Living on a lettuce leaf in a garbage bin

Sherif El Ghamrawy, founder of HEMAYA and Basata

When you arrive at Basata, an eco-resort off the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba in Egypt, it’s a bit like walking into the movie The Beach just without the rainforest. Slap bang in the middle of nowhere, this perfect piece of paradise ticks all the boxes – crystal clear sea, pristine white beaches and sweeping mountain scenes. Over the last 30 years Basata has been a birthplace for change, all driven by its founder, Sherif el Ghamrawy. A social soldier who wants to transform the region of Sinai, Sherif makes every social and environmental issue his business and every guest at Basata his new best friend. 

Egypt’s eastern region of Sinai is famous for lots of reasons: Sharm el Sheik, the mecca for all-inclusive holiday deals; Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments; and the fractious relationship with their previous occupiers, Israel. But it wasn’t any of the above which attracted Sherif el Ghamrawy to move here in the 1980s. He came here looking for a place which would make him feel human again – something which the frenetic, smelly city of Cairo did not deliver.

Explaining his feelings, he told us with a warm smile, “I was living in a nice villa with a big garden and I had a good job in the city centre but I didn’t see the point. My father asked me, ‘Sherif, why?’ I explained to him that living in Cairo is like living on a lettuce leaf in the middle of a garbage bin.” A civil engineer by training, Sherif’s family had high hopes for his professional future. But Sherif had his heart set on a different life. Basata is an eight hour drive from Cairo along a road with nothing but sand for scenery.

Now, a lot of people sit and dream about running away from city life and living on a blissful beach, but how many do you know who’ve done it? Well, Sherif is one of those brave few for whom courage outweighs caution – something we’ve seen in a lot of social entrepreneurs. In 1982 he set up shop on a small cove on the east coast of Sinai with a vague idea to build a place where cultures could collide and the environment comes first. In contrast to Cairo, he named it Basata, meaning ‘simplicity’.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Sherif actually built one of the world’s first eco-resorts which, at 30 years old, must surely be one of the longest running, too. What started out as a couple of bamboo huts and bucket showers is now an extensive range of accommodation, including glorious chalets just perfect for romantic retreats. Water runs through a recycling system and the costly process of desalination (taking the salt out of the sea water) is only carried out when needs must. Candle light prevails once the sun has gone down and the sea breeze acts as nature’s air con.

Basata is a self sufficient ‘bubble’ in the desert serving every need of Sherif’s family, his guests and the wider community. Beyond the huts and chalets, there’s a school, mosque, animal farm, veggie garden, handicrafts shop and bakery. But despite all this expansion, the ethos at Basata has always remained unchanged. All mod cons like TV and internet are forbidden and the sense of community is key to its success. People convene at meal times to cook together and every evening there’s an option to share in a feast of local foods – one of the best meals of our entire trip. For all of this, Basata has won much recognition both in Egypt and beyond. In 2006 Sherif won a prestigious Responsible Tourism Award and in 2009 he was nominated for the Condé Naste Environmental Award.

Unfortunately, however, the developers now neighbouring Sherif’s land are not so commendable. For 99% of the hotel companies now operating along this coast, profit comes before people and concrete before community. “I don’t like to use this comparison but it’s like raping the land. Tourism is just fashion. When this fashion passes what are we going to do with all of this concrete?” Sherif said with genuine grief plastered across his face.

Moments later he called over a staff member and started shouting in Arabic whilst pointing at the sea. Entirely confused at first, we pieced together what was happening. Fishermen were spreading their nets over the coral reef which stretches along the coastline by Basata. His colleague ran to the shore and started shouting. The fishermen rushed away and Sherif sat down and sighed, “Always the fight, always the fight”.

Sadly both the international hotel chains and many of the local people don’t share Sherif’s strong belief in respecting the environment,which is why, in 1996, he started an NGO called Hemeya, meaning ‘protection’. Unlike many areas of Africa, this is not a location where many NGOs operate. Ever since Israel pulled out of Sinai in 1979 and handed it back to Egypt, the region has been left in limbo, with the government only showing an interest in tourism. This lack of state support means that organisations like Hemeya are left desperately to try and plug the gaps.

Hemeya’s flagship project, which has been running since the organisation started, is their solid waste management business. Put simply, they collect rubbish, sort it and sell the recyclable stuff. They have contracts with hundreds of hotels spanning the coast and two sophisticated sorting centres manned by more than 30 staff. Here they keep what they can sell and give away things of use to others. Organic waste, for example, goes to local farmers for animal fodder. Whatever is left over is safely disposed of and, unlike many, they never burn their rubbish or tip it into the sea.

It was this project that brought Sherif’s work at Hemeya into the limelight. He’s won more awards, speaks at international conferences on solutions to waste management and has been asked by the Egyptian government to replicate his model elsewhere. But Sherif wants others to look on and learn, then do it for themselves. It’s not that he’s not interested in helping others, but Hemeya’s work has expanded beyond its initial environmental focus to work on education, health and social issues too, leaving him little time to spare.

“Everything is related nowadays”, Sherif explained, whilst talking us through his inordinate list of initiatives. He runs cleaning services which work on the streets and in the hospitals of his local towns, organises a coastal patrol for local people to protect their waters, and he funds everything from windmill installation to camel vaccines! If you pop down to Nuweiba, 30 kilometres along the coast from Basata, there are palm trees lining the harbour and an artistic fish sculpture on the roundabout as you approach – all thanks to guess who?

Schools too have benefited from Hemeya’s commitment to changing the face of Sinai. With financial support from Vodafone, all local primary schools in the area recently received a facelift and now clinics are being built on-site as well. Hemeya has opened a youth centre and works with street kids. They are working on building a new playground, have just finished a new ICT centre and have plans to open a women’s empowerment project in the months ahead. The list could go on… crazy, hey? No wonder the Schwab Foundation awarded Sherif Egypt’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2008. But for us, two big questions linger: Where does Sherif get this much funding from? And why isn’t the local government picking up more of the slack?

When it comes to raising cash, Sherif admits that money isn’t a barrier. Until recently, the waste management business turned a tidy profit which was all re-invested in Hemeya’s activities. Although constant fluctuations in the selling price of recyclable goods make profitability difficult to predict Sherif still isn’t worried about raising the money he needs. He has plenty of wealthy friends who are easily persuadable, especially when Sherif lays on the charm. His main bugbear, however, is finding the time to do it all – something we’ve seen across most projects. “It’s not difficult to get the money but raising money is a profession and I struggle to find the time.”

When it comes to the government, there’s a medley of reasons why Sherif is left to do all the work – complacency, bureaucracy and corruption included. “As long as they see someone doing it, they do nothing. But if I stopped they still wouldn’t act”, said Sherif. This could be interpreted as a man justifying his own social crusade, but Sherif has evidence to back up his claims. A few years ago, a dispute with a local governor caused him to cease his waste removal services in Dahab – a tourist town 150 kilometres further down the coast. Within a year, Dahab’s streets were a disaster. The mayor was sacked and Sherif was begged to come back.

Of course we had to ask Sherif if he could ever see himself moving into politics; after all the revolution is meant to have cleared space for a new breed of leaders. The answer was clear and went something like this, “Not at all, ever”. Whilst Sherif supported the revolution, he’s had too many run-ins with the state to forgive and forget. Over the last few decades he’s been accused of being a Mossad spy and Mubarak’s son was rumoured to have had his eye on Sherif’s land. Anyone who poses a threat to Basata (sons of military dictators included) should know what they’ve got themselves into. Not a man to mince his words, Sherif made it clear what action he was prepared to take: “If anyone tries to take my land I will kill them.”

As you can tell, Sherif is a tough bloke you don’t want to mess with. We’re not just referring to his personality – check out the pictures and I’m sure you’ll agree he’s doing pretty well for a man over 50! But Sherif is as soft as he is solid. He greets his guests with hugs, brims with pride about his country, always focuses on his family first and devotes himself to Islam. Interestingly, though he’s tired of the battles he has to fight, he doesn’t believe that Allah has granted him a choice in his journey. “God gives you as much power as you can use. If you can do more, it’s not your right to do less.”

This belief keeps Sherif grounded and his list of priorities long. But that’s not to say there aren’t stumbling blocks. The level of local engagement in Hemeya’s projects, in particular the waste programme, is not yet where Sherif wants it to be. What’s more, the local government has perfected the art of sending in swerve balls just when they’re acting like they’re onside. In 2010 they announced plans to build a monstrous power plant right in the middle of Nuweiba that, not surprisingly, got Sherif’s back up. With support from the community, he managed to block the deal but he admitted that the whole charade had left him prematurely aged.

The battle was worth a few grey hairs, however, as it helped Sherif to give birth to his biggest vision yet: “I have a plan. Right now Nuweiba is the worst area in Sinai but I want it to be something – a destination”, he exclaimed. Nuweiba is a transit town best known for its harbour which runs regular pilgrimage trips to Mecca and stations several ocean liners. To us it was like something out of that old TV programme Holidays from Hell, epitomised by a camel we saw sitting outside a half finished hotel eating out of an overflowing rubbish bin. But Sherif’s dream is to transform the town into a place where people choose to stay; a vibrant hub for commerce, tourism and pilgrims. He wants the new look Nuweiba to celebrate the Bedouin culture of the local people, using it as a draw card for those wanting a slice of the ‘real Egypt’. “This vision is taking a lot of time but it’s in my head and I can’t get rid of it”, said Sherif.

Whilst we were staying with Sherif we saw many sides to him. He started the mornings as a dedicated environmentalist; dressed in Speedos he would snorkel along the coral reef, picking up litter dropped from passing boats. He then transformed into resort manager and expert host; always barefoot he gave clear directions to his staff and a guided tour to every guest. In the evenings he morphed into a community leader; dressed in a traditional Bedouin outfit, he welcomed local visitors with hugs, handshakes and copious cups of mint tea. A chameleon that could change his colours in a flash, Sherif has spent his life adapting his approach to any problem which presents itself. Though he half wishes that he could slow down, he will clearly never give up. His told us with a strong sense of duty, “I can’t only be one thing”.

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 Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011