22 Jan 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Sustainable Construction

If you look out over Cairo, you’ll see a skyline crammed with buildings. The intricate spires of mosques mingle with square-shaped apartments and modern skyscrapers. What you won’t see in this arid, ancient landscape, are trees. Cairo has been suffering from a pollution plague for years. It’s known as the black cloud, hazy, dense smoke that first began hovering over this major metropolis in 1997. Now, it’s responsible for 42% of the country’s air pollution.

Haze hangs around the magnificent Pyramids. Soot clings to the sides of buildings. Many people suffer from asthma, and the rates of respiratory problems have skyrocketed.

One of the people who’s fallen victim to Cairo’s abysmal air quality is Mohamed Abdel Samad, who’s had allergies all his life, and recently, recovered from an inflammation in his lung.

“Everyone smokes inside buildings, and it’s a horrible thing. When you go outside you smell burning diesel and fumes. Cairo is really polluted and I wanted to do something about it,” he said. “So, I decided to plant trees.”

An idea is born:

Abdel Samad grew up in Cairo, then, left the country to get his bachelor’s in business at the Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel. But it was his interaction with the people when he studied at the BI Norwegian School of Management, where he developed a true passion for the environment.

“Scandinavians are very eco-aware,” noted Abdel Samad. “In Norway, they’ve already met their carbon emissions goals. They are advanced when it comes to sustainable development, and there was a lot of information about sustainable companies and global citizenship.”

While in Norway, he decided he wanted to do something for pollution-strangled Egypt.

“The main reason I started this project is that I wanted to do something for my carbon footprint, so I said, okay, I’m going to plant trees. Trees are amazing, they are a carbon sink.”

Carbon sinks remove CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, and Abdel Samad thought that was just the ticket for Cairo.

Shagara At School:

In Japan, finding solace among trees is known as “forest bathing”, which is shown to improve immunity and mood. Researchers have found Vitamin N, or vitamin nature, essential to human health.

Dr. Robert Zarr is a pediatrician who started Park RX America, which prescribes nature for children.

“We’re in the midst of a chronic disease epidemic and are ailing from things like high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and chronic disease,” he said. “If we sit inside and eat and drink all day, these are connected to risk factors for developing a chronic disease. Mindfulness in nature has a role in preventing chronic disease. There are over 400 studies that show the connection between time spent in nature and improved health outcomes.”

But nature isn’t easy to come by in Cairo. The ficus sycomorus (a kind of fig tree), which once grew in abundance all over ancient Egypt and whose fruit was buried alongside Pharaohs, can now barely be found.

“We planted about 70 of them along the street in a rural area, but people cut them down,” said Abdel Samad. “They are afraid the trees will grow too big.”

Instead, Abdel Samad decided to plant at schools, which is how Shagara at School began. Shagara means “tree” in Arabic.

“Most landscape designers in Egypt use non-native, invasive species,” he said. “My aim is to plant indigenous trees around schools and on school playgrounds, with gardens on the rooftops. Native species are best. You water them for a couple of months and then they take care of themselves.”

So, five years ago, he approached a school in Cairo, and together, they built a rooftop garden. And in the years since, it’s blossomed far more than Abdel Samad would have ever imagined.

“It was implemented in 2013 and it is still going strong,” he said. “It’s not only going; magic happened. They even started an upcycling program where they collect plastic bottles, which they paint in art classes and hang on the wall as a vertical garden. They’ve also cleaned up the area outside the school and the community and planted lovely lemon and orange trees where a landfill used to be.”

Not only do these native plants help clean the air, they also provide food, and income, for families.

“The fact that this school has been keeping this garden up on their own for five years is a huge achievement,” said Abdel Samad.

Creating biodiversity in the Mediterranean region isn’t anything new. Zaher Redwan, President of Green Hand in Lebanon, an initiative that promotes the cultivation of native, organic plants in the rural countryside praised the initiative saying it’s educational and artistic. “Having a small garden on rooftops will create awareness and maybe more people will create gardens as well.”

Bigger dreams for Shagara at School:

There are hundreds of schools spread across Cairo, and Abdel Samad hopes to expand Shagara at School to 100 more schools over the next four years.

“Even when there’s a tree in one place, it makes a difference in the microclimate,” said Abdel Samad. “If you see a tree in Cairo, everyone is sitting and standing underneath, so that one tree does make a difference.”

He dreams of implementing vocational and green architecture programs in schools as a way to teach the nation’s future leaders and workforce.

“We want to expose young people to green design practices and teach students how to install solar panels as the solar market is growing like crazy in Egypt. It’s all a win-win situation.”

He thinks a major way to reverse the impacts of climate change is to raise awareness. And what better place to start than with children, who will learn a better way to design, plant, and live.


Follow Shagara at School on Facebook.

Images: Courtesy of Shagara at School.

Kristin Hanes is a journalist who has a passion for the environment, sustainability and science. She loves telling stories about people who are making a real difference in the world.Kristin Hanes
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