Dr Laila Iskander and the Zabbaleen

HES Case Study Professor David A. Kirby

Dr Laila Iskander

Dr Laila is a former Egyptian Minister of the Environment and founder of CID (Community and International Development) Group, a consulting firm that “strives to create holistic growth solutions by bridging corporate and development objectives”. In 1994 she received the Goldman Environmental Prize, and in 2006, the Schwab Award for Social Entrepreneurship. Dr Laila believes that enterprises should be fair, equitable, and just, and that the definitions of entrepreneurship and profit need to be challenged. Sharing her beliefs, she says “I must not just look at the money at the end of my annual statement. I must look at the well-being of everybody around me because we live in one planet…and if we continue to look at grabbing things and doing well by ourselves, it’s not going to be sustainable”.

In all probability, she is best known for her work with Egypt’s Zabbaleen (literally meaning garbage people).

A family at work in the Mokattam area of the Egyptian capital Cairo, where Zabaleen collect, separate, sell or reuse rubbish. Photograph: Bernat Armangue/AP (The Guardian)

The Zabbaleen is a predominantly Coptic Christian community of something in the order of 300,000 people in Greater Cairo but concentrated in the southeast at Mokattam, where a 20,000 capacity cave church has been carved into the mountain. The community came into existence in the 1940s with the migration of farmers from Northern Egypt to Cairo where they bred chickens, goats and pigs, the latter of which cannot be eaten or handled by Muslims as they are considered unclean. Eventually, and long before the importance of recycling was recognised, they started collecting and recycling waste, which they obtained from individual households for a small fee. Currently, they collect approximately 9000 of Cairo’s 15,000 tons of waste a day, sorting it into 16 different categories of recyclable material. All family members get involved in this exercise. The non-recyclable organic waste is fed to the pigs, which is how they got involved in waste collection in the first place. The pigs are then eaten or sold on to tourist hotels. 85% of the material collected is recycled.

On this performance, the Zabbaleen are thought to be amongst some of the most efficient recyclers in the world. As the demand for recycled material has increased, several new businesses have been founded and they have invested in waste processing technology. In 2004, however, the Mubarak government decided to professionalise and privatise the waste management system, contracting with four corporates to do the work, cutting out the Zabbaleen. However, the contractors only installed bins, asking residents to fill them, whilst charging them a fee through their electricity bills for doing so. This resulted in the Zabbaleen collecting most of the rubbish at a much-reduced fee. Recognising the problem, Dr Laila drafted a proposal in 2009 for a sustainable waste collection scheme that included:

  • A return to door-to-door collection
  • A public awareness campaign requesting the general public to separate their waste into organic and non-organic materials
  • Banning plastic bags
  • Government paying for the service
  • Unemployed youths being organised into teams to serve low-income areas
  • The introduction of a clean collection and recycling trade for unemployed young people
  • The extension of credit and electricity to all SME collectors and recyclers
  • Ensuring organic waste is delivered to composting plants, with the collectors paid for doing so

However, it was not until 2017 that the Government recognised it had made a mistake and the contracts with the multinationals ended. At this point, Dr Laila, then Minister of State for Environment Affairs, is reported to have said: “The others have failed, be they government or the foreign companies, and now the Zabbaleen should get a turn”. At the same time, however, she recognised the Zabbaleen were part of the informal sector and argued that they should formalise their businesses, and may never have a better opportunity. There was some resistance to this, but some did, and one subsequently admitted that he made more money than previously, and benefitted from being legal, as he was formally involved in the process, and as able to talk to people if there were problems.

While Dr Laila was instrumental as Minister for the Environment, it was not her first involvement with the Zabbaleen. In 1982 she established Mokattam Recycling School to teach children basic literacy, health and hygiene. She also set up a rug weaving centre where young women could learn to weave rugs on hand-looms using discarded cotton; the rugs being sold at handicraft fairs. As part of this “learning and earning” project participants also acquired mathematical and literacy skills.

In 1997, using the expertise she had derived from Mokattam, she collaborated with another Egyptian entrepreneur to create a waste recycling project in the Red Sea towns of Dahab and Nuweiba. Some of the young men from Mokattam were relocated to the two towns to employ their know-how to help separate garbage into two components, food and non-food. The non-organic waste (alcohol bottles, plastic, cardboard, cans, etc.) from tourist hotels was delivered to a sorting and processing transfer station to be recycled while the organic waste was delivered to the Bedouins as feed for goats and camels. The project united all stakeholders across the two towns on creating sustainable tourism in South Sinai.

As Dr Laila said at a meeting of the Community Recycling Network for Scotland in 2009 “all cultures need to learn from each other’s efforts to reduce consumption, reuse and recycle”. When she took a group of young Zabbaleen boys to the coast, they could not believe how much plastic and waste was in the sea. They were inspired to retrieve it and take it home, as it could be turned into money!


© Professor David A. Kirby and Harmonious-Entrepreneurship.org (2020). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Professor David A. Kirby and Harmonious-Entrepreneurship.org with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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