Turning palm leaves into wood: Opportunities for Egypt’s rural communities

April 27, 2016

In Egypt, palm trees are found in abundance and in various species. Farmers use them as shade on a hot summer day or harvest their sweet date fruits. Bedouin women weave handmade baskets, hats, and lamps using dried palm leaves. The potential uses of palm trees are endless. IDRC grantee and engineering professor at Ain Shams University, Hamed El-Mously, has taken it to another level, turning palm tree leaves into hardwood and high-quality wooden products, which could decrease Egypt’s importation of wood and open doors to job opportunities for rural communities.

Discovering Egypt’s hidden gem

It all started in the 1990s, when IDRC supported El-Mously to develop innovative technologies to transform midrib, the strong central spine in the middle of palm leaves, from a soft living material into hardened wooden strips. Research included testing different species of date palm, and developing eco-friendly techniques for solar drying and gluing together midribs to form wooden blocks.

El-Mously’s team developed a ground-breaking extraction technique that, unlike the traditional cutting, is free of noise and pollution, reduces energy consumption, and better protects the safety of the farmers and workers. Furthermore, research demonstrated that leftover material from date palm leaves, that is not used in wood production, could substitute for wheat flour in poultry feed.

According to El-Mously, palmwood properties were tested in a lab at Munich University in Germany to verify its suitability as a substitute for hardwood. “Results proved that palm wood is very competitive with standard wood. Egypt relies mostly on imported wood, which is very expensive. If we start using our local resources as a substitute, they might cover at least 50% of our needs,” he emphasized.

From green leaves to green products

More than two decades later, Hamed El-Mously continues his efforts to put the research findings into practice. By creating the Egyptian Society for the Endogenous Development of Local Communities (EGYCOM), he now works closely with artisans and farmers in some of the poorest villages across Egypt.

One of EGYCOM’s flagship projects is in the village of Al-Qayat in Menya Governorate, Egypt. Local residents are trained on how to turn palm fronds into wooden blocks that can be used to produce international-standard wooden tables, mirror frames, parquet flooring, and wall cladding. The project does not only aim to transfer this new technology and knowledge to the local community, but, more importantly, to create sustainable job opportunities that can help alleviate poverty the area. “We particularly focus on encouraging housewives to work from home by providing them with noise-free and environmentally friendly machines. Our goal in the coming phase is to reach at least 100 housewives in the village,” explains El-Mously.

Another remarkable example of EGYCOM's projects is in El Fayoum Governorate. Women of El Kaabi village produce green conference bags using palm trees. The bags can also serve as compost to fertilize the soil in any type of compost bin. Once used, the bag can be cut in small pieces and buried deep in the soil.

Local products going global

Showrooms, distribution to local shops, and special client orders are different ways to commercialize the locally produced palm products. El-Mously plans to explore international markets, seeing potential for exports in countries like Germany, Switzerland, and Japan.

Could Egypt’s experience in turning palm leaves into wood serve as a model for other Arab countries? Home to over 100 million palm trees, the Arab world holds great promise for El-Mously. His aspiration is to encourage more Arab countries to manufacture innovative products using the raw materials found in nature.

For more information, read the final report of the Date Palm Midrib Utilization Project.