When young people attack poverty

AYB-SD, microloan, old cairo Maryam El-Safty, Reham Hossein, Essmat Addel Haleen

Visiting houses is how trust is built up from l to r Maryam El-Safty, Reham Hossein, Essmat Addel Haleen and Chrisanthi Giotis


Essmat Addel Haleen is buzzing with news. Her son Wael has finished his latest year of school, passed with a “good grade” and has a summer job labouring for an electricity company.

Essmat’s words are being translated to me from Arabic to English but it’s not hard to recognise a mother’s pride. I can tell that several times she emphasises the fact that he not only passed but passed with a “good grade”. Essmat (who is more commonly known as Om Wael; mother of Wael) tells me this while sitting on the floor – the same floor she sleeps on.

Essmat lives in one of the poorest areas of Cairo, an illegal settlement in the heart of Old Cairo called Ain Sira, with a population of two million and a reputation for drug problems.

Wael is her youngest son. She has two older sons that she doesn’t like talking about because they got into a fight and injured someone. They cannot return home now for fear of being caught by the police. When the police came to look for them and found them already gone, they arrested Essmat’s husband instead.

“This is the way Egypt works,” says Essmat.

Wael too strayed from the straight and narrow path. He is 18 and still has two years of high school left, even though graduation age in Egypt is 16. He had dropped out of school for many years and only went back because he was forced to.

While her husband, and bread-winner, was in jail Essmat decided she wanted a very small loan (microloan) from a community organisation to start making and selling traditional Egyptian cheese called Bouri. One of the conditions of the loan was that her son returned to school.

And this is where the young woman sitting next to me comes into the story. Part loan officer, part vocational training officer and part community liaison officer, 25-year-old Reham Hossein has been working for Alashanek Ya Balady Association for Sustainable Development (AYB-SD) since 2007.

As we walk through the streets of Ain Sira it’s obvious that Reham is well known and well respected. It’s 11.30am and not many people are up and about – shying from the Egyptian summer heat, most people in Ain Sira stay up late into the night and sleep late into the day. Passing through the narrow dirt streets, where you will spot grazing ducks and burnt-out cars, most people we meet stop to talk to Reham.

This is partly due to her large smile and helpful personality. Visiting Essmat, Reham is asked to help with some bureaucratic paper work, the scourge of the poor who are not able to pay the bribes needed to smooth over bureaucratic obstacles. Reham readily agrees to help.

But Reham’s popularity is also due to her position at AYB-SD.  Since it began life in 2002 as an informal group of university student volunteers, AYB-SD has granted more than 1,200 loans to 500 people in Old Cairo. It also provides regular training to help people find jobs – with particular success in nannying and housekeeping; free tutoring for school age children; and, for people in its training programmes, small grants for exceptional expenses such as the beginning of the school year or funerals.

Cottage industries such as selling cheese to your neighbours won’t lift people out of poverty overnight. Asked how her life has changed since the loan, Essmat points to new acquisitions, a cupboard and a single bed, which her husband sleeps on. We climb a ladder to go upstairs to see her son’s room, which has a double bed. She proudly shows off the bright paint job in her spotless, tileless, bathroom which also acts as her kitchen.

A few streets away, after passing some other houses with brightly coloured doors  – a contrast which screams ‘not all is bad’ – we meet Salaha and her husband Saber Ibrahim. Salaha started out with a microloan from AYB-SD to sell recycled materials to factories.

She converted to a loan for a small kiosk when her husband got sick and she needed a profession where she could remain at home. The shop is tiny with few products but her husband, who is sitting on the ground in the street outside, offers us breadsticks. The income from her work has allowed her to meet the considerable expense of marrying two daughters in Egypt. For the bride’s parents this includes fully equipping the newlyweds home.

A few streets away again at the AYB-SD offices a sewing class is going on. This is free training. If they like it, and are good at it, the middle-aged female graduates of the course may then decide to take out a microloan to buy a sewing machine (the equivalent of two or three months’ salary) and start their own business.

Running the training is Hanaan Mahmut who has worked as a seamstress since she was 16 and now owns her own haberdashery store.

Essentially Hanaan is training women who will one day be her business competition but it seems that civic duty to her neighbours outweighs any concerns she may have. She emphasises that there is still good money to be made in haberdashery and sewing. Over and over again, she says that she wants the training to be expanded so the women can learn to “depend on themselves”.

AYB-SD’s loan forms include questions such as ‘have you taken a loan from an NGO before?’ and ‘are you saving money?’  The paperwork is important but Reham admits that what they look at is the personality of the applicant. This is gauged through the interview, through their work on training courses, through surprise visits to their home (the surprise element being important as it means there is no time to hide signs of ‘wealth’ like TVs), and through questioning the neighbours and friends of the person.

Judging by the warm reception Reham gets, I’m sure people would gossip to her but I wonder how this came to be. How the young staff of AYB-SD came to be trusted?

They look out of place, the women wear high heels, both sexes wear brand label clothing. We were driven to Old Cairo by the head of communications Maryam El-Safty in a car much nicer than any other parked in the area. We came from the AYB-SD headquarters in an upmarket suburb called Maadi, where the addresses are described as villa number X and where other NGOs are based – all of which are excited and fundraising madly for post-revolution Egypt.

Reham readily admits that she’d never set foot in a place like Ain Sira until she came for her job interview.

I’m told the neighbourhood trust comes as a result of time and the way AYB-SD started. Initially it was a group of university students volunteering their time to train and tutor people. There were no offices and they spent a lot of time simply visiting people in their houses. It also helped that initially they were only giving out grants and, even when they did move to loans, it was years before they started charging service-fees.

This is a model that AYB-SD still uses. It has franchises in nine universities and prides itself on the quality of its training materials. Once the preparatory work has been done by the university students AYB-SD may partner with an existing charity or NGO working in the area or expand its own operations.

As well as wondering what the locals make of them, I wonder what the AYB-SD employees make of the locals – and of the job, especially when they first walked into Ain Sira.

Reham studied computer sciences at university and the only reason she ever came to AYB-SD is because of her love of crafts – and a friend told her AYB-SD was recruiting.  

Her initial job was to teach women crafts and act as a quality control officer for the pieces they made, sold in high class stores under the label Zaytoona, an initiative that helps to fund AYB-SD’s work.

“After my first day I didn’t think I’d stay, even after my first week and month,” says Reham.

In fact two months into the job Reham’s mum found out about an opening at a good company in Reham’s field of computer sciences. The pay was better and it was a good, clean office job.

Reham got the job. She came home and started crying uncontrollably.

“I couldn’t tell you why I was crying,” says Reham. “I had no idea why.”

Whatever the reason Reham decided not to change jobs.

Sitting next to me my husband Steve, acting as photographer for the day, tells Reham “good choice”.

I’m sure Essmat and many others agree.

Flickr Photo Gallery





AYB-SD’s believes the quality of its training is the “heart” of the organisation. In a perfect scenario, which head of communications Maryam admits is not always the case, one parent would have a loan to start a business, the other would have been helped into employment through specialist training, and the children would be in school and part of the AYB-SD tutoring programme.

AYB-SD provides vocational skills courses – for example in crafts – and also sells some of the output from the crafts workshops to high end stores. It works together with companies to create training suited to a company’s recruitment needs. Graduates of the training, all from deprived neighbourhoods, are then given job interview opportunities. AYB-SD also provides loans for people to undertake specialist training courses provided by other organisations.



It provides microloans but people must first go through training. AYB-SD does market research to gauge demand for the business idea and then assists with the business plan. Successful applicants can then attend further training and business development courses to take on larger sums. It believes the small loan programme will help graduates out of poverty faster and provide more employment opportunities for others in the neighbourhood. To take out the largest loan of 350,000EGP, available for manufacturing enterprises, the applicant has to include “profit sharing for the poor” in their business model. AYB-SD has a 99 per cent repayment rate, which Maryam says is a result of the personal relationship built up with clients by AYB-SD’s young staff.



None of its employees are over 30 years old. Maryam says this gives the organisation a ‘competitive edge’. 250 volunteers for the tutoring and training programmes come from each of the nine AYB-SD university franchises. “Encouraging civic mindedness and volunteering in university students” is another goal of AYB-SD.




Its communications department runs regular health awareness campaigns, trading under the name Tefanin (this department also creates campaign materials for other NGOs which acts as a valuable revenue source for AYB-SD). It also runs a fair wage campaign, agitating for 1,000EGP per month.




People helped in 2010: 3,000 directly through jobs or loans, 15,000 when the whole family is included

Turnover 2010: 6m EGP

Staff 2010: 43

Reach 2010: Nine Egyptian governates with three NGO partners