UN Syria envoy says Vienna talks at ‘very critical moment’

UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura says Syrian peace talks in Vienna are at a 'critical moment'. (AFP)
Updated 24 January 2018

UN Syria envoy says Vienna talks at ‘very critical moment’

VIENNA: The UN special envoy for Syria said that peace talks due to resume in Vienna on Thursday are taking place “at a very, very critical moment.”
“Definitely I am optimistic because it is the only way to be at such moments,” Staffan de Mistura said on Wednesday. “It is a very, very critical moment.”
He said a “full delegation of the opposition and a full delegation of the government” would be in the Austrian capital for the two days of talks.
France’s foreign minister said meanwhile in Paris that the Vienna talks are the “last hope” for reaching a political solution to the seven-year war.
“There is no prospect of a political solution today except, and it’s the last hope, the meeting that opens tomorrow in Vienna led by the United Nations and with all the stakeholders present,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Speaking in parliament, Le Drian also highlighted a “considerable worsening of the humanitarian situation” in Afrin, where Turkish forces are carrying out an offensive against a Kurdish militia, as well as in Idlib and in Eastern Ghouta.
The talks hosted by de Mistura in Vienna come after eight previous rounds in Geneva that failed to get the warring parties even to talk to each other.
The discussions have repeatedly stumbled over the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Representatives from his government have refused to meet the opposition directly until it drops demands that he leave office.
The talks come ahead of a peace conference in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi backed by Russia, Iran and Turkey on January 29-30.
Moscow initially hoped to convene peace talks in Sochi last November but those efforts collapsed following a lack of agreement among co-sponsors.
Syria’s main opposition group has said it would need “full and clear information” before agreeing to take part, but government representatives have said they will attend.
Syria’s complex, multi-sided seven-year war has claimed more than 340,000 lives, forced millions to flee their homes and left Syria in ruins.
Bolstered by Russia’s intervention in 2015, Damascus has regained the upper hand militarily, retaking large swathes of rebel-held territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces have also dealt severe blows to the Daesh group, whose self-proclaimed “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria has largely collapsed.
In December the first Russian troops began returning home after President Vladimir Putin ordered a pullout, saying their mission had been largely completed.
De Mistura has called on Putin to push the Assad regime to hold new elections, saying a military victory alone was not enough to “win the peace.”


Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

Updated 24 August 2019

Egypt’s creative solutions to the plastic menace

  • Egyptian social startups are taking alternative approaches to fostering awareness and reducing waste

CAIRO: Global plastics production reached 348 million tons in 2017, rising from 335 million tons in 2016, according to Plastics Europe. 

Critically, most plastic waste is not properly managed: Around 55 percent of it was landfilled or discarded in 2015. These numbers are extremely concerning because plastic products take anything from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose, and the effects on the environment, especially on marine and human life, are catastrophic.

While initiatives around the world are taking action to combat this problem, some Egyptian projects are doing it more creatively.

“We’re the first website in the Middle East and North Africa that trades waste,” said Alaa Afifi, founder and CEO of Bekia. “People can get rid of any waste at their disposal — plastic, paper and cooking oil — and exchange it for over 65 products on our website.”

Products for trading include rice, tea, pasta, cooking oil, subway tickets and school supplies.

Bekia was launched in Cairo in 2017. Initially, the business model did not prove successful.

“We used to rent a car and go to certain locations every 40 days to collect waste from people,” Afifi, 26, explained. “We then created a website and started encouraging people to use it.”

After the website was launched, people could wait at home for someone to collect the waste. “Instead of 40 days, we now could visit people within a week.”

To use Bekia’s services, people need to log onto the website and specify what they want to discard. They are assigned points based on the waste they are offering, and these points can be used in one of three ways: Donated to people in need, saved for later, or exchanged for products. As for the collected waste, it is given to specialized recycling companies for processing.

“We want to have 50,000 customers over the next two years who regularly use our service to get rid of their waste,” Afifi said.  

Trying to spread environmental awareness has not been easy. “We had a lot of trouble with initial investment at first, and we got through with an investment that was far from enough. The second problem we faced was spreading this culture among people — in the first couple of months, we received no orders,” Afifi said.

The team soldiered on and slowly built a client base, currently serving 7,000 customers. In terms of what lies ahead for Bekia, he said: “We’re expanding from 22 to 30 areas in Cairo this year. We’re launching an app very soon and a new website with better features.”

Go Clean, another Egyptian recycling startup dedicated to raising environmental awareness, works under the patronage of the Ministry of Environment. “We started in 2017 by recycling waste from factories, and then by February 2019 we started expanding,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Hamdy, 30.

The Cairo-based company collects recyclables from virtually all places, including households, schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, companies and embassies. The customers separate the items into categories and then fill out a registration form. Alternatively, they can make contact through WhatsApp or Facebook. A driver is then dispatched to collect the waste, carrying a scale to weigh it. 

“The client can be paid in cash for the weight of their recyclables, or they can make a donation to a special needs school in Cairo,” Hamdy explained. There is also the option of trading the waste for dishwashing soap, with more household products to be added in the future.

Trying to cover a country with 100 million people was never going to be easy, and Go Clean faced some logistical problems. It overcame them by hiring more drivers and getting more trucks. There was another challenge along the way: “We had to figure out a way to train the drivers, from showing them how to use GPS and deal with clients,” said Hamdy.

“We want to spread awareness about the environment everywhere. We go to schools, universities, companies and even factories to give sessions about the importance of recycling and how dangerous plastic is. We’re currently covering 20 locations across Cairo and all of Alexandria. We want to cover all of Egypt in the future,” he added.

With a new app on the way, Hamdy said things are looking positive for the social startup, and people are becoming invested in the initiative. “We started out with seven orders per day, and now we get over 100.”