Reviving Egypt's Handmade Paper Industry for a Sustainable Future

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Throughout his life, the artist and social activist Mohamed Abou El Naga worked in the handmade paper industry in Alexandria. In 2005, he decided to launch El Nafeza for Contemporary Art and Development in Cairo to revive the paper making industry based on the disposal of agricultural waste. 

El Nafeza (The Window) is a foundation based on a new recycling concept, completely different than most in Egypt. The foundation disposes of agricultural waste threatening the environment, such as rice straws and Nile water lilies, the main cause of the "black cloud" that spreads over Cairo, and uses these materials in the handmade paper industry.

Aside from reviving the handmade paper industry, Abou El Naga aims to spread awareness about the importance of the industry and to train artists and workers to produce handmade papers and participate in exhibitions in Egypt and abroad.

A Variety of Products

The artisans at El Nafeza works on a widespread number of products, including stationery, notebooks, folders, picture frames, gift bags, lighting units and greeting cards. Their handmade paper is characterized by its sturdiness; unlike most recycled paper, it's in fact practical for many uses.

The foundation often creates new shapes and forms for decorative accessories, to attract new customers in local and international markets, adding an Arabic, Islamic or old Egyptian touch to maintain their local flair; 
Abou El Naga chose to open the papermaking center in a pottery neighborhood in old Cairo to reflect its Egyptian heritage.

El Nafeza also works within local communities, partnering with civil society organizations to offer papermaking workshops in poor areas of Cairo where unemployment rate is especially high. Abou El Naga wishes to educate the population, espsecially women, and provide an untraditional source of income. The foundation also provides job opportunities for people with special needs such as those who are deaf and mute.

While it depends upon foreign volunteers it focuses on maintain a very local, integrated presence. According to manager Ines Khamis, "all workers in El Nafeza love the place and the papermaking that became their lives, therefore they produce better and feel better."

Its products are displayed and sold in big bookshops in Cairo, different exhibitions in and outside Egypt, and are also displayed on the Facebook page of Madar that supports the local and green initiatives.


Thus far, El Nafeza has had the support of Alfanar and then EFG- Hermes and was selected as a finalist in the BBC World Challenge 2011. Abou Al Naga himself was also named as as a social creator in 2007 at Ashoka Arab World, which has helped the foundation to source volunteers and get media coverage.  

Despite these achievements, El Nafeza faces several difficulties: Egyptian society doesn't realize the value of handmade paper, its characteristics, its importance or the reason why it is more expensive than normal paper, says Khamis. 

"The economic situation, especially after the revolution, has a bad influence on the handmade paper market. We now rely on the holiday periods and foreign exhibitions to sell our products,” she reveals.

Yet for some foreigners, El Nafeza is an inspiration; they hope to localize its model in their home countries. As for El Nafeza itself, it plans to expand throughout Egypt.

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