29 Oct 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Sustainable Food and Agriculture

One day, Omar Eldeeb was returning from his job as a petroleum engineer when a peculiar scene caught his eye — there, beside his apartment building in Obour City, a stranger was eating from a public fruit tree. The incident struck Eldeeb with its potential for providing cheap, sustainable nourishment for many Egyptians. “I became very interested and thought to myself, ‘What if we could feed people from the streets?’”

Eldeeb started formulating the concept of Shagrha, his non-governmental organization that coordinates tree-planting on rooftops, balconies and public spaces across Egypt. Since April 2016, Eldeeb has drawn in legions of dedicated volunteers with an agricultural concept as powerfully simple as the name Shagrha — “Plant it!” in Arabic. Shagrha wants to channel this can-do ethos and cover Egypt’s available space with life-giving trees.

Shagrha’s mission takes on special importance in Egypt, a country facing an increasingly drastic food shortage. 16 percent of Egyptians have “poor access to food,” according to the World Food Programme. Separately, large Egyptian cities suffer from a chronic lack of trees and parks. A Cairo University study found that the Egyptian capital offers just 1.5 square meters of green space per resident. The average amount amongst large African cities is 74 square meters, while Cape Town boasts a luxurious 290 square meters for every local.

Shagrha brought a verdant green hue to Cairo’s bleak, sandswept cityscape, getting trees growing wherever possible: by roadsides, from balconies, on rooftops. Eldeeb even installed a hydroponic garden on top of his employer’s petroleum tanker — apparently (and perhaps unsurprisingly) a world first.

According to Eldeeb, Shagrha has already planted 25,000 trees in Egypt, supported 1,000 new rooftop gardens and run 100 community events about urban agriculture. But Eldeeb does not plan to rest on his laurels, devising ambitious targets for securing a long-term sustainable future for his project.

First harvests:

After witnessing that first roadside fruit snack in Obour City, Eldeeb devised a plan to convert Shagrha from an idle dream into a thriving reality. First, he needed to teach himself a thing or two about agriculture; his engineering training had not covered the intricacies of growing fruit trees.

Eldeeb researched the topic heavily on the internet, while also consulting local agricultural experts. He concluded that Shagrha should focus on growing citrus fruits — including lemons, oranges and mandarins — which are well-suited to Egyptian soil and climate.

Having built up his knowledge base, Eldeeb pitched around his grassroots tree-planting concept, successfully attracting funding from sources like the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Environment and the European Union. The business sector also weighed in; multinational companies Schindler and DHL have assisted Shagrha as a way of fulfilling their corporate social responsibility obligations.

It has not hurt Shagrha’s appeal to sponsors that the organization has received widespread plaudits for its achievements. Shagrha was named a “top ten” foundation at the 2016 Egypt CSR Forum, has appeared several times on national television and commands 75,000 followers on Facebook. Eldeeb hopes that this hype will encourage other corporates to support Shagrha. “[CSR programs] are something we hope to spread more and more,” he said.

A little help from his friends:

Eldeeb spends many hours every week on Shagrha, volunteering outside his regular job. “[Shagrha] is my life now,” he said. The all-consuming nature of the project comes as no surprise when you consider Eldeeb’s ambitions — he wants 100,000 trees in the ground by 2020, along with 10,000 new balcony gardens. Beyond that, Shagrha is aiming to ring in 2030 by having planted a total of one million trees.

Eldeeb has a not-so-secret weapon at his disposal to achieve these grand designs — hundred of volunteers from local communities. “Many people help us just because they love planting trees,” said Eldeeb. “Others believe that planting is a good thing in Islam — something that can help them go to paradise.”

Shagrha runs public information events where novice green thumbs can learn how to plant, tend and fertilize fruit trees. This ensures that the Shagrha project is self-sustaining, and communities do not rely on external supervision in the long term.

So far, Shagrha’s plantations have sprung up in eight of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Yet the project’s root system has crept even further afield from that fruit tree in Obour City, even bringing sustenance to Yemen. A schoolteacher contacted Eldeeb from war-torn Sanaa asking for help — she wanted to plant fruit trees to help feed her community, but did not know where to start.

Eldeeb gave her advice on which trees would grow well in Yemen’s climate, and how to plant them. His recommendations did not take long to bear fruit. Within two weeks, Eldeeb received photos of a school event in which 30 Yemeni girls had successfully planted the trees. “When I saw how well the project had worked, I was amazed,” he said.


Learn more about Shagrha through Facebook and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Shagrha

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern Studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana, and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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