Egypt’s compost: Between hopes and challenges

Composting, the controlled process of allowing organic matter to decay in order to create nutrient-rich soil, is being touted as an environmentally friendly way to boost agricultural output in Egypt. However, the culling of Egypt’s pigs last May forced the compost industry to find alternatives to replace what was its main ingredient–pig manure. These pigs were at the center of an elaborate solid waste management system run by the zabaleen (garbage collectors), in which the pigs ate the organic waste and transformed it into manure.

The Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), an NGO founded by Youssriya Sawiris in the late 1980s, constructed the first compost plant in Egypt more than ten years ago. Originally built in the Mokattam area, the plant is now located in Katameya. A walk around its premises illustrates some of the challenges the compost industry faces today.

The old Ain Sokhna road leading to the Katameya Heights compost plant lies in a desolate area surrounded by cement factories. A big cloud of thick white smoke gradually appears, revealing the plant and its rows of fermenting compost.

“This plant was first created in 1997 in the Mokattam area before being relocated to Katameya Heights two years later,” explains Soheir Mourad, the general manager of the plant. “We soon realized that locating the compost plant right in the middle of the garbage collectors’ settlement posed a number of problems, even though it was convenient to be close to the pig manure.”

The pig manure was shoveled from the garbage collectors pigpens and brought to the plant to be transformed into compost. The manure and green waste were mixed together and installed in rows and left to decompose.

The plant was forced to leave the Mokattam area in 1999 due to concerns about the smoke it was spewing into the crowded residential district. When piled into heaps, pig manure can reach high temperatures and even burst into flames if not monitored and watered properly. Leila Iskander, an education and development specialist involved with the APE, recalls that “the level of smoke was so high at the time that a school inspector decided that it was unacceptable for the plant to remain in the proximity of the school. He ordered it to be shut down and moved to another location.” The government granted APE 25 acres of land for its plant in Kattameya Heights.

Just as APE was in the process of relocating its plant, the government began to threaten the garbage collectors in Tora, a neighborhood south of Cairo in Helwan, with relocation in an attempt to clean up the area. APE, which had a branch in the area since 1994, saw a good opportunity to relocate the zabaleen’s sorting and pig breeding activities to their new compost plant in Katameya while negotiating with the government to allow the zabaleen to keep their residences in Tora.

Twelve acres of the Katameya site were then designed to accommodate 62 sorting stations for the Tora families. Each of these stations were partitioned into an area for pig breeding and an area for garbage sorting.

The Katameya plant practices “aerobic composting,” meaning they use air to facilitate the process. Several steps are necessary to create the finished product. It starts off with separating the manure’s organic and inorganic parts with a sieving machine. Mourad explains that “this is a very important step, as pigs not only eat organic waste, they also digest pieces of plastic, stones…so we need to remove all these inorganic bits that will damage the quality of the compost.”

The manure is then organized in rows while rice straw is cut into small pieces by a machine before being added to the rows. “We water and turn the rows regularly for six to eight weeks until the fermentation is over, and sieve the compost one last time to make sure there is no residue left,” says Mourad, showing each of the machines involved.

The garbage collectors from Mokattam continued to bring their pig manure to the relocated compost plant in Kattameya until 2007, when a toll station was erected one kilometre before the plant. “This road belongs to the army, who suddenly decided to install a toll station 1000 meters away from the plant. By charging each truck LE25 in and out, they cut off our supply of manure from Mokattam," says Mourad.

From 2500 tons a month, compost production decreased to 1000 tons a month, all produced locally from the waste created by the relocated Tora pigs.

Today, the pigs are gone and little activity can be observed in the nearby sorting stations.

The many fermenting rows, approximately 20 meters long and 1.5 meters high are the last remnants of a bygone era that used pig manure to create excellent quality compost.

“What you see in rows here," says Mourad, "is the manure we collected from Mokattam after the pigs were slaughtered in May.”

The APE received funds from the Sawiris Foundation to clean Mokattam of pig waste. “It was good for the people there to have a clean environment again, and for us it made it possible to get a final stock,” she says, adding that the plant can produce, at best, another year and a half of compost with this last batch of manure.

Today, only 20 of the sorting stations are still in use, and Mourad explains that most of the garbage collectors left the premises since the slaughter to find other sources of income.

Deprived of its best raw material, the APE scientific team ran tests for months, hoping to find an adequate substitute for pig manure. They ultimately discovered that feces contained in animal intestines led to excellent results, even though the high salinity needed to be balanced to create compost.

As APE searches for alternative business models to continue its production, private companies are increasingly seeing compost as a lucrative and environmentally friendly business opportunity.

Tri-Ocean, a for-profit environmental company based in Maadi, is about to launch a new composting project. Ahmed el-Dorghamy, one of the developers of the company’s business plan, says “there is tremendous potential for composting in Egypt. The demand is very high especially for reclaimed lands because there is no soil and you need to use compost.”

Only three percent of Egypt’s land is under cultivation, but this number could increase as awareness is raised among farmers about the virtues of compost. El-Dorghamy sees many positive aspects to compost. “We can recycle the nutrients contained in the organic waste back into the soil, and then back to the food we eat and close the circle,” he says.

He adds that compost “reduces our need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as reduces the energy used for chemical products,” which are very energy-intensive according to el-Dorghamy. Also, alternative methods for waste disposal are toxic. “Burning the waste causes methane emissions and when dumped, the waste leaks and pollutes the ground waters.”

“The typical mix to produce compost in the farm consists of manure, as a source of nutrients and micro-organisms, coupled with a source of nitrogen such as green fresh material and browns found in dry or dead material such as rice straw,” he says.

“Then you have to mix this material and control the temperature,” he adds. The aeration can be either “active,” done with a blower, or naturally done by simply turning the manure heaps regularly to control a natural process.

“Compost is what nature provides as a buffer for all the soil problems,” he says, adding that even land depleted of nutrients can be rebalanced by compost thanks to its micro-organisms.

Tri-Ocean studied the Beheira governorate area and decided to establish its plant in Nubariya “because it is surrounded by farm land and poultry farms that can provide all the raw material we need,” el-Dorghamy says. They plan on having a medium-scale plant, easy to replicate in other areas in order to limit transportation costs.

In another sign that compost is here to stay, a certification system for all-organic products, including compost, has been established by the central laboratory for organic agriculture. It will work as an “eco-label” for these products. Previously, Egypt’s compost manufacturers could only obtain this certification from abroad, which was extremely costly.El-Dorghamy sees this new certification as official recognition of the value of compost. “This is a great step forward,” he says.

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