01 Mar 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Resource efficiency and sustainable waste management

Sometimes an oasis is naturally occurring, and sometimes it needs a bit of a boost to get going. Sally Hafez Bahgat’s oasis was the latter — bought by her family in 2003, her future oasis was an expanse of yellow desert with an unattractive villa plunked in the middle, a half-hour drive out of Cairo. A decade later, that villa became something entirely different: one of the forefront places offering creative and fun sustainability workshops to the next generation of Egyptians.

Oasis Community Center was founded in 2013 by a mother on a mission. Bahgat, then 40, had always raised her three kids to be stewards of the Earth. As a family, they recycled and planted in the streets — activities her elder son’s classmates did not understand. “They were wondering what kind of life we have, and there was no communication between my kid and the others,”  Bahgat recounts.

Rather than telling her son to ignore his school problems, Bahgat had another solution: invite them all for a farm getaway in the desert. “We planted trees and we recycled,” recalls Bahgat of that retreat of skeptical children. “It is very weird in Egypt to play and plant trees in the desert. I received a phone call from a mother asking what I was doing, and saying the kids were very happy.”

Soon, those same mothers joined for weekend desert BBQs, the kids learning, planting, and playing together. Bahgat’s first foray into sustainable education was a success.

The origins of an idea:

Though sustainability was an activity Bahgat passionately pursued with her family, it was not her first calling. A physician by training and practice, she decided she was not happy with her job, and traveled abroad in order to find her true purpose.

“It was my first day of freedom as a female to do whatever I wanted,” describes Bahgat of her week-long visit to Spain. “I realized that my happiest time was on the farm trying to change the kids’ mindset.”

She returned to Cairo reinvigorated and ready to act. From her kids’ education, she knew the environment was discussed in school, but that it was always purely theoretical. “They don’t know what recycling is, and they’ve never planted a tree. They don’t even know what a goat looks like!” Bahgat says laughingly. “What I did was a very simple thing: I started a farm run by renewable energy, where kids do everything with their hands and in an interactive way.

An educational oasis in the desert:

That description of the Oasis Community Center is a bit humble.

Today, the once-derelict villa has been filled with recycled furniture, and the Baghat family has added a new building called Oasis Al Khan. The colorfully-trimmed learning center is constructed in the style of Hassan Fathy, a world-renowned Egyptian architect, It is made of adobe brick with a high open dome that circulates the air, keeping the structure climate-controlled, no air conditioning required.

Students from eight- to 13-years-old regularly visit as part of school field trips. From the start, Bahgat wanted to ensure the Oasis Community Center’s programs were not limited to international school kids, noting there are few places where kids in public government schools can go to plant and learn. Oasis Community Center also hosts university students for team building, leadership, and environmental activities.

Today, international schools pay for visits to the center, with government schools and orphanages receiving subsidized or entirely covered trips.

Most students participate in one of the center’s two-day green camps. There, they take part in all kinds of workshops, including a renewable energy session where they learn about solar power using small, specially-designed photovoltaic (PV) cells. There is a recycling station, a trip to the roof to see full-sized PV and solar water heaters, a treasure hunt to match a tree with its seeds, and a planting session — and this is all before lunch.

“Sustainability is not something that can only be taught in school. We cannot live without being environmentally active, without knowing how dangerous it is to use so much plastic,” says Bahgat of the camp.

At night, students camp under the stars in tents they put up that morning. “They learn to depend on themselves, and become more independent,” says Bahgat of the experience.

She has seen that self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial thinking paralleled in her own kids. This year, her eldest son won an entrepreneurial prize at The American University in Cairo, and she says it has been incredible to witness the indirect learning they get from helping around the center. “They are identifying the problems, and are seeing how to fix them,” Bahgat notes.

The support and structure needed to succeed:

Bahgat is also undergoing learning experiences of her own. She has spent the last year refining her business plan as part of SwitchMed’s green entrepreneur incubation program.

“When I find things like this, I always look at the age first,” she says, explaining that many programs often target young entrepreneurs. The green incubation program is for innovators of all ages. “I loved that the training was extremely flexible. The camp work is not 9-to-5, so this was important.”

Before the incubation phase, Bahgat says she was thinking only of the environment, rather than the leadership it would take to achieve her goals. “Putting the business plan in front of my eyes made my decisions easier and more informed. I used to do this through intuition, but now I know who my stakeholders and clients are, and the channels I use to reach them.”

“She did a great job compiling the bits and pieces of her business plan into a single, consistent document,” says Peter Nasr, a freelance SwitchMed trainer and one of Bahgat’s facilitators in the program. “Oasis Community Center has a very promising potential in Egypt. It is a one-of-a-kind community that educates youth about sustainability and other green-related matters that the country needs.”

Bahgat brings the same values of business incubation to her own team. She has deliberately chosen six employees who are entrepreneurs or who have an entrepreneurial mindset, and provides them training through the Oasis Community Center’s network. The Oasis Community Center also runs leadership and sustainability workshops in collaboration with Leadership Factory, a Cairo-based training center for young entrepreneurs.

With her center, Bahgat wants to be at the forefront of the “green wave” happening in Egypt. “I’m making my own environment with very small groups, but we need a big community that can really affect the ways of others,” Bahgat says.

Activating that community is her next goal. Turns out, she may be the perfect person to build an oasis of entrepreneurship in Egypt, just as she did with her center in the desert.



Find out more about the Oasis Community Center through their Facebook page.

Images: Courtesy of Oasis Community Center.

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
An oasis of sustainable learning in the Egyptian desert | The Switchers
Oasis Community Center Resource Efficiency & Sustainable Waste Management
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