08 Aug 2017
Cairo, Egypt
Sustainable Food and Agriculture

There is a new food empire cooking in Cairo and it is putting delicious, local, and organic products into the hands of a new generation of Egyptians. The leader of that movement is 24-year-old Cairo resident, Yasmine Nazmy. Inspired by the environmental and health benefits of veganism, Nazmy adopted it in a way that is relevant, affordable, and accessible to anyone in Egypt who wants to pursue a more healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

Nazmy began paying attention to the ethics of her food when studying environmental engineering at University College London. There, she was surrounded by a circle of friends who introduced the environmental benefits of veganism and the importance of sourcing local ingredients. “After I returned to Egypt in 2013, I didn’t know how to feed myself on a vegan diet and started experimenting in my kitchen,” Nazmy says. “I didn’t have a job yet and had a lot of free time to try new recipes. A few months later I opened a restaurant with my partner.”

The start of Livin’ Green:

That location, Vegan Kitchen, was Egypt’s first vegan and organic restaurant, and incorporated the recipes Nazmy had tested in her own kitchen. While conventional vegan products such as dairy-free milk and its byproducts, or veg meat are either more expensive or unavailable in Egypt, Nazmy says the country is otherwise a surprisingly good place to be vegan. “We don’t have the fancy stuff, but we have a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables — and more of them. Plus they are cheaper,” she says.

Vegan Kitchen quickly became a gathering spot for Cairo’s vegans and others wanting a healthier and more sustainable diet. Since then, the vegan, vegetarian, and healthy eating scene in Cairo has exploded.

Organic products come of age in Cairo:

To fill a major market gap, Nazmy started her latest business, KAJU, in late 2015. KAJU creates high-quality vegan items that are packaged and ready for sale. She focuses on four flavors of ice cream, cheese made from cashews, and burgers and pizza that can be reheated at home. KAJU also recently released a line called Kool Beans! where Nazmy creates various desserts from locally-grown, organic beans. KAJU currently employs two other women.

Through her products, Nazmy wants people to see that organic and local produce is available in Cairo — and that there is an alternative to the traditional meat and dairy-heavy diets that have large ecological footprints. “In 2014, organic farming was just starting to boom,” Nazmy says. “It was nice to witness and be at the center of that.” Back then, she says there was one organic farm. “Now there are seven or eight for fruits and veg, another five for hydroponic, chemical-free greens, and many other artisans who make products like honey and olive oil using organic ingredients.”

Nazmy’s main vegetable supplier is Tabi3y farm at the edge of Cairo. Its owner, Karim Abdel Rahman Aly says the need for chemical-free vegetables in Egypt is increasing. “More people are looking for a healthy life and produce,” Aly says, adding that his farm has seen more success in the years since starting to supply Nazmy’s businesses.

This organic farming boom is mirrored by government policy shifts. In early 2017, Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture approved the first draft of a law regulating organic farming. That bill outlines the standards required by organic farms and will also offer incentives for farmers to convert to organic practices. Many of these farmers now sell at Egypt’s first farmer’s market, where Nazmy says most vendors are happy to answer questions about their own sustainable practices.

Cairo’s local produce is highlighted attractively in Happy Belly, the cookbook Nazmy self-published earlier this year. It features more than 100 recipes using ingredients you can actually find in Egypt. “Most international vegan books would mention things we either do not have or that are really expensive — things like different gluten-free flour blends,” Nazmy says.

On the contrary, Nazmy says her recipes are quite simple. “I want to show people they can make healthy things without it having to cost too much or frustrate the cook,” she laughs. One of her favorite recipes is a quinoa mango salad using quinoa that has been grown along the Nile. The most popular is a date brownie recipe, where organic, locally grown dates are used as a natural sweetener.

Leading Cairo’s sustainable food community:

Whether she meant to or not, Nazmy has become the face of veganism and healthy eating in Cairo. Part of the reason for this is the community Nazmy fosters online and off the screen.

Nazmy runs a series of food workshops in Cairo where attendees learn to make and sample the vegan products sold by KAJU and featured in Happy Belly cookbook. One recent event was a dairy-free workshop featuring the cheese made from nuts, cashew coconut yogurt, and various flavors of ice cream.

Mia Carter attended the workshop to find out more about the vegan and vegetarian options available in Cairo. While not vegan herself, Carter was interested in learning to make items such as almond milk, a product that is expensive when bought off the shelf. “I learned how easy it is to make everything,” Carter says. “Yasmine taught us where to buy local produce, which is good because focusing on organic food is important to me. People need to learn that making their own stuff is cheaper and safer, especially since most vegetables in Egypt are highly contaminated with chemicals.”

Those outside Cairo or Egypt can easily see what Nazmy is up to via her many social media feeds. On the Livin’ Green with Yasmine Facebook page, Nazmy posts delicious photos of recent creations with her more than 8,000 followers, and shares the techniques she is currently using to improve her own health and wellness. “I’m not a crazy YouTube blogger, and I try to keep it very easy going,” Nazmy says of the online community. “What I really want to do is lead by example and show people the benefits of how good you can feel when you eat a certain way.”

Hana Tarek Mohamed has been following Nazmy on Facebook and Instagram for more than a year. She attended the dairy-free workshop, and says Nazmy’s online community is just as important, especially in a place like Cairo.

“There is a massive amount of peer and family pressure to eat heavy, unhealthy Egyptian food,” she says. “It is very encouraging knowing there are other like-minded people in my community who are surrounded by the same pressures and yet are still being mindful about their food choices.” In times when Mohamed has been uncertain about a recipe or an ingredient, she has reached out to Nazmy, who has always offered answers and support.

A holistic take on food sustainability:

Nazmy’s take on sustainability extends far beyond using local, organic agriculture in the food she creates.

In her Vegan Kitchen days, the entire restaurant was furnished with upcycled wood, and she encouraged staff to recycle and compost before putting anything in the rubbish. At KAJU, she works with suppliers to minimize the use of extra packaging and reuses it when possible. “There is a huge gap in the way we think here, and people do not see sustainable packing as easy or practical. Sugar cane, corn, and rice waste could all be used to make biodegradable packaging, but it is just a matter of finding the right person to do that,” she says.

This is what is coming next for Nazmy — creating products that are sustainable through and through. Meanwhile, she plans to continue fostering Egypt’s community of vegan food eaters, whether people choose her products for dietary restrictions or environmental reasons. The appetite for veganism in Egypt has grown substantially since Nazmy returned, and the shift continues now: from individuals, to a community, to a culture.



Facebook, Livin’ Green with Yasmine: www.facebook.com/livingreenwithyasmine

Facebook, KAJU: www.facebook.com/kajuegypt

Photos: Courtesy of Yasmine Nazmy.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
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