As part of confronting the accumulation of organic waste and its environmentally polluting effects in Baghdad, Marwa Al-Naimi established Green Gold to recycle organic waste into organic agricultural products.
The capital Baghdad is currently burying approximately 10,000 tons of waste per day near residential neighborhoods, making it the governorate in Iraq with the highest rates of pollution, after its population in 2022 approached more than 9 million people living in an area of 4,555 square kilometers km2, and the population density there is 1,977 people per square kilometer.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics affiliated with the Ministry of Planning, Baghdad is the smallest governorate in Iraq in terms of area, despite the huge increase in its population.
Marwa is a manufacturing process engineer and the founder of the Green Gold Project, which recycles organic waste into organic agricultural products, and is the sustainability ambassador for the Baghdad Center for Renewable Energy.
As the practical representative for the environment sector in the Arab Union for Specialized Women, and the first woman to establish an organic waste recycling project in Iraq, she says the idea of the project was launched after she noticed a large amount of food waste in restaurants and houses make 70% of the waste.
“This percentage poses a major threat to the environment.”
Food waste in restaurants and houses make 70% of the waste
In 2019, Marwa began to study how to dispose of organic waste and convert it into agricultural products in Malaysia, and “I decided to transfer the Malaysian experience by using the GG balls for agriculture produced by the project.”
GG balls are small balls of fertilizer containing seedlings of various trees and plants.
The accumulation of waste is a challenge for society since it is packed into black plastic bags thrown into waste dumps and then turned into black clouds as a result of being burnt by those rummaging waste for food and secondhand items to use or sell.
“This constitutes a burden on the environment due to the gases that are released through the burning or decomposition process.”
Iraq is one of the countries most exposed to the risk of pollution due to huge quantities of waste. The opportunity to recycle is unfortunately not taken seriously.
Iraq ranks second among the most polluted countries in the world, while the capital, Baghdad, ranked 13th among the most polluted cities in 2022, according to an annual global survey conducted by a Swiss company that manufactures air purifiers.
Marwa explains how she developed her startup
Curse Turned into a Blessing
“My dream is to plant one million trees per hour, and the positive, upbeat, loving spirit and certainty of success are the factors that achieve victory, progress, and happiness, and overcomes obstacles.”
With these words, Marwa began her day with certainty, hope, and optimism, which she spreads daily with wisdom and kindness among male and female workers with the beginning of the mild weather of early September, where the breeze adds freshness and humid smell of the air.
The Green Gold Project was established in an area of only 0.3 hectares in the Doura area, south of Baghdad. It is a farm and factory for the production of organic fertilizers and GG balls. The number of workers in the factory and farm is 11 workers, flexibly increased during the growing season.
The Green Gold Project was established in 2019 with a budget of only two million Iraqi dinars IQD (USD1,600), yet shortly achieved such a success that went viral in local media. After making progress, the Station Foundation for Entrepreneurship, one of Iraq’s leading co-working spaces and Baghdad’s first, has become the first partner and supporter of the project.
Marwa says that other initiatives were launched along her project, including “Friends of the Planet,” in cooperation with the Montessori Club for Interactive Education, which is an initiative for interactive environmental education intended for children ages10-13 in more than one school to create a generation that is aware of the importance of preserving the environment, “through which we held workshops and festivals to increase environmental awareness among individuals and institutions.”
The first goal of establishing the project is to preserve the environment by reducing organic waste and converting it into agricultural products and secondly, to support the agricultural sector and produce eco-friendly agricultural products that compete with imported products in terms of quality and cost.
Support the agricultural sector and produce eco-friendly agricultural products
The third goal is to create job opportunities for women who have no skills other than agriculture, displaced from the south to Baghdad as a result of the drying of the marshes, a vivid example of climate change in Iraq.
The waste removed in 2019 amounted to about 10.6 million tons, an average of 1.5 kilograms per person per day, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. It reached 12 million tons per day of waste in 2020, and statistics for the year 2023 indicate that Iraq has begun to produce about 20,000 a day, at a rate of 2 kg/person, which shows an increase in the daily rate of individual waste.
Worldwide, waste generated per person per day averages 0.74 kilogram but ranges widely, from 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms, according to the World Bank.
The Director of the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation of Industrial and Service Activities at the Ministry of Environment, Jalil Hussein Salman, said, “The process of burning waste close to residential areas entails great risks due to the emission of dioxins and purines, which are cancer-causing substances.”
Regarding the emission of gases and particulates, its inhalation might cause respiratory diseases, asthma, and allergies, in addition to the environmental effects of deteriorating ambient air quality.
The process of irregular dumping of waste turns dumping sites into fertile hotspots for the proliferation of germs, bacteria, viruses, infectious agents, and the spread of unpleasant odors, in addition to the possibility of waste rummaging by garbage collectors and consequently contracting various diseases or being exposed to dangers due to sharp waste thrown away with municipal waste.
“The importance of encouraging waste investment projects can be clearly demonstrated through its positive repercussions, as large amounts of waste are disposed of daily, and the volume of organic waste is estimated at between 60-70% of the volume of total municipal solid waste,” Salman believes.
“Recycling organic waste contributes to avoiding the dangers that this waste can cause if it is not handled safely. On the other hand, this waste is converted into useful natural organic fertilizer for the soil and the economic return it represents by reducing the costs of producing or importing these fertilizers,” he added.
Marwa witnessed successive wars in Iraq during which destructive weapons were used, and the devastating effects they had on the environment. The events of 2003 left environmental effects that lasted for two decades, during which water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers declined from 22 billion cubic meters m3 to 9.5 billion m3, according to statistics from the Ministry of Water Resources.
Marwa does not admit to despair, and with her awareness, she strengthens herself against all difficulties and hopes to bring about even a slight change.
“The cultivated areas in Baghdad have decreased due to successive wars and the bulldozing of orchards, but the population expansion is continuing with a significant increase in the percentage of waste,” she explains.
The cultivated areas in Baghdad have decreased due to successive wars and the bulldozing of orchards
“These combined reasons prompted me to confront Baghdad’s waste with all my strength and to constantly strive to reforest Baghdad.”
Marwa’s eco-friendly Green Gold signed a contract with Ecolife, an environment-focused start-up in Iraq, and has established another partnership with the Innovation Foundation for Sustainable Development and the Awda Initiative for Empowerment and Development, which cares for children and teaches them on the importance of environmental awareness.
Raad Kurdi, Director of the Sama Innovation Foundation for Sustainable Development, hails Marwa’s project, saying, “Promoting women’s entrepreneurship in environmental entrepreneurship has gained momentum over the last decade, and our organization always supports projects that give women financial independence and empower them economically by increasing their own capabilities and taking advantage of the opportunities that are available.”
“To enhance sustainable development, it is necessary to increase activities and projects that help generate income for women and compete in the labor market,” he adds.
In statistics published in July 2022 by the International Labor Organization ILO, there are about 13 million women of working age in Iraq, yet there are only one million women working, Kurdi explains.
The survey also indicates that the rate of female participation in the labor force was low. In particular, it reached 11% compared to 68% for males.
“The lack of government support plays a major role in the absence of women, especially in the field of organic waste recycling and entrepreneurial businesses that benefit society on the one hand and the environment on the other.”
The Green Gold Project was able to cover a large number of organic farms, all satisfied with the local eco-friendly fertilizers.
Shanal, from one of the small farms that use GG organic fertilizer to produce organic vegetables in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), says, “organic agricultural products differ from chemical ones in terms of taste and smell, and the organic farming experience has succeeded thanks to compost fertilizer from the green gold project.”
Fatima Muhammad, another beneficiary of the Green Gold Project in Baghdad, says, “I have always been keen to buy organic GG balls and plant them in the outdoor garden of the house. I shared the experience to neighbors in the Palestine Street area, and the initiative was successful in increasing the afforestation that adds beauty to the street.”
I have always been keen to buy organic GG balls and plant them in the outdoor garden of the house
The distribution of Green Gold products expanded from Baghdad to most of the Iraqi governorates including IKR. After the success of the project, Marwa hopes, as a second step, to open other branches of the plant in all governorates to become the first organic waste recycling project covering Iraq.
Anas Al-Taie, Vice President of the “Muthabaroon Al-Khair” Foundation for Environment and Development, believes that “despite the difficulty of women’s work in the field of collecting and recycling organic waste, women’s work in the field of environmental protection is of great importance in terms of granting them financial independence first and their keenness to preserve the environment.”
“Although women cause much less damage to the environment compared to men, they contribute more to confronting climate change and defending environmental rights, as scientists and researchers have found that women give priority to the issue of climate change and have a tendency to join movements defending the environment more than men,” Al-Taie added.
The Green Gold Project has achieved success and international presence, and it is one of the projects that qualified for the local competition stage of the World Entrepreneurship Cup. The project also represented Iraq in the Netherlands, Amsterdam in 2022, and it is the only entrepreneurial project featured from Iraq. The project also won the Entrepreneurial Business Award EBA Award for Iraqi Entrepreneurship.
Green Gold Goes Viral
The products of the Green Gold increased from one product to three products: peat moss, organic GG balls, and vermicompost, which is an organic fertilizer made from the remains and droppings of worms. Also, productivity has increased since the establishment of the project until now, from 100 bags to 3,000 bags per month. The project left its mark on all segments of society and in more than one field.
Dr. Zahraa Raad, Director of the Montessori Club, pointed out the importance of cooperation with the Green Gold Project through the “Friends of the Planet” campaign, explaining that it was circulated to 13 private and government schools through the establishment of interactive environmental workshops.
“The number of children benefiting from the campaign has reached 500 children. This is by teaching them about the importance agriculture, and initiating the planting of 750 trees.”
From the point of view of Abdul Rahman Abdul Karim, Director of the Eco Life Foundation, a wide segment has benefited from the partnership with Green Gold by providing solutions to small and medium size companies regarding environmentally friendly packaging methods, providing innovative products free of plastic materials, and producing alternative products such as glass water bottles and eco-friendly shopping bags and juice bars made from canes of the southern marshes.
Marwa has excelled in the field of the green industry
“Marwa has excelled in the field of the green industry. Despite all the obstacles she faced, she was able to achieve the greatest benefit to the local and international community and prove her existence as an inspiring role model for environmental entrepreneurship.”
Success Overcomes Obstacles
There are many obstacles facing small and medium business owners in Iraq, and the nature of the obstacles they are exposed to are interconnected with each other, which prevented these projects from performing the role required, starting from the period of thinking about the project, startup and ending with the production and marketing aspects, in addition to issues related to the legal aspects, structural aspects, etc.
The Green Gold Project did not receive any support from the state, and Marwa has faced several obstacles since its establishment, including the high prices of agricultural land. Therefore, the project was established on rented land.
In the case of purchasing the land, the project cannot be financed with labor and raw materials, and there is no cooperation with the municipality which is in charge of garbage collection because it only deals with projects that have a large land area and are privately owned.
The greatest difficulties are women’s work in the field of collecting organic waste and searching in waste dumps, where the work requires more physical effort. Marwa was subject to a lot of bullying and mockery at first, but she has overcome all the difficulties and proven her success.
Other difficulties include the frequent electricity outage and the use of private generators that do not meet the need, due to their frequent malfunctions and excessive expenses. Most areas of Baghdad suffer from electricity outages in the summer.
National power supply does not exceed 6 hours per day in the scorching summers, and also the lack of cooperation of restaurant owners to provide the surplus food, as their cooperation saves a lot of effort and time to obtain organic waste.
Launching organic waste investment projects can be done through the sectoral bodies responsible for the waste file, which are the Ministry of Construction and Housing, public municipalities, and the Municipality of Baghdad, said Director of Monitoring and Evaluation of Industrial and Service Activities.
The Ministry of Environment is a regulatory body that monitors the performance of this sector, noting that “it can adopt projects submitted in this regard within the framework of reducing emissions in order to obtain the necessary financing for them through international financing funds, which provide support in this field to confront the effects of climate change.”
In the next stage, Marwa seeks for Green Gold products to be the most widely distributed and sold in the Middle East, concluding her speech by saying, “I was created from free, blessed clay, and the days pass by...I accept what is best, forgive, and search for the good, because I am the fertile and generous earth, and I have full confidence in my Creator, I am his successor and his soul on earth.”
(This report was produced as part of “Aswatuna” project by Internews.)