The mining industry dominates the employment sector of the Minya province. The use of limestone in the region is widespread, ranging from building foundations, to agriculture and medicine. Limestone quarries also provide employment in a governorate where there are few other opportunities. Boys as young as nine years old have been known to work in the mines, where conditions are dangerous and there is a significant lack of safety equipment.
Maher Bushra grew up in one of these towns and worked under these conditions for most of his life. In 2000, Maher decided to form a trade union for quarry workers called the Wadi El Nil Association. While Wadi El Nil’s purpose was to advocate workers’ rights, Maher also wanted the association to find alternatives for children working in the mines, and in turn, the families reliant on their much-needed income. Despite struggles in the union's official registration, Wadi El Nil began to organize workers and hold meetings to raise awareness of their rights. And the organization wanted to go further: Wadi El Nil envisioned long-term change for the miners by addressing the economic problems that had led to their exploitation.
In 2005, Alfanar provided seed funding and staff guidance to help launch Wadi El Nil’s loan programme. Quarry owners and managers were first offered small loans to upgrade the machinery in their quarries, providing that they improve working conditions for staff. This included the purchase of protective equipment, the introduction of proper safety procedures and an educational initiative informing workers of their rights. By 2007, families who promised to keep their children out of the mines were also offered loans during the period that their children received vocational training and apprenticeships in less hazardous fields.
When the Alfanar funding scheme ended in 2008, 300 families had been positively impacted by the organisation’s work. With Alfanar’s help, Wadi El Nil developed a centralized digital platform to record and track all transactions taking place in the loan programme, which has allowed it to grow since Alfanar's initial contribution. From its inception, Wadi El Nil has come to support 1,200 families.
Maher says that he sees the biggest changes among workers who have been part of the project for many years: “They are more open now and they come to us with their ideas. They feel they have a stake in their lives.” The organization is well-connected with the media and has a nation-wide group of supporters who have helped bring light to the workers’ cause.
“Nothing has been better than receiving that first loan,” Maher said of Alfanar’s partnership with Wadi El Nil. “Ideas don’t happen in a day. If you are someone that has a mission and foresight, you know you have to be in it for the long run.”