The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

City Life

The A.P.E: Empowering Cairo’s Zabaleen Community

The A.P.E: Empowering Cairo’s Zabaleen Community
written by
Jessica Noble

It’s no secret that there’s a rubbish problem in Cairo; 40% of Cairo’s household waste, around 70,000 tonnes of rubbish, is informally collected every day by the zabaleen – garbage collectors. Although they’re not paid to collect the rubbish, the majority of the 25,000, all living in Mokattam, make their living from sorting, cleaning and recycling as much as 90% of the garbage they collect.  

The Association for the Protection of the Environment (A.P.E) is a non-governmental organisation that began in 1984 with the aim of improving the lives of the zabaleen; the thousands of men, women and children living and working in the recycling community of Mokattam. The voluntary organisation began with a compost heap, producing a unique type of soil made from fermented garbage and animal remains which was then sold, generating income for the workers. Since then, the population and the garbage amounts have grown tremendously, and the once small compost heap has been moved to a larger site in Katameya and has been replaced by a beautiful eco-garden, helping to improve the air quality in the surrounding area.

The scope of help offered by the A.P.E has also multiplied, providing invaluable services to the growing number of people living in poverty, working in both hazardous and unsanitary conditions. By focusing on areas such as the empowerment of women, child protection and development, health support, manufacturing for recycling, and community upgrading, the lives of the zabaleen can be vastly improved.

In 1997, it was estimated that only 34% of boys and 41% of girls between the ages of 12 and 14 were not working; therefore, the majority were not recieving a proper education. In 1989, the A.P.E. started running a literacy programme from a small apartment in the village. Since then, the children’s educational and social activities have expanded to pre-school clubs, nurseries, after school classes, activities, excursions and summer camps. In addition to emphasising the importance reading and writing to the future of these children, the A.P.E also recognises the importance of the enjoyment of both heritage and childhood – things many of us take for granted. 

Blood infections such as hepititis B and C are rife amongst the zabaleen, particularly as hospital waste is often waded through. The A.P.E. run several health support services which include awareness campaigns, treatment and prevention programmes. The focus lands largely on educating people, not only to help prevent the contraction of diseases but also on broader issues such as early marriage and female circumcision. Their ‘Save Newborn Babies’ programme put all its efforts into finding the underlying reasons for high infant mortality rates in zabaleen areas to help reduce such tragedies.  

Emphasis is placed on the empowerment of women – ‘mothers of the future’ – and putting dignity back into the art of recycling. In the late 1980’s, a factory of recycling machines was opened and a weaving and patchwork quilting centre was set up. Training workshops have taught over 1000 women and girls to weave using a hand loom, as well as to design and sew clothing. After a waste recycling conference in 1991, the team at A.P.E. were inspired to start up their own paper recycling factory. The paper is environmentally friendly, made from cotton and water mixed into a pulp in several old bathtubs before being left to dry in a mold. Flower petals, picked from their own eco-garden, are often added to the mix to make pretty, more unusual paper. 

The beautiful, original and unique handmade products are all sold on site in Mokattam. Amongst other things, rugs, blankets, handbags and oven mits can be found in the shop spaces. Colourful, beaded jewellery refined from magazine paper are also available to buy, whilst the aforementioned paper is transformed into greeting cards, gift bags, invitations, business cards and much more. The pieces are sold at very reasonable prices and can be custom made and ordered in bulk; helping those working on on the rubbish heaps to earn a better, more stable living. 

Working alongside other, similar charities, the A.P.E. has not only expanded its work to Torah, one of the poorest garbage collecting neighbourhoods, but has also been internationally recognised for its achievements. Visits to the A.P.E’s headquarters, in the centre of Garbage Village, can be arranged with a respresentative. Unless you can find a taxi driver knowledgable enough of the area, the place can be a little hard to find. The charity offer to meet and drop groups back at the Citadel, after a full tour of their factories and shops. They ask for a small donation of $5 for this, although other donations are always more than welcome. 

To find out more on the incredible work of the A.P.E. and how you can help, check out their website at