NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — In an inspiring display of ingenuity and creativity, the students behind the Chito Shrimp Initiative are capitalizing on recycled shrimp shells to increase revenue and employment in Egypt’s Shakshouk village. Environmental changes have exacerbated poverty in Egypt over the past few decades. Historically, hundreds of women in the Shakshouk village of Egypt derived their livelihoods from peeling shrimp. The work was grueling—women would sit out in the heat and peel prawns by hand for up to 16 hours a day—but it was a way to make ends meet. This, until severe water pollution, ravaged the local shrimping industry.
Poverty in Egypt: A Look at the Shakshouk Village
The Shakshouk village lies on the fringes of Lake Qaroun, which historically contributed 55% of Egypt’s shrimp production. By 2010, however, the repercussions of mismanaged sewage and the isopod parasite had decreased the lake’s productivity by 10%.
Acute water pollution put 4,000 fishermen and 1,400 farmers, who used the water for irrigation, out of work. The pressure families faced to earn living wages also led children to drop out of school in order to help their parents put food on the table, harming their chances of social mobility and job acquisition in the future.
The decline in shrimping not only had a direct impact on fishermen but pushed 800 village women—whose livelihoods were dependent on peeling shrimp—below the poverty line.
“Shelling by hand is not a gift!” shared Shakshouk villager Hadja Arifa, mother of four, in an interview with Al-Ahram Hebdo. “We prick our fingers and we start to have allergies. But what can we do? This is my only source of income.”
Fighting Poverty in Egypt with the Chito Shrimp Initiative
Aware of the pressing poverty in Egypt, and specifically in the Shakshouk village, a group of students from Al-Azhar Univerity put their heads together to develop an initiative that would alleviate some of the village’s financial strain: transforming shrimp peels into profitable products.
After assessing the village’s production capacity, the students determined that the 800 women peeling shrimp could peel around 8 tons of shrimp each day, leaving 4 tons of peel behind. Previously, this massive accumulation of peel was thrown back into Lake Qaroun Lake or fed to ducks; however, students saw an opportunity for money within these translucent exoskeletons. Their approach: use the shrimp peels to create spices and fertilizer to put on the market, bringing extra income to villagers.
The students coined their idea as the Chito Shrimp Initiative and entered the 2020 Enactus World Cup, an annual competition that brings student groups from over 33 countries together to promote entrepreneurship and social ingenuity. After winning the competition, they won the Ford Motor Company’s $50,000 “Better World” grant.
The Chito Shrimp Initiative in Action
The students quickly mobilized to actualize their vision after acquiring funding. They began testing recipes for shrimp-shell-based spices and soon secured the approval of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, according to El Watan News. After establishing a distribution deal with Kellog’s, the students taught the villagers how to make the spices.
Students also developed a shrimp-shell-based fertilizer with remarkably high nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous contents that increased crop productivity by 150% in the village. Due to the product’s success, students decided to put it on the market; Hand in Hand of Belgium committed to buying two tons of fertilizer annually, El Watan News reports.
The success of their first two products only motivated the students the expand their innovation. When COVID-19 hit, they invented a mask made out of shrimp shells that protected nearly 5,000 medical professionals. They also used the Chitosan in the shrimp shells to make household water filters for villagers—a crucial step forward in addressing the poverty in Egypt that the water pollution caused, according to the Harmonius Entrepreneurship Society.
The capital returns from all of the shrimp-shell products allowed the Initiative to establish 20 new shrimp farms and eight educational hubs to teach local fishermen about sustainable practices.
Looking at the Numbers: The Initiative’s Impact on Poverty in Egypt
In the first year of operation, the Chito Shrimp Initiative brought in $5.5 million of revenue to the Shakshouk village. The projected returns on the initial $50,000 investment for 2023 are $13 million, according to Al-Ahram Hebdo.
Further, according to Harmonius Entrepreneurship Society, the Initiative has recycled over 53 tons of shrimp shells and created 670 new jobs. It has also protected an estimated 1,300 children from child labor. Perhaps most importantly, it has resulted in a crucial boost in income for mothers across the village, El Watan News reports.
“We never believed this could happen. Today, I went from 70 to 500 LE per month for shelled prawns,” stated Oum Hamada, a Shakshouk villager.
In improving living conditions for villagers in Shakshouk, the Chito Shrimp Initiative has opened new avenues to tackle poverty in Egypt and beyond. A team of students has begun implementing the model in Mozambique, and they believe that The Chiro Shrimp Initiative is only at the beginning of its story.
– Elena Unger