Over the years, eniGma has covered the rise of young Egyptian designers and brands making their mark in the Egyptian market and abroad. In this feature, we introduce you to three Egyptian brands that are also making their mark, but by helping poor communities and positively affecting the environment, while also creating products that are innovative and attractive. The women behind Artizana, Reform Studio and Up-Fuse – are all trailblazers, each in their field, and are an inspiration to young people eager to help make life better for their communities.
Since her youth, Dr. Heba Handoussa, a distinguished professor of economics and the former Director of the Economic Research Forum, had always wanted to study economics in her youth, “to learn how to make money, not on my own behalf, but on behalf of the poor,” she says.
“The 2011 revolution was one of the most exciting spots in my career,” says Dr. Handoussa. While she had already worked on the alleviation of poverty in academia and numerous research projects, including the yearly Human DeveIopment Reports undertaken jointly with United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the revolution galvanised her energy to focus even more on finding solutions to improve the lives of the poor in Egypt. “I was quite sure that what we preach as research was not very applicable and that we needed to get much closer to those who needed help, if we were going to be effective,” she recalls.
Thus began ENID, the Egypt Network for Integrated Development, the project of which she is Director, having initiated it with a multidisciplinary group of like- minded colleagues, and which is supported by UNDP. Based on a rich data base gathered in the course of preparing a series of valuable Human Development reports, Dr. Handoussa and her colleagues had worked on over many years, they knew that the greatest concentration of poverty was in Upper Egypt. “We knew that 94 percent of poor villages are in the south. Focusing on the south, in fact, had a double objective. If you alleviate poverty there, you close the tap on migration to Cairo and the continuous growth of the “ashwaeyat,” or slums, around Cairo.”
Focusing on the governorate of Qena with three million inhabitants, ENID’s objective is job creation. “All of the handicrafts are ideal opportunities for job creation there. They are so close to Luxor, which is a great tourism center; yet, the handicrafts all come form the north of Egypt, ” explains Dr. Handoussa.
“Our development model is “one village, one product. We bring in master craftsmen (sheikh san’a) to teach them, and top designers to design the products. Some of the crafts were already existing at a rudimentary level, like pottery, or ferka (hand loomed silk weaving in Nagada) in certain villages, while other crafts were unknown to them and we started them from scratch. We now have developed 26 crafts. We have 100 girls trained in “Sadaf” (or shell inlay). Their master teacher says they are as good as those in Cairo and expects them to become the center of the craft in Egypt, because this craft is already dying around Cairo,” says Dr. Handoussa
Dr. Handoussa is proud that through Artizana, ENID’s marketing arm, they are already selling some of their products to the British Museum and that they are already sharing their methodology with ministries that are scaling up and spreading the knowledge gained by them.
ENID is also now set up as a foundation to ensure sustainability when UNDP support expires in a few years.
Reform Studio began in 2012 as an idea for a graduation project aimed at contributing to solving Egypt’s huge trash problem. Today, it is a leading African brand in sustainability design. The girl-bosses behind the business are Hend Riad and Mariam Hazem who earned a degree in Product Design at the German University in Cairo. Hazem explains, “our idea was to make fabric out of plastic bags, which form the second largest component of waste in Egypt. In doing so, we transform the negative impact of trash to a positive one.”
Being 100 percent eco-friendly, this durable fabric is not only unique in its sustainability, but is handmade by local craftsmen and housewives, providing them with employment opportunities and providing them with a new set of skills. “By reviving the old craft of hand-weaving, we are empowering local communities, especially underprivileged women, who are the main beneficiaries of these job opportunities,” says Hazem.
The innovative idea of these two young entrepreneurs to create a new kind of fabric from plastic bags, has garnered them international recognition, earning them the Silver A’Design Award in Italy and Best International Business Plan at the Cartier Women’s Initiative Award, both in 2014. More recently, they collaborated with the Swedish furniture retailer, IKEA, to include their products as part of IKEA’s first African collection, which will launch in 2019. They were also given the honour of redesigning IKEA’s Frakta bag, which will be available in IKEA stores across the globe, along with their product collection. You can own one of their unique designs by contacting them through their social media platforms, where they can also direct you to retailers who stock their products in Egypt.
Yara Yassin and Rania Kafie are the dynamic duo behind Up-Fuse, a flourishing eco-friendly lifestyle brand creating trendy up-cycled products from plastic pags. They both majored in Product Design at the German University in Cairo before launching their company in 2015. Their products vary from vibrantly coloured bags to creatively designed laptop cases, and they have recently expanded into some luggage items.
The two eco-entrepreneurs make a point of using the term “up-cycle” instead of the commonly used term, “recycle.” According to them, “recycling is just reusing the same material and turning it into the same material again. We up-cycle when we collect plastic bags and reclaim them into a new product. In our case, we turn them to innovative creations of bags and luggage.”
Up-Fuse works with an NGO in Mansheyet Nasser (Garbage City). “We have twenty-four, mainly female, students who help up-cycle the plastic bags and in return, we provide them with a stable income and help them complete their education,” says Yassin. The project proves that it’s possible to create a brand that is eco-friendly as well as socially impactful.
Yassin and Kafie’s work in sustainability and women’s empowerment is gaining increased recognition beyond Egypt’s borders. Earlier this year, Yassin was awarded a Gender Pioneer prize by the United Nations at the Geneva Detox Conference. However, she had to miss the award ceremony because she was busy in Morocco pitching an eco-initiative for the World Bank.
Upfuse’s progress in the span of the two years since they were set up is indeed impressive. These gutsy young ladies are on a mission and they appear to be unstoppable.