Usama is building social capital and full economic citizenship among local communities from disparate parts of Egypt by preserving local indigenous craftsmanship skills that revive the sense of pride in the local Egyptian heritage and identity, and connect local people to the Egyptian market.
The New Idea
Usama is building a movement that empowers local communities across different parts of Egypt to develop the resources of their local cultural heritage as the basis for integration in the modern market, while building a sense of shared and common identity; moreover, Usama promotes social conscious consumption at the urban side of Egypt.
Usama creates an enabling environment for local communities’ traditional crafts in Egypt’s old, likely forgotten, towns and governorates to thrive through adopting a heritage strength-based approach where each community is empowered to take ownership of its development.
Usama is achieving his vision through a three-pronged approach. First, he creates a media movement that documents and promotes his expeditions to discover the very diverse local indigenous Egyptian communities and displays the communities’ cultural identities and economic strengths. Second, he empowers and builds the capacities of local communities through need-based assessments, product and brand development, equipping them with technology skills to allow connections with people in other cities particularly the capital without having to leave their community, migrate or lag behind in time. Through technology connections, Usama engages the crowds in the empowerment of local communities, focusing on two main stakeholders, namely the designers who can help communities revamp their products and the crowd in Egypt’s mega cities to offer advanced online crowdfunding for the local crafts production. Third, Usama created an online portal “Yadaweya.com”, Arabic meaning for “Handmade Treasures” which does not only serve as a promotion portal for selling the communities’ products but it also acts as a digital archive for the diverse Egyptian cultures and histories. Hence, he encourages socially conscious consumptions that appreciate locally made products and facilitates access to knowledge about cultural heritage.
In contrast to traditional interventions with local communities where Citizen Sector Organizations (CSOs), donors, corporations or middle men focus on the final product, its mass production and marketing which roots competition among communities and craftsmen, Usama is shifting the focus from the product and the competition to the communities shared identities while rooting collaboration rather than competition.
In his future plans, Usama envisions an expansion to all Egyptian local communities that are marginalized and outside capital cities to give them equal opportunities of development and empowerment. Usama plans expansion via establishing connections with local coordinators that serve as entry points in addition to connecting the local communities to each other. He aims to create a comprehensive online digital archive and offline museum documenting Egypt’s local communities’ indigenous cultural, natural and economic competencies. In the longer term, Usama aims to create linkages across communities with similar practices to root further collaboration.
Egypt is full of hundreds of communities with thousands of inhabitants, spread from North to South, who are each characterized by a special cultural heritage that serves their economic sustainability. When heavy machinery and capitalist consumptions have prevailed in recent time, it has greatly affected patterns of consumption; local heritage and crafts are under a threat.
In Egypt, younger generations, especially those who received a higher education, migrate to the capital, the center of economic activities, leaving behind their parents’ legacy. Hence, the traditional art of handicrafts that are based on local natural resources has been increasingly neglected, and with it, those historically dependent on it as a source of income. Simultaneously, many craftsmen no longer find it economically viable to pursue craftsmanship as a primary profession, leading to their market exclusion.
Government and international development agency programs that have attempted development throughout the country with one-size-fits-all models that are not tailored to local complexities have often caused more harm than good. Such programs separate the product from the human and compartmentalize production. Such programs prioritize market-demands for cheaper goods and push craftsmen to create specified goods that are not necessarily what they have inherited from their ancestors, nor what their environments and identity entails. The latter approach results in loss of unique traditional craft skills and local heritages. Competition, rivalry, and animosity increase between people from the different communities around Egypt who traditionally focused on the production of varying complimentary rather than competitive goods.
The push to remain competitive in the market and the transformation of craftspeople into suppliers has led to a serious decline in the sense of pride felt by those from craft-making communities with regards to their own heritage and competence. Indeed, many of the traditional practices are lost over time as families view them as inutile. That trend is encouraged where craftsmen lack access to resources and skills that can allow them to survive in the market without having to forego their community identity.
While there is the potential in urban centers for appreciation of the variety of Egypt’s local cultures, it would require a general knowledge about them and their value. Most people in urban areas are uninformed about the various rural, tribal, and ethnic communities’ heritages, as well as that of the general country. They lack access to information about the different crafts that have been passed on through time, and do not understand the magnitude of the loss of such traditions. This coincides with a lack in socially-conscious consumption, wherein low prices are valued over the preservation of heritage and the empowerment of local communities and their economies.
Born in a small village in the South of Egypt, Usama developed a curiosity towards natural and local heritage since a young age. Having worked as an ecologist and obtained his post-graduate degree from England, Usama had several opportunities to live outside Egypt and in its capital city. However, he went back to the village where he grew up and from there expanded to the development of similar local communities across Egypt.
Since 2002, Usama has traveled all across Egypt co-existing with the diverse local Egyptian communities, tribes and ethnicities, from North to South and East to West. In his travels, Usama met with tribal and crafts masters and documented the communities’ cultural and natural heritage and identities, and became deeply engaged with their daily lives, challenges and needs. His strongly grounded apprenticeship led him to holistically understand the problems of the loss of pride in the local identity, the threat posed on the indigenous handcrafts by non-context specific development interventions, as well as the economic hardships and marginalization faced by the local communities due to the lack of skills and resources, especially when it comes to access to markets, promotion and supply chain support. Moreover, he touched the escapism of the new generations from their traditional crafts.
During his apprenticeship years, Usama started 3 non-profits in 3 different Egyptian communities that aim at the local development of the craftsmen and handcrafts. However, he learnt that the non-profit structure was restricting his idea especially given the context of the restraining Egyptian NGO law. He realized that interventions in new forms were needed.
In 2012, Usama joined a business accelerator through which he launched his social business “Kenouz Yadaweya”, Arabic meaning for “Handmade Treasures”.
Through Yadaweya, Usama is implementing a context-specific, need-based three-pronged movement of empowering local craftsmen in Egyptian communities that is based on preserving cultural identities and boosting economic strengths. Usama’s community model is based on a chain of inter-linked steps. First, he documents and spreads the local communities’ cultural heritage; second, he maps the needs of communities and empowers them to be independent through upgrading their access to skills, technical trainings and resources especially when it comes to technology usage to reach markets, receive feedback loops from buyers and get linked to the public either through the designers who can improve the production, or the crowd who can buy; third, he offers the local craftsmen promotion and supply chain support for their products through his online platform.
Examples of crafts produced by local communities which Usama has worked with are: clothes, textiles, jewelry, pottery, décor, furniture, carpets, palm tree-based industries and others.
In his media documentation and dissemination, Usama does not only focus on the product produced by a local community. For Usama, revival of heritage and local community pride means to resurrect the human being, the culture and the story linked to a space which all leads to a final product. The product for Usama is simply a manifestation of the complex interaction of the culture, the geography and the socio-economic conditions with the human being at the center. That is what Usama documents through his expeditions throughout Egypt, giving people, particularly in urban areas, a chance to appreciate and respect local cultural heritage as it is. Usama disseminates his media output via online and offline media channels. As a result, influential public opinion leaders and mavens like actors, anchors and some political figures, engaged with Usama’s message and shared in disseminating it. Consequently, Usama opened his online platform for crowd documentation. Not only does he display his own documentaries and videos across Egypt but also encourages others to do the same and offers his platform for the promotion and archiving of media materials that provide insight into Egypt’s cultural and economic heritage.
In empowering the local communities to be independent, Usama encourages collaboration and co-dependence between different community members regardless of their pace of production. He allows different tribes or villages within the same community to cooperate rather than compete. Not only does Usama engage older generations who have the secrets of the crafts, but he designs trainings where the elders can pass on their learning to the youngsters whether from their same community or the neighboring ones. Hence, he teaches youth to appreciate their local identity and traditional craft while recognizing it as a viable source of income.
Through his in-depth need-based assessments and context-specific interventions, Usama was able to link 7 communities, who were marginalized and nearly forgotten by the state, with government services that enhanced their life conditions and provided grants from donor organizations.Projects were implemented according to the community’s need rather than the donor’s. For example, these 7 communities received grants from United Nations Development Program and International Labor organization to support the economic empowerment of these communities in a way that allows crafts productions to fit with the local contexts and cultures of the community. Another example is based on his needs assessments and knowledge of the communities, Usama connected a marginalized community in the Red Sea area to the governor to provide infrastructure and health services for the community.
Usama’s online platform “Yadaweya.com” serves several purposes. First, it is a digital archive for the different cultural identities and heritages across Egypt. Second, it serves as a marketing tool for the promotion of the local communities crafts coupled with every product’s history and the story of the craftsman/woman behind it. Third, through the platform, Usama offers online payment and shipment services to buyers of local crafts. Fourth, he uses the platform to crowdfund in advance for the crafts production. That is, community craftsmen get paid upfront to lower their risks of production and allow consumers to support the production in advance. Fifth, through the platform, Usama links the craftsmen to local designers and urban customers. Usama applies a ceiling of a 30% profit on every original price of craft. Profits are all re-invested in the operations and maintenance of his venture ”Yadaweya”.
Since 2012, Usama has empowered 16 local communities across 12 Egyptian governorates through his comprehensive model. When first launched, Yadaweya’s online portal received an average monthly traffic of 24,000 visitors. Besides the portal, Usama inaugurated a permanent exhibition in downtown Cairo for displaying the products of 45 Egyptian local communities.
The communities Usama works with achieved a 220,000 EGP in total of selling their productions with more than a 150% income increase after Usama’s intervention. Moreover, Usama has developed a wide network that maintains regular demand for the crafts from corporations, bazaars, hotels, museums as well as ordinary individual recurring customers. Additionally, his partnerships expand to crowdfunding platforms and local CSOs that support crafts and designers.
On a more qualitative level, Usama’s idea gives local communities the opportunity to regain their sense of dignity and pride; it grants younger generations of local communities a second chance to stay where their roots are; it allows for an inclusive Egyptian identity that is more representative of its constituents; and it slowly but steadily teaches its urban customers to appreciate locally made products and support them through socially conscious consumptions.
Usama has kick-started “Kenouz Yadaweya” through a business accelerator which offered seed investment and training. His funding sources afterwards varied between direct profit, prizes and grants like that of the Pioneers of Egypt and the Doha Economic Conference award. He has 3 full-time staff members and 5 volunteers.
In his short term plans, Usama will focus on consolidating his model, from building his organizational capacity, to continuing his expeditions across Egypt and documenting its heritage and multi-identities on his digital archive, over to supporting 100 new local Egyptian communities. On top of the previous, Usama will launch an annual physical forum that brings together all the craftsmen in the communities he works with and beyond. The purpose of the forum will not only be to discuss common challenges and co-design solutions but also to co-design a national strategy for craftsmanship in Egypt that can be escalated to the government.
On the longer term, Usama is concerned with the public and the government. On the public level, Usama plans to educate urban populations about Egypt’s cultural heritage to instill a sense of pride and appreciation from a young age. He will launch a line of children’s toys that take the shape of local hand crafts machines and simulation games for handcrafts productions. Moreover, he aims to inaugurate the first offline museum for Egyptian crafts. While on the government level, Usama, through the movement he is creating, will target policies and advocate for a social security framework for craftsmen.
Born in Koum ElDabe’, a small Egyptian village of 20,000 inhabitants in the governorate of Qena, south of Egypt, Usama had always been fascinated by the history of his village which was home of the first known queen in Egypt.
Since childhood, Usama developed curiosity towards his surrounding environment. His favorite childhood activity was to tour his neighboring villages on his bicycle, drawing the plants and animals he saw on his way, documenting their names by asking the locals and hanging his drawings on his bedroom wall. In grade 9, Usama collaborated with a group of friends to develop a common library for the village where they were able to gather 4,000 donated books. Additionally, Usama participated in launching a simple hand-written local magazine titled “The Voice of Koum ElDabe” and distributed it to the village’s youth. Known for the love of history and environment, Usama started the first informal classroom teaching younger children in his village about their shared natural history and geography. By 1997, a student in high school, Usama was among the very first in his village whose parents bought him a computer. As soon as he learnt by himself how a computer operates, he started teaching others and co-founded his village’s first computer center.
After graduating high school, Usama joined the Faculty of Sciences, Botany and Ecology section where his first endeavor was to start a computer center for the students.
Usama also founded a university club that took students on expeditions to different Egyptian communities especially in the south exploring the local culture and heritage. With his university peers, Usama cofounded the center for future studies which was a statistical center that researches and documents the needs of his village. Through this center, Usama was able to understand the size and scope of problems related to craftsmen. He and his friends had spotted their neighbors who had to shut down their crafts businesses due to the lack of opportunities and shift to something else that was more mundane.
Graduating with merits as the first of his class, Usama had the opportunity to stick to a university teaching job or join the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency in Cairo, both of which he refused and decided to go for a job in a natural protectorate in the Eastern desert in the south of Egypt, where he spent years studying and contributing to cutting-edge research and new findings on Egypt’s natural and ecological heritage. Usama had always favored traditional knowledge over academic knowledge.
Not only did the years he spent in this protectorate contribute to his knowledge and entrepreneurial skills in terms of tenacity and perseverance, it also allowed him to become immersed in marginalized communities whose cultural heritage and surrounding nature is a source of identity and economic activity. Through the years, Usama was also able to witness development agencies’ interventions in these communities in ways that damage the social fabric rather than strengthen it.
In 2006, Usama received a scholarship to pursue a post-graduate degree in England after which he returned to Egypt even after being offered a position in? a research lab by an English institution. Back at the protectorate where he was working, Usama became more active with the local community out of a belief that natural and cultural heritage are inseparable. This was when he started several pilots of empowering the local community to promote and preserve their local heritage and products.
Since launching Yadaweya, Usama has been incubated by Egypt’s first social enterprise incubator Nahdet El-Mahrous; he won a Barclays Bank competition for employment and income generation; additionally, he was awarded as a pioneer of Egypt by Synergos; he was recognized by the University of California and the Doha Economic Forum; moreover he received the “Young Visionary Fellowship” from India-Africa Shared Future Program.