This is part of a series of articles by MBA students at California College of the Arts dMBA program. Follow along here.
By Mark Gabriel
The best recycling system in the world
Switzerland is arguably the world’s leader in recycling. They boast an incredible 50 percent reclamation and recycling rate, which is a testament to the society’s organizational skills, efficiency, and national commitment for an increasingly sustainable future. But what if I told you that the renowned Swiss efficiency was being far outpaced by the efforts of a few small business owners in the Muqattam slums just outside of Cairo, Egypt?
Who are the Zabaleen, how are they doing it better?
Introducing the Zabbaleen, an Egyptian Coptic minority that has traditionally and unofficially been serving as Cairo’s garbage collectors. They are very good at what they do and, incredibly, they are able to recycle 80 percent of the waste collected. They do this independently, through family-run businesses, and without government mandate or control.
How does it work? What are the results?
The secret to their success lies in the empowerment of the right people for the job. Small businesses, owned by the people directly involved in the collection of Cairo’s garbage, are financed through microloans used to purchase small scale recycling hardware, which is used to serve their community.
It began in the early 1980s with the formation of the Association of Garbage Collectors. This association was formed with the help of the Egyptian Coptic Church, and began collecting donated funds that were then used to provide credit to Zabaleen entrepreneurs. Additionally, in 1981, the World Bank established the Zabaleen Environmental Development Program with a mission to collect internationally donated funds to help improve the living conditions of the Zabaleen people. Together, these programs provided entrepreneurs with the loans they needed to purchase machinery, which allowed them to set up small-scale recycling operations. This empowered the Zabaleen to do the recycling work themselves, versus being limited to collecting and separating the garbage, and having to sell it off to outsider recycling organizations. By encouraging the development of small local businesses, the living conditions of the Zabaleen people began to rise. Many Zabaleen were raised out of poverty, and provided for some basic needs like health and education, while creating jobs within the community.
It’s not yet a rosy picture, but it’s getting better
While conditions in the Zabaleen settlements are still greatly in need of improvement, there has been some very encouraging progress made. By the mid 1990s, the positive effects of the microloans were clearly linked to the creation of hundreds of family-run enterprises. Employment and income became available to approximately 40,000 people. Furthermore, the profit from these enterprises was then invested into the building of new homes and the establishment of healthcare facilities and schools.
Since the initial investments in the early 1980s, the average Zabaleen household’s income has increased by over 50 times, the number of households that have access to water and electricity has also greatly increased, and most notably the infant mortality rate as fallen by more than half.
Improving conditions in the developing world requires the investment of money. But aid funding should be seen as a means to an end, and not the end itself. Money without empowerment is nothing, and as the Zabaleen showed us, empowerment in the form of micro-loans can lead to lasting change. It is hard to believe that a group from the slums of Egypt would rise to outpace the efficiency of the Swiss recycling system, but by empowering the aspirations of entrepreneurs, the impossible can be made possible, and real and lasting change can be made.