Learning and Earning in Cairo's Garbage City, Egypt

  • Date published:
    20 November 2015

Programme Overview

Programme Title Learning and Earning in Cairo’s Garbage City
Implementing Organization Spirit of Youth Association (SOY)
Language of Instruction Arabic
Funding Procter and Gamble and Bill Gates Foundation (since 2010). Additional funding is generated by selling the shredded plastic which results from the recycling programme.
Programme Partners CID consulting, Procter and Gamble, the Bill Gates Foundation, the Hands on the Nile Foundation and the African Star Foundation
Annual Programme Costs EGP 220,000 (equivalent to US $28.824)
Date of Inception December 2001 - ongoing

Country Context

Since 2012, Egypt has made enormous progress in developing an educational system for all, as part of its implementation of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. As a result, 93.3 per cent of young boys and girls are now enrolled in school education, while the gap between boys’ and girls’ enrolment was reduced. While the number of formally educated Egyptians increases, the core problem of the country’s education system remains its poor quality. The majority of students leave primary school without being able to read fluently, while poor reading and writing skills contribute to a 30 per cent unemployment rate among young people. Children who never enrol in school education are usually prevented by socio-economic burdens such as poverty or by geographical factors, which may include living in areas so remote as to prevent them from being reached by the education system.

Among the largest groups currently absent from formal education are the garbage-collecting communities that live on the outskirts of Cairo. Cairo’s six Zabaleen (Arabic for ‘garbage people’) communities survive through collecting trash and recycling it. Marginalized from society, facing poverty and low health standards, the Zabaleen’s work is, nevertheless, valued by society, as they recycle between 80% and 85% of the trash the mega city produces. The Zabaleen waste collection system has even received international recognition and World Bank support as it is considered highly efficient. However, in 2000, Cairo’s city municipality introduced a centralized trash recycling system, placing household waste collection in the hands of multinational companies, a move which threatened the Zabaleen communities’ income and socio-economic sustainability. The municipality has offered the community no compensation for this change, despite the fact that the community relies on the recycling business, particularly as it is largely isolated from state schooling.

Programme Overview

Founded in 2004, the Spirit of Youth Association (SOY) is an Egyptian non-governmental organization located in Manshiyet Nasser, one of the largest Zabaleen community districts in Cairo. Set up by members of the community, the NGO aims to empower young community members through educational projects. SOY’s core project is the Recycling School for Boys, which aims to enhance the diffusion of practical knowledge both to improve qualifications levels and to empower the community in the recycling business. The school is located in Mokkatam, the largest village within Cairo’s garbage city, and promotes cooperation rather than competition between the Zabaleen recycling system and the multinational companies.

The school was founded by community consultancy firm, Community and Institutional Development, and UNESCO Cairo Office in response to the socio-economic change felt by the community when the multinationals’ trash recycling systems were introduced. It now forms part of the Spirit of Youth Association. The school’s broader goal is to reduce poverty and marginalization, and improve health standards within the Zabeleen community. These objectives are met through literacy programmes, which are mainly delivered in the specific work-oriented practical context familiar to the learners. Boys learn about their rights as well as their duties towards people and their environment. In the long term, the aim is to build a responsible younger generation able to empower itself. By 2015, 130 boys aged between nine and seventeen had graduated from the school. Fifty of them enrolled in middle school afterwards and twenty in high school. Four students received high school certificates. Among their parents, 129 obtained the literacy certificate. In addition to these success stories, the school has also been the role model for another project, in Helwan region, which received national attention in the media.

Aims and Objectives

The programme aims:

  • To offer programmes, projects, and activities focused on the environmental and educational aspects of maintaining a business and increasing income.
  • To improve the environment of impoverished communities by promoting the concept and practice of waste segregation at source in local neighbourhoods of Greater Cairo.
  • To further enhance the projects and expertise of the SOY association beyond the community of garbage collectors in Manshiyet Nasser.
  • To further develop the association into a learning organization that continuously improves and builds its institutional capacities as well as its human resources.
  • To build the capacity of the Zabaleen by advocating for their integration into the formal waste management sector in Egypt.
  • To provide awareness and primary health care services to children, youth and women in marginalized communities, assisting them to obtain access to free government medical services.
  • To offer children and young people working in particularly hazardous conditions alternative and safe work environments related to their skills and experience.

Programme Implementation

The programme is designed in a flexible way to adapt to the special circumstances in which young boys in Zabaleen communities find themselves. Courses are offered on a variable schedule. Each student has to be present for a minimum number of hours to complete each programme, and attends whenever time allows. The learners are categorized into three groups according to their capacity to read and write, ranging from those who are not able to recognize letters to those who are able to read but with difficulty. There is no standard duration for the classes, which are, instead, adapted to the learner’s progress and ability to attend classes. The programmes take place in the school and students have access to a computer lab and a plastic cutting machine. The school curriculum is built around the recycling of plastic shampoo bottles manufactured by Proctor and Gamble and other multinationals. The students collect empty bottles, count them and fill out forms to indicate how many they have retrieved. The multinationals, which want to end the fraudulent practice of refilling their discarded bottles with soap and water and reselling them, pay students for each bottle recorded. The students convert the bottles into plastic powder which is then sold to local recycling companies. The school curriculum combines this activity with basic education, computer literacy, practical work experience and the study of environmental protection and workplace safety. The literacy classes are taught in the main hall in small groups of two or three learners

Learners enrol at the school for two to five years and graduate with the national literacy certificate, which enables them to apply for further schooling in middle school.

Programme Content and Teaching Material

The learning process is designed around real situations familiar to the boys from their day-to-day lives. The approach assumes that literacy taught through a vivid process of initiating and sustaining creates self-empowerment through the experience of free decision-making and freedom of action. Teaching basic literacy in a context that adapts to the environment of the boys, the programme combines knowledge in maths, science, music, painting, personal and environmental hygiene, recycling, the use of office software and Google maps. The programme also covers computer skills, the principles of project management, book keeping and simple accounting, and art and drama. The literacy classes use vocabulary known to the learners through their work as recyclers. A typical class is built around the recycling of shampoo bottles. A mathematics class might include safety measurements and calculations as to what might be earned given the number, size and price of the bottles. After students collect the shampoo bottles, they learn how to count them and how to read the brand name. They use their maths and literacy skills to fill out forms indicating how many bottles they retrieved. The forms are then given to the multinationals which pay each learner for bottles they collected. The courses thus stress technical learning through active work experience. There is an arts element too. The drama curriculum included a play about the life and history of the garbage collectors in Cairo that is performed to educate people about the challenges facing the garbage collectors in Egypt.

The methodology used is unique, working with the sound of a letter rather than its name. After completing a basic level of reading and writing, the learners work with information and communication technologies in order to learn how to integrate Google in their daily work and planning. For example, most of our students work with their parents in collecting the garbage from Cairo’s neighborhoods and streets. To support that work, they are taught how to use Google maps to identify the area in which they are supposed to work, the name of the streets and the best route to take.

Specialists in education develop a curriculum tailored to the life of the community and continuously add new elements. The material was developed by Dr Laila Iskandar with support from the teachers and is based on the Montessori approach to maths and science. Further materials used in the programme include books and notebooks, computers, musical instruments and art material, the plastic cutting machine and the safety materials.

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

The facilitators, who receive modest salaries, work flexible hours and are drawn from within the community. Given the location of the school in the middle of the garbage collectors’ neighbourhood and the low wages, people tend not to come from outside the area.

The teachers are recruited through public advertisement, mainly targeting NGOs and the main church, and through the efforts of school staff.

Teachers at the school must have a minimum of high school education but the will to learn and a passionate approach to teaching are much more important. Teachers in this setting also need to bring a high degree of flexibility to their work. They undergo on-the-job training at the beginning of the programme and continue their development through with weekly support and monthly training sessions, as well as attending various specialized courses when available.

Currently, the programme employs eight teachers. The number of working staff depends on the number of hours they do. A minimum of two teachers per shift is needed which means four teachers must be available to work each day. Since the school is open every day, a minimum of six tutors is needed.

Monitoring and Evaluation

The literacy exams offer one form of evaluation. The school director also gives feedback to the teachers. An external consultant has evaluated the project and the learners themselves continuously give informal feedback to the teachers.

Impact and Challenges

The success of the school is best reflected in the stories of its graduates. At 26, Moussa Nazmy is the first in his family to read and write: ‘After graduating from the recycling school I decided to continue learning through formal schooling. Now I am about to take my final secondary school exams, because I want to go to university.'

Adham Al Sharkawy first came to school when he was 12 years old and illiterate. He gained his literacy certificate and then had home schooling for middle school. He is now about to finish high school. He achieved numerous qualifications in computing and has worked as a trainer in the school in the health and recycling programmes. He was one of the main characters in the film Garbage Dreams, for which he went to the United States of America, spending two years there during which he had intensive English courses. After returning from the US, he went to England to attend a forum on recycling. He now runs a start-up for collecting and recycling garbage with a group of friends.

Nabil William first attended school when he was 11 years old. He too was illiterate. He gained his literacy certificate and received home schooling afterwards to equip him for middle school and technical high school. After attending a forum on recycling in England, he now is a trainer of drama and art in the school and volunteers in the animation team for the programme’s summer camps. With a group of friends, he has launched a start-up for collecting and recycling garbage.

Roumani Magdi was illiterate when he first attended school aged ten. After gaining his literacy certificate, he received home schooling for middle school and technical high school, including numerous computer certificates. He worked as a computer trainer at the school for two years and then started his own business in paper. He managed to buy a pick-up to enlarge his business.


The school’s work faces various challenges due to the environment in which it was created. The numerous duties and challenging workload of young people in this community mean that flexibility is needed in school schedules, teaching hours and methods. The school adapts its hours and methods according to the need and level of each learner. It also tries continuously to integrate the day-to-day duties of the learners into the programme and its schedule, as much as it does their vocabulary. At the same time, efforts are made to make older learners co-teachers. Another challenge is to support learners after graduation to ensure they utilize the skills they have gained through the school in further empowering themselves.

Other challenges include funding, particularly securing it in the longer term, and the need to offer further support to students in setting up their own projects. One way of supporting students in creating their own projects would be by teaching an entrepreneurship curriculum.

Part of the programme’s funds could be used to create an income-generating project for the NGO, which could, in turn, contribute to its sustainability.


The programme has been running since 2001 with initial co-funding from UNESCO. Today, however, the only income to the project is the price of the cut plastic sold to the market. Consequently, the NGO relies on Proctor and Gamble and Star Foundation support to ensure the project is sustained into the future.



Dalia Wahba
Managing Partner
17 El Maraashly Street, 7th Floor, Suite 16, Zamalek
Cairo, Egypt
Tel: +20 27364479
a href="mailto:dalia@cid.com.eg">

Last update: July 2015

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.).. Last update: 25 July 2017. Learning and Earning in Cairo's Garbage City, Egypt. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 5 August 2021, 11:19 CEST)

PDF in Arabic

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