Marwa Kabary Kamel is an Egyptian entrepreneur born in Cairo, and currently working as an agricultural engineer at an institute affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture. She founded a leathercraft project, designing and producing handmade genuine leather products, and earning national awards for creativity and excellence, among which is the First Prize Award in the national competition “I Am Egypt” in 2018 for her carry-on travel backpack, featuring Egypt’s diverse civilizations. She has also earned the third place prize in the national competition for creative craftsmanship, awarded by the Supreme Council of Culture in 2021, for the first fully-handcrafted genuine leather suitcase, styled as the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, with Anubis guarding it on both sides. In this interview, Marwa talks about her journey into the world of handicrafts, the challenges she had to overcome, and her experience with starting her own business project.
Marwa traces her passion for handicrafts back to her early childhood. Her mother’s experience was the spark of inspiration. When she was a child, Marwa would watch her mother’s attendance to handicrafts, and imitate her sewing, tailoring, needlework, embroidery, and crochet. When the mother noticed Marwa’s interest in handicrafts, she decided to pass down her skills and knowledge, teaching the daughter everything she herself learned in her childhood. When Marwa joined primary school, she found in the home economics classes a new learning opportunity, and the teachers minded with training Marwa, and enriching her set of skills during her school years. Upon joining college, Marwa had to face her first challenge. Society does not deem artistic handiwork fit for a degree education. With her academic accomplishments, she had to join a serious top-level college, and studying art was not an option. Marwa studied agricultural engineering at Ain Shams University, and graduated with flying colors in 2009. As one of the top students, she was merited a job offer in the institutes of the Ministry of Agriculture, where she has been working since 2012. Yet, Marwa had not given up on her passion for handicrafts. Through all those years, she continued to practice and develop her skills, and even learned to create accessories with silver, copper, and stones, in addition to making bags from canvas and crochet, until she came across leather crafting.
Marwa’s new challenge was to learn how to create bags from leather -this new material she knew very little about. She enrolled herself in a training course on leather crafting, offered by a handicraft training academy. This was the first step towards her new dream. By the end of the year 2016, Marwa had mastered leather crafting, and founded her startup project online, launching her products via a Facebook page. She then participated in an international handicraft exhibition, hosted by the training academy. Her great success in the exhibition granted her exposure, and she began to receive sales orders on her page. The growing demand on her products was the greatest challenge Marwa had to overcome. During this time, she was working on her own in all stages of productions, from the creative work and sales to financial management. At this point, her family members came to the rescue, and offered their help and support.
Marwa highlighted the influential role her family played in sustaining the success of her leathercraft project, particularly her mother’s support during the project’s early stages. The lack of startup capital was a huge obstacle for Marwa, making it impossible to secure the needed tools and material, or employ permanent help with stable salaries. Her mother provided the financial capital to jumpstart the project. As the project gained momentum, the mother asked Marwa to teach her leather crafting, and to become the first member of the project’s workforce, which allowed the project to grow, and increased the production. Marwa asserts that her entire family was supportive and always “had her back.” Her sister took over the marketing and branding component of the work, with her expertise in graphic designing. The cousins and friends helped with sales and digital marketing management, and even the leather crafting itself after Marwa had taught them.
Now, Marwa offers training courses on leather crafting, in which men and women from all over Egypt take part. Marwa notices that women are getting increasingly keener on learning handicrafts, attributing this to how Egyptian women, especially the heads of the household with families to provide for, always seek opportunities for independent work that offers them the chance to make money from home, and increase their income. Marwa also notes that the majority of women who pursue training and work opportunities in handicraft are unemployed women homemakers, who do not have a formal job outside the household. Marwa adds that it is particularly these women that make up the handicraft community, and they are the ones who manage to successfully transform their handicraft into lucrative business projects because they find in handicraft what Marwa describes as a breathing space for them to attain financial independence through home-based hand labor that does not demand full-time commitment.
As for being a woman working in the public domain, Marwa is also a pioneer par excellence in agricultural engineering. When starting her career, she was the only female engineer in an all-male team. She specialized in geospatial landscape architecture, and proved her aptitude in the office, yet was not included in the on-site fieldwork. The fieldwork in the Geographic Information System Unit, where Marwa worked, required walking for long distances into rough unpaved land to survey and map sites in Upper Egypt. Marwa explained that her managers and colleagues were worried that she was “too fragile” for such an arduous mission, but she insisted on joining the fieldwork team traveling from Cairo to Upper Egypt to carry out the surveying mission. It was Marwa’s manager who convinced her mother to support Marwa’s decision to travel out of town for work.
In Upper Egypt, Marwa encountered a community that she describes as highly respectful and classy, but just did not fathom why a woman would commit to such hard labor. Because of her determination to accomplish the work with her own hands, just like her male colleague, the townsmen, as well as her manager and colleagues recognized her diligence and competence, and she earned everybody’s trust. She was assigned various tasks, in and outside Cairo. Throughout her years of work in agricultural engineering and until the present day, Marwa with her perseverance has paved the way for other women to join the Unit, and made room for more women to be accepted and recognized for their valuable hard work in the field. Her pioneering effort in agricultural engineering equals that in handicraft.
When talking about being a woman in the handicraft industry, Marwa spoke about her relationship with the suppliers. Despite being very respectful of the work she does, they were very skeptical at first, because it was odd for them to deal with a young woman in this business. Yet, she managed to break through this initial impression, and built good connections with the community of suppliers. Marwa became an inspiration and a role model, especially for women seeking to start their own business in handicraft, and she guided many men and women by sharing her advice and experience.