Rural pathways out of poverty

The Sawiris Foundation for Social Development's farming program to boost family income in rural Egypt.

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At a glance

Poverty is widespread in the rural farming communities of Upper Egypt. To boost family incomes, the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development partnered with a promising new program. The approach: adopt agricultural best practices from other geographies, based on community needs, and scale them in Upper Egypt.

Key learnings

Partner with others. Identify and collaborate with the right implementation partners

Engage the community. Deeply understand community needs and the best approaches to address them

Learn and evolve. Invest in monitoring, learning, and advocacy.

Apply all assets. Use expertise, networks, and reputation, alongside philanthropic capital


The Sawiris Foundation for Social Development has long focused on helping marginalized people throughout Egypt build dignified, productive lives. With its founding family originally from Upper Egypt, and its many years of engaging in philanthropy there, the foundation understands all too well that improving livelihoods in the region is uniquely challenging.

More than half of Upper Egypt’s population lives on less than $1 per day. Farming is the primary source of livelihood, yet it rarely generates sufficient income for families — or even enough food. Nearly 40 percent of the people in Upper Egypt’s rural communities lack access to enough food to stay healthy.

"Agriculture is a very significant economic sector in Upper Egypt, and we see it as a huge opportunity to make a difference in poverty and food security," says Noura Selim, the foundation’s executive director. "It links to the core of what we do — economic empowerment."

The foundation knows the path to progress will have to navigate myriad challenges. The region's farmers are often unaware of higher-productivity farming practices, or cannot afford the capital purchases required to adopt them. They have limited access to markets for selling their crops, and have few opportunities for off-farm work to supplement their farming income, given the region’s difficult labor market.

Historically, many of the region’s initiatives to alleviate rural poverty, such as universal food subsidies, have fallen short — often because they were too top-down and did not sufficiently address this constellation of needs and constraints. In 2012, when the foundation learned of a compelling new program that would introduce an array of agriculture solutions based on a deep understanding of the communities’ needs, it seized the opportunity.

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Farming is the primary source of livelihood, yet it rarely generates sufficient income for families — or even enough food. Photo: Getty Images.

How it started

The program, called the Sustainable Agricultural Development Program (SADP), was part of the newly launched Egypt Network for Integrated Development (ENID). ENID is a multi-stakeholder partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other local and international donors — under the umbrella of the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation — which aims to reduce poverty in Upper Egypt. SADP’s goals were to create income-generating opportunities and improve food security for people in the rural communities of Upper Egypt.

When the ENID team approached the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development about partnering, SADP stood out to the foundation for its bold approach: identifying innovative agricultural and off-farm practices in other geographies; adapting and piloting the practices in Upper Egypt (informed by a strong understanding of local community needs and network of experts); prioritizing rigorous measurement and evaluation to identify the most effective practices; and scaling those practices broadly, using local partnerships and evidence-based advocacy.

"SADP is largely a learning initiative, with various well-designed pilots and continuous publication of results," explains the foundation’s executive director, Selim. "That was one of the reasons we wanted to be involved with SADP from the beginning."

In 2012, the foundation committed $1.3m to phase I of SADP’s work and was its primary donor. In addition to capital, the foundation brought its expertise in economic empowerment and agriculture to the program.

"Our relationship with the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development is truly a strategic partnership," says SADP director and initiator Dr Dyaa Abdou. "They have been involved every step of the way."

Phase I focused on Qena, one of the poorest governorates in Upper Egypt. There, SADP piloted six agricultural practices, from milk processing to farmer field schools. Across 25 villages, SADP trained over 3,000 individuals — surpassing its pilot participation targets — and created 900 job opportunities in sustainable agriculture.

NGOs and government entities are now adopting some of the successful phase I practices, including integrated fish farms and agricultural waste recycling, across Upper Egypt. Building on these strong results, the foundation has committed an additional $1.5m to support SADP's work through 2021, with a focus on deepening its efforts in Qena and piloting new practices.

An NGO partnership: raising goats to generate income

In the village of Al Bahari Qamoula, 70 percent of people live below the poverty line. The local Development and Environment Association partnered with SADP in a phase II pilot project for raising a highly productive "Shami" breed of goats, introduced in Upper Egypt for the first time.

SADP and the NGO teamed up to recruit 10 women for the pilot, providing each of them with three pregnant goats and training them in animal-rearing practices, as well as in veterinary and extension services. The goal: to empower women to raise their family income.

Although still in its early stages, the program is already seeing results. The goats are producing three to five kilograms of milk daily. Sold at a price of $0.5 per kilogram, the milk is significantly increasing family income. Two of the newborn goats from each family are donated to other poor families, with the help of SADP and the local association, thereby extending the program’s reach.

The Development and Environment Association is eager to continue partnering with SADP. "We are ready to do more projects," says Haleema Orabi, a facilitator from the local association. "There are so many more families that we can help together through this and other programs."

How the initiative works

SADP, in close partnership with the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, uses a four-step approach to address poverty, unemployment, and hunger in Upper Egypt. 

1. Understand community needs in Upper Egypt. Working with experts in different fields from research centers and universities across Egypt, SADP visits villages in its target Upper Egypt communities, to investigate primary crops and yields, farming practices, environmental factors (such as climate and topography), and water and resource accessibility.

They survey residents, who help identify the most critical gaps in the area’s agriculture. They also meet with local Community Development Associations to learn which types of agricultural practices and income-generating activities would be most relevant.

Through this process, the team learns which parts of the crop-specific agricultural "value chains" — which span from inputs (including seed and fertilizer), to production and harvesting, to marketing and distribution — require the most work. The foundation supports SADP in conducting the needs assessment, sharing experiences and lessons from its other programs in Upper Egypt, and providing technical expertise on economic empowerment and agriculture.

2. Identify best practices that fit the community’s context. SADP looks for successful practices that match the needs of its target Upper Egypt communities. It gathers secondary information from its network of experts and taps its collective knowledge of effective agricultural methods used elsewhere in the world. Together with the foundation, the group looks for innovative practices related not only to core farm functions but also to off-farm activities, such as beekeeping. They prioritize approaches that help create integrated value chains — for example, by linking farmers to markets.

They also search across geographies with similar characteristics to Upper Egypt (such as primary crops and environments), which has taken them to other regions in Egypt and further afield to India and Bangladesh.

3. Pilot practices in Upper Egypt and evaluate their effectiveness. SADP and its network of experts customize the promising practices from other geographies to the local context in Upper Egypt. They start small — piloting each new approach, conducting feasibility studies, and adjusting practices as needed.

SADP runs some pilots on its own and enlists NGO and government partners in others. The objective is to determine if the practices are successful and replicable before scaling them across Egypt. Thus, SADP invests heavily in pilot measurement and evaluation. It establishes clear objectives with detailed milestones (such as the number of individuals trained and jobs created) and prepares quarterly progress reports that document achievements, lessons learned, and future plans.

The foundation monitors SADP's progress, meets regularly with SADP's leadership, conducts field visits to understand pilot development, and supports evaluation efforts.

4. Scale effective practices through partnerships, advocacy, and knowledge sharing. SADP's goal is to identify the most effective practices across its various pilots and engage with local partners to implement them across Egypt. "SADP is not about delivering services directly ourselves," says Abdou. "It’s about building the right model, which can be taken on by others."

SADP selects local NGOs with goals and capabilities that align with its own, such as empowering women, supporting their livelihoods, and engaging the community. It then trains these NGOs, and in some cases the local government, on how to implement and evaluate a given practice. Where the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development has relevant networks, it helps foster these connections.

These partnerships are mutually beneficial. The NGOs and local government share their deep knowledge of the local villages’ agricultural resources and challenges. SADP provides its local partners with technical assistance and capacity-building support.

"When we first started working in Upper Egypt, none of the farmers knew what agricultural recycling was, and farmers used to burn their waste," says Nahed Yousry, social empowerment director at the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development. "Now, we have brought our agricultural recycling program to 10 to 12 villages in Qena governorate."

Beyond direct local partnerships, SADP actively shares what it learns about effective practices, so other organizations can adopt and scale these approaches. It engages in evidence-based advocacy efforts, publishing policy briefs and case studies, and hosting and participating in conferences to influence the efforts of government and other NGOs. The foundation is heavily engaged in these efforts.

"We work to help spread the learning, pilot the project in different settings, and enlist others to take on these impactful interventions in agriculture," says the foundation’s executive director, Selim.


1. Understand community needs in Upper Egypt During SADP's phase I needs assessment in Qena, the high cost of fertilizer surfaced as a major challenge for farmers. Many farmers did not use fertilizer, reducing their yields, or they paid high prices, reducing income. At the same time, many farmers burned agricultural waste (the leftovers from their harvests), which was damaging to the soil and air.

2. Identify best practices that fit the community context SADP identified an innovative and relevant practice used in different locations globally: farmers sell their agricultural waste to be recycled or recycle it themselves. The process produces ready-to-use, low-cost compost (which can be used in place of fertilizer) and animal feed, which reduces farmer expenses and minimizes the amount of waste for burning.

3. Pilot practices in Upper Egypt and evaluate their effectiveness. When piloting the recycling program in Qena, SADP first educated farmers, as few were familiar with the process and its benefits for income generation. Through phase I, SADP trained over 1,700 farmers and government staff in the agricultural sector on how to collect, sell, and compost waste — leading to significant recycling activity.

4. Scale effective practices through partnerships, advocacy, and knowledge sharing. SADP engaged the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation (MALR) from the start, and shared its results. MALR has incorporated a recycling component in its agricultural extension services, ensuring more farmers have access to this income-generating opportunity. SADP also organized field visits to these pilot sites as part of its annual conferences.

FFS Practical Session Sesame Harvest

Progress and results

At time of writing, SADP had surpassed its phase I pilot targets. As mentioned earlier, SADP and its partners trained over 3,000 people across 25 Qena villages on different agricultural practices — well above its target of 890.

SADP also created 900 job opportunities in sustainable agriculture through these pilots, almost double its target of 470. Nearly half of the jobs were created for women, who traditionally have not been able to work outside of their homes.

"Once these women have an opportunity to work, they can contribute to making money for their families and also feel more empowered as individuals," says Ali Maher, SADP’s field coordinator in ENID's Qena office.

While SADP saw encouraging results across each of its six pilot projects in phase I, the organization believes the agricultural waste recycling program, integrated fish farms, and farmer field schools are its most successful efforts. Those three projects realized their participation targets and improved livelihoods, leading the government and other NGOs to replicate their approach and thereby scale their reach. 

SADP’s efforts have also started to influence the government more broadly. "After our last conference, we heard from many governorates from across Egypt that are interested in taking up our projects," says Dr. Waleed Brekaa, regional manager of ENID’s Qena office. "They were most impressed by the strong body of evidence we collected during phase I."

By working closely with government, SADP is embedding its practices in existing systems and contributing to long-term change.



Integrated fish farms

Using an approach imported from the Nile Delta region, SADP established two integrated fish farms in Qena’s Al Ghab and Sheikh Essa villages.

  • Pilot participation: As of December 2016, SADP and its partners trained 102 people in the approach, helping to bring more food to Qena families at a lower cost.
  • Uptake: The local Qena government and an NGO have fully implemented integrated fish farms.

Farmer field schools

SADP held 27 farmer field school sessions, adopting this group-based approach, which focuses on interactive learning experiences and learning-by-doing field exercises.

  • Pilot participation: The schools trained 426 farmers and agricultural extension officers to grow and market crops (including fennel, sesame, and lima beans) that best advance farm productivity and income.
  • Uptake: Qena’s government has taken up the approach, with the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation implementing schools based on this model (starting with eight schools in 2015).

Looking ahead

Not all the phase I pilots have performed as compellingly, though. For example, the roof gardening project, while successful in urban areas, did not show strong results in rural settings. Families in rural areas saw less of a need for the roof garden, given that their larger plots of land allowed them to farm much of their own food.

"The roof gardening at the village level did not work very well," concedes Abdou. "We tried very hard, and while we have seen some results, we still have work to do."

Based on these initial pilot learnings, SADP is starting to shift to growing Azolla algae on the rooftop gardens, as the crop is in demand for animal feed.

The varied results underscore the merit of SADP's disciplined approach—investing heavily at the pilot stage in gauging a practice’s potential in the region, before deciding whether and how to scale.

Progress in SADP's phase I efforts, more generally, was often hard-won. The team had to navigate the many rules and regulations that govern Egypt’s agricultural sector. One roadblock: it took longer than expected to acquire commercial licenses to process and produce milk.

Finding the right partner NGOs was also challenging. Some partnerships did not succeed, and SADP had to invest in developing a more extensive questionnaire to identify NGOs that aligned with SADP's objectives (notably, community engagement and women’s empowerment) and had the right capabilities to conduct the work (including reporting and financial accounting systems). SADP is using these learnings to inform its subsequent efforts.

Financial sustainability has also been an ongoing concern for SADP and the other ENID programs. To enhance its funding sources for all its programs, ENID created the El Nidaa Foundation in 2016. El Nidaa raises funds from a range of donors, including the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, Coca-Cola, and local Egyptian philanthropies. The goal is for El Nidaa to continue supporting ENID’s investments, even after UNDP and other foreign donors end their funding.

In 2017, the foundation committed $800,000 for phase II, which will extend through 2021. "The second phase aims at ensuring the sustainability and scalability of the successful practices, with an intention to cover further stages of the value chain," says SADP's Abdou.

With this support, SADP expects to pilot eight practices in phase II that train at least another 1,400 people and provide employment to 1,000 job seekers. These pilots range from helping to boost beekeeping and honey production, to training rural women on effective goat-raising practices.

In November 2018, the Foundation also agreed to invest $730,000 through El Nidaa Foundation to support a significant Qena-based SADP project focused on sericulture — silkworm rearing and natural silk production. The project runs through 2021 and focuses on the entire sericulture value chain, including the cultivation of mulberry trees (whose leaves are a vital food source for silkworms), silkworm rearing, and silk reeling and weaving.

The project aims to provide 1,500 training opportunities and 835 jobs (targeting 37 percent women) in Qena. SADP believes the project has a high potential for increasing export earnings.

The foundation and SADP are already thinking about partnering beyond 2021, to further identify potential practices and continue expanding partnerships with NGOs and local government agencies in Upper Egypt.

Integrated Fish Farm 1 Qena District

Fish farms are helping people in rural Egypt boost their incomes. Photo: Getty Images.

Key learnings for philanthropists

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Engage the community

Deeply understand community needs and the best approaches to address them

With the foundation's financial and strategic support, SADP invests significant time conducting needs assessments in the communities of Upper Egypt, including baseline surveys, data collection, and extensive workshops with local Community Development Associations. Once it understands the local needs and challenges from the ground up, SADP engages in expert consultations and field visits to identify agricultural interventions (in Egypt or globally) that stand the best chance of empowering communities, enhancing livelihoods, and improving food security.

In particular, the team seeks innovative practices that will bolster agricultural value chains, such as by strengthening linkages between farmers and markets.

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Partner with others

Identify and collaborate with the right implementation partners

SADP strives to sustain and scale effective agricultural practices by working with local partners — a key motivation for the foundation's investment. SADP has selection processes and tools (such as an extensive questionnaire) to ensure that the partners' goals and capabilities align with its own. SADP then includes these local partners — NGOs as well as government — in the project design stage and trains them in the process. This helps develop buy-in and align priorities from the start, while ensuring partners can ultimately implement the practices independently.

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Learn and evolve

Invest in monitoring, learning, and advocacy

SADP has a robust measurement and evaluation process for defining key metrics, tracking progress, and testing each pilot intervention's impact and scalability. The foundation strengthens these efforts by sharing its own team's expertise in agriculture and engaging closely with SADP’s monitoring processes. SADP widely shares what it learns in the field, to advocate for other actors to scale effective practices.

As of 2016, SADP has published three policy briefs and five case studies that showcase insights from its work. It has also helped government stakeholders adopt successful practices, including farmer field schools and agricultural waste recycling. SADP and the foundation believe such evidence-based advocacy can inform NGO and government uptake of projects and policy decisions more broadly.

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Apply all assets

Use expertise, networks, and reputation, alongside philanthropic capital

The foundation leverages its knowledge and experience in Upper Egypt to advance SADP's efforts. The foundation’s expertise in economic empowerment, agriculture, and impact measurement help SADP select, design, monitor, and share lessons from the pilots.

The foundation also uses its local networks to facilitate government connections and spread learnings more broadly, and its reputation raises SADP's profile and credibility. "The Sawiris Foundation’s name carries a lot of weight in Egypt and adds legitimacy to our work in the eyes of other funders and the government," says SADP’s Abdou.

This content was first published in 2020 by Project Inspired, a collection of video interviews and case studies drawn from conversations with some of the Arab region’s leading philanthropists and foundations. Project Inspired is supported by the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and produced by knowledge partners The Bridgespan Group and Philanthropy Age.