmental awareness and a lack of knowledge of the potential alternative uses of agricultural refuse. Mohamed believes that if they knew that they could generate income from agricultural refuse, then instead of burning it, they would use it in a productive way, and they would have a vested interest in protecting the environment. Another problem is that of the Nile flowers that grow on the surface of the Nile, occupying precious water-space. Hundreds of millions of pounds are spent every year to burn these, as opposed to using the flowers in a productive way. An impact on the environment will not be felt unless Abouelnaga’s idea goes to scale.
To spread the know-how to rural communities, and begin to address the problem of exceedingly high rural unemployment, Mohamed plans to train community members to become professional paper-makers and help them set up their own paper-making units or workshops in rural communities. The trainers will be responsible for training local youth in agricultural communities, girls as well as boys in the production of paper from local plant fiber refuse, using new tools and production methods as a means of creating for them an alternate and sustainable source of income generation. He will also partner with NGOs in these areas, interested in business development and income generation, in order to spread the know-how among their staff and target-groups. A number of his trainers can go to these local NGOs or representatives of these NGOs can come to Mohamed’s center to take a short-course. In order to spread his idea, Mohamed will work with faculties of art in universities in Cairo, the delta, and Luxor. He will introduce a course and workshops in the curriculum to teach art students how to make paper out of rice straw, Nile flowers, banana leaves etc, thus linking education to market needs.
To address the problem of the decline in artisan skills, Mohamed has opened a center in Fustat, where he will start his training of trainers program to share his paper-making know-how with 10-12 people in order to create a cadre of people he can rely on to spread his idea. Now there are 10-12 potential trainers in a center in Masr El Qadima (Fustat). They will be trained for 10 months; then they will be professional paper makers. The 10 were gathered from 10 different areas, where they will go back after training to open up other training and production centers. They are from Elwarak, Gezeret Mohamed, Fustat, Masr El Qadema and Gezeret El Arab, agricultural communities that are characterized by extreme poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. The trainers also include a number of people from NGOs that are interested in money-generating schemes.Each one of them will work with 10 others, thus in 20 months we will have a 100 trained paper makers from the first round of training.
The training is divided into four phases. During the first phase which will last one month, trainees will learn to identify the different types of papers and the raw materials (agricultural refuse, rice straw, Nile flowers etc or from recycled paper) that produce each type. They will also learn how to recognize the chemical materials and their importance, and to identify the different types of papers produced in countries around the world and to recognize their differences (i.e Mexican, Japanese, Indian etc.). During the second phase which will last for 3 months, the trainees will learn to produce small size paper (15 x 10 and 15 x 20) from recycled paper. This will give the trainees experience in production and creation, allowing them to make cards and to generate income for the center. During the third phase, which will last 5 months, the trainees will learn how to use other raw materials in the production of hand made-paper, including banana leaves, rice straw, Nile flowers, linen, and will learn how to make larger paper (50 x 70 and 60 x 40). They will also learn how to use the paper blender, as well as different techniques and different formulas and ratios of additive materials. During the fourth phase, the trainees will learn about the different dyes and colors and their uses, and will learn how to produce different types, shapes, sizes and colors of hand-made paper. After this, one month will be allocated for marketing, preparing and selling the products created. At the end of the training, the trainers, will have a good understanding of the different kinds of papers and raw materials that are used in recycling, will have first-hand experience in using different raw materials such as rice straw, Nile flowers, banana leaves, etc., and will be capable of utilizing the tools and equipment. Every year, he will train 10-15 more trainers in the art of paper-making so as to have an ever increasing cadre of artisans to spread his idea, and these will in turn train at least 10 others, in the next 10 months. Each year’s training will produce 100 trainers (resulting from the initial trainees training others), and over the three years of Ashoka support there will be 300 trainers, who could open 300 workshops all over Egypt that could train at least 1000 youth within the span of around 5 years—amounting to roughly 300,000 people being trained.
In addition in the second year, Mohamed has agreed with the Wadi Farm company (Ashoka Fellow Lynn’s husband) to take their agricultural waste and create centers in their fields for training and producing papers. He plans to make similar arrangements with other agro-industries that generate a lot of agricultural waste.
Currently he has agreed to train 6 Bedouins from Siwa on using some desert plants and waste of the palm trees to make paper. By the end of the second year there will be at least 10 informal centers in Cairo opened by the recipients of the first training; and one in Wadi Farms and another in Siwa. In Fayoum he is negotiating with another NGO to work on the “Nile Flower” and the Rice Hay to use it as the material to train 10 initial people to be trainers, they are also planning to make paper making an income generating project for this NGO. He is going to use this as a model for other NGOs especially in agricultural areas, as means for local resource mobilization and an income generating project to cover some of the NGO’s expenses.
Mohamed will market and promote the hand-made paper and hand-made paper products in order to begin to satisfy the growing market and demand for these products. Part of his center will be a design and marketing unit, which will be responsible for making marketable designs for the paper-production unit. He will also have an exhibition and marketing center which will sell paper-products to the public. Tapping into his extensive network of international artists, he will organize exchanges of artists from around the world to come and participate in workshops that will include both artists and paper-makers. Paper-makers will teach artists how to make paper, and artists will share with paper-makers their innovative designs. Products created in these workshops will be marketed and sold in exhibitions in Egypt as well as in the countries of origin of the artists. The artists from around the world will also help market his products abroad. He will have a website to display the products and will market the products more widely through an agreement with a marketing company under a new brand-name that represents the community and its activities. The proceeds generated from the sale of the paper products will be used to cover the cost of the trainees’ expenses. He has already made agreements with a number of shops in the Fustat Center, Alexandria Bay, as well as with the Alexandria Library, Catacombs in Maadi, Diwan in Zamalek, and a number of interior-design and art-shops. He will build on his various contacts, to expand his marketing reach.
To address the lack of environmental awareness in rural villages, Mohamed will work on an advocacy campaign as well as work with universities and NGOs. After producing different types of hand-made paper and hand-made paper products, he will have an exhibition and publish a catalogue and publications to promote the products, and to promote the concept among agricultural communities, encouraging them to replicate the model. He will also distribute the publication materials to universities and NGOs in Agricultural areas.
Mohamed plans to work with NGOs and universities in Egypt, and with two or three people from across the region to spread his idea regionally. Ashoka can help link him to environmental fellow Mohamed Nagy as well as our initiative with the EJBA on recycling agricultural compost. Ashoka can also use its global network of fellows to link him up with other environmental fellows.
Mohamed was born in the town of Tanta in 1960. He believes that growing up in Tanta in the delta, not quite rural, and not quite urban, with all its contradictions, sparked his artistic imagination, and made him highly critical, shaping him to be the reformist he is today. Growing up in a place where agricultural land was rapidly being earmarked for construction, he saw the environmental degradation and the negative effects of rapid and unplanned urbanization. His father was a government employee, and he has four brothers and a sister, Mohamed being in the middle. His older brother died recently as a result of being misdiagnosed, and one of his younger brothers is a math professor in Tanta. His youngest brother is an agricultural engineer and his youngest sister who is a poet is married with children.
From a young age, he liked to paint, and he always got awards at school for his art-work. In high school and university, he illustrated for the school magazine. As a child, his father was very patient with him and supported him in his creativity, allowing him to decorate a door in their home. He was always very creative and entrepreneurial, and built a water heater out of disparate parts he found in his house. His mom used to make table-cloth out of paper, inspiring him to realize how artists can use limited available resources to create their art-work.
He dreamt of living in Alexandria, for in his imagination it embodied the very opposite of the rural/urban contradictions of Tanta, and surely enough, he did everything he could to go to the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University. At university, he met his wife-to-be, also an artist, Inas Khamees. Mohamed came first in his class at the Faculty of Arts, but he was not appointed a (mo3eed) because the dean of the faculty wanted to appoint his daughter. Although a bit disheartened, he was perseverant, and continued to do his Masters and Ph.D at the university.
Throughout this period, and after he graduated, he participated in more than 28 art exhibitions in Egypt, Japan, Korea, Turkey, Italy, Kuwait, Spain, Portugal, Bosnia, Argentina, Lithuania, and the United States. During this period, he also received numerous awards for his work.
Mohamed has studied paper-making techiniques for the past ten years, learning techniques from Mexico, India, China, the US, and Japan. After receiving his Ph.D, Mohamed trained for three years in Dr. Hassan Ragab’s papyrus factory. Dr. Ragab is one of Mohamed’s role-models, but Mohamed realizes that he failed to spread his know-how thus preventing the spread of papyrus-making, and Mohamed has learnt from Dr. Ragab’s mistake. After working in the papyrus factory and mastering the art of papyrus-making, he received a scholarship from the Japan Foundation to study paper-making in Japan. It was when he went to Japan that he realized how art and the careful use of environmental resources, can help promote sustainable community development, creating jobs and generating income. In Japan, he saw how paper-making could revive a whole community, creating jobs and generating income for unskilled women and men—and he realized how this could be applied to Egypt.
Another one of Mohamed’s role-models is Wissa Wassef, a famous Egyptian social entrepreneur, who revived the tradition of carpet making, by teaching children how to make carpets, but then leaving them to create their own designs. In Haraneya, where Wissa Wassef started, his work changed the community, reviving traditional carpet-making, teaching youth skills, creating jobs, and generating income. His idea spread all over Egypt, with other villages using indigenous materials to create textiles (the creation of Akhmeem in Negada in Upper Egypt is a case in point). The model he created has become internationally renowned as an example of innovative handmade artisanship.
Mohamed is extremely entrepreneurial and perseverant, and thinks on a global level, rather than just a local level. In 2002, Mohamed developed the concept of ‘Imagining the Book’ out of the need to support cultural & artistic interaction in the global context, through encouraging and celebrating diversity, plurality and the multiplicity of voices. He implemented this jointly with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which has become a home for cultural expression and interaction in the region as well as internationally. 120 artists from 25 countries around the world, including 56 Egyptian artists, participated in a week-long workshop, at the end of which they presented their artistic works, and participated in a seminar to exchange ideas and experiences. “Imaging the Book II” will take place in April 2005. African and international artists who live inside the African continent and abroad have been invited to participate in this event, custom-made for the intermingling of cultures, personal emotions and socio-political expression. Artists who live in their countries of birth and whose cultural insight is closely related to the African continent will represent their art alongside artists from the African and Arab Diaspora whose art represents the vision of those who have managed to partially or fully integrate into the cultural fabric of another continent. 75 artists from around the world including 15 African guests and 40 Egyptians are expected to attend this workshop and share artwork and exchange ideas and experiences. Mohamed is the “General Commissioner” of “Imaging the Book.” Mohamed finds that the Library of Alexandria is very bureaucratic, and hopes to have El-Nafeza, his organization be the home of his idea.
Mohamed taught applied arts at a private university, 6th of October University, for three years, where he was being paid a significant amount of money. He preferred to leave the private university in order to teach at Cairo University, where he is currently an Assistant Professor, in order to be able to reach a wider group of students. He is currently shortening his working hours at the university in order to set up his training center. He also teaches at the Arab Academy for Sciences and Technology at the Faculty of Engineering, which constitutes a significant source of income for him, but he will have to leave it in order to dedicate himself fully to managing and training the trainers at the center.
Mohamed currently lives in Cairo, but he has a studio in Alexandria where he spends most of his summers. He lives with his wife Inas, and two sons, Yehia (15 years old) and Yousef (5 years old).