The win-win revolution of turning discarded palm ribs into modern furniture
LONDON - Interior and product designer Hedayat Islam and architect Mohamed Saeed have teamed to recycle compressed palm ribs, traditionally burned as waste in rural Egyptian communities, by producing contemporary furniture.
During a presentation at the Egyptian Bureau for Cultural and Educational Affairs at London Craft Week in May, they said 15 million palm trees in Egypt and 115 million in the Arab world were pruned annually, producing stacks of palm ribs that cause severe air pollution when burned.
However, they said, the right investment and management of the ribs could herald a revolution in the production of furniture and other palm wood products.
Islam and Saeed displayed tables and chairs made from palm wood. Other products, such as frames, flooring, tray tables, garden furniture and small accessories, including telephone holders, tableware and boxes, were shown on screen.
Saeed pointed out that it is possible to furnish a whole apartment with palm wood.
Turning palm tree leaves into hardwood and high-quality products that could reduce Egypt wood imports and create jobs in rural communities was pioneered by Hamed el-Mously, an engineering professor at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
Egypt has an estimated 200,000 workshops and factories producing furniture and they could make use of palm wood.
“Hamed has been working on this for 20 years,” Islam said. “Saeed and I met him several times for brainstorming sessions. What he is doing has never been more relevant. We are all very alarmed about global warming.”
The burning of thousands of palm ribs produces a very high carbon footprint.
Canada’s International Development Research Centre supported Mously in developing technologies to transform the midrib, the strong central spine in the middle of the palm leaves, from a soft living material into hardened wooded strips. The research included testing different species of date palm and developing eco-friendly techniques for solar drying and gluing together midribs to form wooden blocks.
A quality assessment of palm wood boards by the Fritz Troger Institute for Wood Research in Munich said the date palm midrib is significantly tougher and more durable than many other types of wood.
Mously, whose team developed a pollution-free cutting machine that reduces energy consumption, has set up the Egyptian Society for the Endogenous Development of Local Communities (EGYCOM) and works with artisans and farmers in some of Egypt’s poorest villages.
The flagship project is a small factory, which employs 50 people in Al Qayat in Minya governorate. Employees have been trained to turn palm fronds into blocks that can be used to produce tables, mirror frames, parquet flooring and wall cladding.
Mostafa Abdullah, an employee at the factory, said in a video: “We started with the production of coasters and wooden plates and then we went on to produce tables and chairs. We are trying to educate people that palm leaves can be used as an alternative to wood to create contemporary products. Many people in the village are no longer working in agriculture and they have now learned a new skill.”
Asmaa Kamel, who also works in the factory, said: “We gained self-confidence and made new friends. This project helped the young women in the village to find a competitive job.”
Abdullah said he wants Al Qayat to be the leading village in Upper Egypt in the “palm wood” business and to compete in the European market. He said he hopes Al Qayat’s success can be replicated in other villages.
EGYCOM has assisted women in El Kaabi in Fayoum governorate to produce green conference bags using palm leaves. The bags can also be used as compost fertiliser. Once disposed of, the bag can be cut into small pieces and buried.
Mously said he hopes palm wood products are distributed to local shops and showrooms in Cairo. He said he plans to explore international markets and assess the potential for exports.
Despite a strong supply of raw material, Saeed emphasised the palm wood products initiative is at a very early stage and faces major challenges.
“It is an initiative with very little funding. There is no major investment because investors are looking at ventures that will bring a quick return. It is labour-intensive and production costs are high so, at the moment, it is a niche product coming from a niche material.”
Islam said she is looking for people interested in working with palm ribs and developing their own product line and hopes the Arab Gulf could invest in large-scale production of palm wood products.