27 Aug 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Sustainable Furniture

Mostafa Hussein wants to project a new environmental image on the humble oil drum, a symbol of pollution around the world. He took a childhood fascination with handicrafts, added vocational training as a furniture maker and then founded Readymade, an eco-friendly furniture business that repurposes used oil containers and wooden pallets. 

Readymade has expanded steadily during the past four years, cultivating a healthy online customer base and working closely with the private and non-profit sector alike. Now Hussein wants to broaden his business further, ensuring that the oil drum shakes off the stigma of pollution and becomes a counterintuitive icon for sustainability.

In many ways, the oil drum is the very antithesis of environmentalism, representing a global addiction to burning harmful fossil fuels. But Cairo-based Mostafa Hussein has set about giving oil drums a productive, eco-friendly reincarnation with his custom-made furniture business, Readymade. “[Oil drums are] an icon of the oil industry and its pollution,” he says. “I wanted to start adding value to the oil drum.”

Egypt’s environmental track record does not make for pretty reading. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released its damning conclusion that Cairo is the second most polluted city in the world, with only New Delhi beating out the Egyptian capital to the dubious honor. The same report estimated that 40,000 Egyptians lost their lives to pollution-related diseases in 2017 alone. Oil makes a telling contribution to the deadly situation; Cairo’s battered roads heave with traffic, while public transport and cycling options remain drastically limited.

Since 2014, Readymade has tackled Hussein’s environmental concerns by focusing on the humble oil drum, using it and wooden pallets as the structural basis for innovative furniture. Hussein has crafted disused industrial packaging into any number of items, from bench seats to rocking chairs to playground equipment. For Hussein, Readymade’s mission is to raise awareness about the environmental impact of oil, as well as converting obsolete products into durable, useful furniture. “I see my work as closing the loop on the cycle of industrial waste,” he says.

A life of tinkering:

Hussein’s love of creating furniture with his bare hands began during childhood when, as he puts it, “I loved fixing things.” This early hobby led Hussein to sign up as an assistant furniture maker in 2003, as he honed his craft by restoring classic pieces in the ancient, winding alleyways of Islamic Cairo.

From 2014, Hussein incorporated environmental activism into his prowess as a furniture maker. He founded Readymade and began building his range of contemporary furniture from the oil drums and wooden pallets strewn around the construction sites of Cairo.

In Hussein’s view, the oil drum is a surprisingly versatile medium for recycling. Builders around Egypt already find new uses for empty drums, turning them into water containers. This second life has its limits though, as the drum’s metal casing rusts and eventually joins the mounting scrapheap of Cairene litter. “Egyptians do not throw away oil drums immediately,” Hussein observes, “but eventually they reach the end of the line, which harms the environment.”

Readymade’s products stretch out the length of the oil drum’s usefulness. Purchasers can relax on drum-based bench seats for many years, given that Hussein uses barrels that are resistant to rusting and have not carried harmful chemicals. The continued presence of oil drums in furniture also reminds people not only of the damage that oil can wreak on health standards, but also that creative, eco-friendly solutions are available in the most unlikely of places.

At first, Readymade developed its client base through family and friends of Hussein, as he relied on word-of-mouth to advertise his wares. Hussein now enjoys a stronger online presence, which has exposed his business to a wider circle of potential purchasers. “It’s not just about friends anymore,” he says.

Broadening the eco-friendly base:

Hussein has come up with a variety of initiatives to ensure that Readymade makes its eco-friendly mark beyond direct sales.

Readymade has repeatedly collaborated with Endless Creations, a local distribution company that counts Wolf Lubricants amongst its clients. Hussein contacted Endless Creations about his furniture making and secured many disused Wolf Lubricants oil barrels as materials for his work.

In 2016, Hussein joined Endless Creations in organizing a charity event for orphans aged between 9 and 11 years old. The program showcased a range of career options to the children, with a view to breaking the community’s poverty cycle. Hussein donated furniture to the event and even ran a career coaching seminar himself. The Wolf Lubricants logo remained on the donated oil barrels, helping the company meet its corporate social responsibility obligations.

Readymade has also developed strong connections with the non-profit sector in Egypt. Prominent NGO Wataniyya provided logistical support to Hussein’s orphan outreach program. Readymade’s furniture also appeared at the 2017 Rise Up Egypt summit, a high-profile convention that brought together entrepreneurs from around the globe to downtown Cairo. Outside these efforts, Hussein has built and donated playground equipment to rural communities alongside charitable partners Mashrou ElSaada and Amaken Trips (a fellow Switcher).

Hussein continues striving to expand the impact of his furniture, approaching other companies with proposals to further their CSR goals. “I am always trying to build a wider network,” he says.

Moving forward:

Although Readymade’s clientele has grown over the past four years, challenges remain. Hussein’s chosen focus of oil barrels bears one drawback the cumbersome containers take up a lot of space. Readymade has already shifted from one public workshop to slightly bigger premises, but the challenge of storage persists. Ideally, Hussein would like to move into his own workspace, where his oil barrels will not bother other furniture makers.

Hussein also admits that he could use some help on the sales side of Readymade’s business. “I feel like I am good at talking about my products, but I would rather focus more on design than sales,” he says.

This preference for creating rather than selling comes as no surprise from the Cairene furniture maker with a lifelong passion for building. Hussein waxes lyrical about the satisfaction of fashioning something defunct into a new piece of furniture. He nominates his favorite piece to date as a rocking chair, which took a full two months for him to design, let alone build. “Most designs are easy,” he says, “but that rocking chair was very challenging for me.”

Despite that, Readymade’s customers need not worry about Hussein playing favorites between his items of environmentally-responsible furniture. “They are all my babies,” he smiles.


Learn more about Readymade through their Facebook page.

Photos: Courtesy of Readymade.


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