Last year, in October 2014, I interviewed the co-founders of Up-fuse (previously known as Refuse) Rania Rafie and Yara Yassin for this blog in Egypt. The Cairo based start-up re-collects, co-creates and upcycles plastics bags together with the local community; people that want to be inclusive, socially and environmentally responsible like them. Each product they produce is unique and hand-made. They believe in a plastic-bag-free city, country, and eventually world. What I find most inspiring about them? They started a social enterprise with less than €20. And absolutely likable was their description “social entrepreneurs in construction” about themselves.

What is upcycling?

Upcycling is the process of converting waste materials into new products for better quality or, perhaps even more important, to reduce waste. Thanks to upcycling, old products and materials are given more value. Therefore, it is no surprise that upcycling is becoming more and more popular all over the world.

Jennifer Wang, a staff writer at Entrepreneur magazine in Southern California, explains the difference between recycling and upcycling like this: “When something is recycled (or “downcycled”), it’s broken down into something of lesser quality – a process that consumes energy. Upcycling adds value by transforming or reinventing an otherwise – disposable item into something of higher quality. It’s the ultimate in reuse and a whole new industry sector is shaping up around it.” (Upcycling Becomes a Treasure Trove for Green Business Ideas, from the April 2011 issue of Entrepreneur.

What motivated the founders to start an upcycling business in Cairo?

Rafie and Yassin both studied product design before launching Up-fuse. When they started, in October 2013, they had little knowledge of business skills, like marketing or accounting. Yet, this didn’t stop them to start their own social enterprise as they had (and still have) the passion and motivation to keep going.

The idea of Up-fuse (then Refuse) formed when both studied for six months in Germany. Together, they joined several workshops in Berlin; all tackling the issues of recycling and upycling. They started to compare how things are actually done in Egypt and how in Germany, and soon realised, that there isn’t much going on when it comes to upcycling and recycling in Cairo. For that matter, they decided to do something similar. But instead of “only” offering DIY workshops, they wanted to create real products to have a real (social) impact.

As any grassroot, they started small and with available resources; in this case their own plastic bags. Over time, other people volunteered and donated plastic bags for their initiative. By now, they have several collection points in Cairo and offer handbags, laptop covers, tote bags, cases in different sizes, backpacks, key-chains and necklaces.

The local NGO Nebny connected Up-fuse with Syrian Refugees, who work from home to convert the plastic bags into sheets for further processing. To finalise the backpacks, they use screen printing on cotton. They also collaborate with Pheel, who offer handmade product collections – the TOAST backpack for instance is a collaborative project. They mainly sell these products online (via Facebook or email order), however they also go to bazaars and they launched a collection in Studio Zafir in Zamalek, Cairo. Some of TOAST backpacks are also being sold online through the German online platform “Afri-ecodesigns“.

“It’s always surprising to work for something you really love and want, even if you are not going to sleep or eat well, or not having as much money as you used to have from work you don’t enjoy.”

Apart from designing and producing, Up-fuse also conducted vocational trainings for women to teach them how to upcycle and how to create bags in a professional way. Now, these women can create a handbag line called “tote bag” which will be shortly produced and sold to the market through fair-trade official stores in Cairo. This particular project was funded by Fair Trade Egypt.

What challenges did they face along the way?

Rafie and Yassin told me that in the beginning the bags were completely made of plastic, but people didn’t like it that much. They adapted and integrated Egyptian cotton and they tested mixing it with different materials. They also tried to get financial support, but nobody funded them. Today, they are grateful for that as they managed to start a business with as little as €20 and because they learned a lot along the way.

Overall, they told me that they had a tough start. People were skeptical and doubted that upcycling plastic bags would be hygienic. They also explained, that in the beginning they were more focused on design and what they aimed to do, however they were lacking of business skills like accounting and marketing. Another difficulty was to find the right people and organisations to work with. Not everyone had the same quality standards and others were afraid that the material would damage their sewing machine.

The good news, lots of people supported them along the way and provided feedback. They also said it was good to start this business as a team and not as a sole (social) entrepreneur.

“It’s the downs that will make you go up. It’s never the up up up.”

How do they see the Social Entrepreneurship scene in Egypt?

According to the two founders, there is a lack of infrastructure in Egypt. The startup scene is starting to grow, yet the challenge is how to sustain yourself. Networking events are happening and people in the scene know each other. However, a small community has it’s pros and cons, so Rafie and Yassin. There is a need to expand and to connect with a larger crowd. But because people are very diverse in Egypt, because of educational level and cultural influences, they aren’t really connected. There is a need to spread awareness about social entrepreneurship outside the existing community.

What tips do they have for aspiring (social) entrepreneurs?

  1. If you have an idea, it’s never too late to actually implement it.
  2. Decide to keep going, even though people don’t want to work for you.
  3. Don’t worry too much about earning money in the beginning. Just try to include people and take a lot of feedback from everyone – because that’s the most important thing.
  4. Know your resources and your market.
  5. Ideas don’t fail, you just need to know how to adjust it with society.

If you’d like to place an order you can contact them via email: order@up-fuse.com or order via Afri-ecodesigns. For more information about the startup and their products, visit their facebook page.