Soil-free rooftop nurseries offer refugees in Egypt a means to earn a sustainable living
The sky’s the limit for Egyptian NGO Watan Foundation and its subsidiary Damas Development when it comes to helping Syrian refugees and migrants.
The civil community organisation, established in Turkey in 2012 that supports the needs of people fleeing civil conflict in Syria and elsewhere, has introduced rooftop hydroponic micro-farms at its headquarters in 6th of October City, in Egypt.
The soil-free farms – small, open-sided structures that shelter water-fed plants beneath semi-transparent awnings – are designed to help refugee families attain a degree of financial independence, as well as teaching them farming and marketing skills. Transferable ‘soft’ skills – in communicating and working with others are also part of the learning outcomes of the project.
Participants undertake a three-week training course to develop the skills necessary to run the farms with little supervision.
The 15 hydroponic farms, ranged around a seedling ‘mother’ nursery on the flat roof of Watan’s headquarters, were set up in 2022 with the support of the European Union and the UN IMO (International Organisation for Migration), which donated $75,000 worth of equipment and seeds for the project. Installation was conducted by a specialised company, Schaduf.
Managed by Damas for Development, the project is designed to meet UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 12 and 13 – which emphasise the sustainability of consumption and production, and the limitation and adaption to climate change.
The lettuces are grown without soil by using a specific formula of Cocopeat, Vermiculite, and Perlite. These three materials are combined to create an alternative soil that is environmentally and climate friendly. A nutrient solution will be added to prepare the seed for planting in special foil trays.
Project manager, Mouhamed Albokaey said the micro-farms were an ideal fit for the SDGs: “Each hydroponic farm provides work for two members of a refugee or migrant family, and the only inputs are clean water, some electricity for the mother farm seedling centre, and sometimes a mixture of growing mediums such as coconut-husk and crushed rock compounds.”
These formulas - Cocopeat, Vermiculite, and Perlite - are combined to create an alternative soil that is environmentally and climate friendly. This alternative soil is known as environment, and after the combination, a nutrient solution is added to prepare the seed for planting in special foil trays, he said.
The project - which was among the most notable of 600 applicants to the European Training Foundation’s annual Green Skills Award this year – grows red and green Batavia lettuces, which are popular sellers with supermarkets. Each micro-farm can produce between 500 and 1,000 lettuces every 45 days, with a wholesale value of around 40-45 Egyptian pounds (€1.30) per lettuce, allowing for earnings of several hundred euros each year.
It caught the attention of ETF officials as it addressed some of the core skills needs the Turin-based EU agency addresses: lifelong learning as part of its wider brief for supporting the reform and development of education and training policies in EU partner countries.
Although not a new idea in Egypt, where hydroponic farming – which uses as much as 95% less water than traditionally irrigated crops in fields – is already established, applying the idea to refugees living in urban areas is.
“This has never been done in 6th of October City before,” Mouhamed says. “The original idea was for the refugees themselves to set up farms on the rooftops of the home they rent, but we ran into objections from landlords who did not like the idea of being left to clear up installations in the event the families moved elsewhere.”
The answer was to use the large area on top of Watan’s headquarters, he added.
Although the scheme – which included setting up the farms, the selection of the 30 participants, and the training course – is only a drop in the ocean compared to Egypt’s 300,000 refugees, its backers believe it can easily be replicated across Egypt and around the world.
“After initial set up costs, there are very low energy needs to run these small hydroponic farms,” Mouhamed says. “Electricity is needed for the seed generation, and there are some costs involved in providing a nutrient solution that is added to the foil cups in which the lettuces are grown, but once harvested and packaged with roots intact they have a shelf-life of at least a week, making them an ideal product to sell to supermarkets.”
The skills gained by participants are transferable, making the project an ideal one to support the employment prospects of refugees, he adds.
Watan and Damas are now planning to spread the message to other civic organisations in Egypt and beyond about the utility of such soil-free, climate friendly, organic micro-farms.