A program supported by Shell since 2018 is helping renovate community schools and deliver food supplies to vulnerable communities in the north of Egypt, providing crucial support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On most mornings Mahmoud sets off from his house in El Negaila on the edge of Egypt’s vast Western Desert and catches a lift to one of several nearby building sites, aiming for casual labor for the day.

Since COVID-19 struck in March 2020, regular work has been difficult to come by. And more often than not, it has been challenging for Mahmoud to have a sustainable means to support his wife and nine children.

“The pandemic has made life much more difficult. I used to work around three days a week but since the virus came, it is tough to work even a single day,” he says.

In 2018, the UN World Food Program (WFP), in partnership with Shell Egypt, launched a project to refurbish community schools and provide food assistance for hundreds of Bedouin families surrounding El Negaila.

Eligible families receive 180 Egyptian pounds if any of their children attend the community school. With COVID-19 further eroding jobs and income, the project has become vital.

Under its original agreement, Shell’s support for it was due to end in June 2020 but as the scale of COVID-19 emerged, the company saw the growing needs of vulnerable families and extended support for the scheme until the end of 2021.

Community centers

Four of Mahmoud’s children now attend school, providing a food credit of 720 Egyptian pounds a month.

“This help has changed our lives. I can now buy the food we need and save up for other necessities such as a small fridge,” he says. “Each month we eagerly await the text message which says the credit is available.”

As part of the project, WFP and Shell set out to improve local education by renovating 17 schools and providing equipment and resources. Attendance has reached 90% and more girls are receiving education.

The schools double up as community centers, hosting public-awareness events for local government officials who visit communities to deliver agriculture and health information. Shell together with the WFP also saw an opportunity to use the schools to provide entrepreneurship training for women. So far more than 750 have joined sessions in micro-project finance, networking and marketing, with many going on to launch businesses.

One of them is Halima, who started a business breeding pigeons. Mother to four boys and a girl, she sold her jewelry to pay for a traditional dovecote, or pigeon tower.

After several months she had bred a large number of pigeons and found customers using the networking skills learned from the training. She kept some pigeons for her family to eat, selling the rest for 50 Egyptian pounds a pair..

“I started earning some money and could provide food and clothes for my children,” says Halima. “And it also gave me financial independence.”

The training gave her accounting skills and she learned how to manage business finances separately from family finances, ensuring money was set aside to invest and expand.

Care during COVID-19

The people these projects help live in the north Matruh concession area, close to Shell Egypt exploration operations. Shell looks to invest in communities in locations where it works, especially where social needs are considerable.

The company decided to join a partnership with WFP given its success in earlier programs in Matruh governorate, which date back to 1968.

“We have built up trust with the local government and communities in this area,” says Doaa Arafa, WFP Egypt’s Program Policy Officer. “And community leaders have seen the positive impacts of this project.”