Two weeks ahead of the beginning of the new school year, the government is set to launch a new phase in its provision of wholesale and discounted stationery.
Ahlan Madaris (Back to School), a fair operated under the supervision of the Ministry of Supply in cooperation with the relevant chambers of commerce and industry, will open on 15 September with discounts on the wholesale prices of stationery, school bags, and school uniforms that range from 15 to 30 per cent.
The fair, which operates three to five pavilions in each of the 27 governorates, offers a wide range of stationery, backpacks, and other bags and outfits for school children. The idea is to offer families with school-age children the opportunity to buy stationery at affordable prices, especially in view of the increases in the prices of stationery this year.
Other opportunities to buy stationery at wholesale prices include smaller fairs organised by political parties like Mustaqbal Watan.
“This is the second time I have attended the fair. It is close by, and it allows me to buy basics ahead of school at much cheaper prices than those in the stationery stores,” said Noha, the mother of two boys at an English-language national school in Heliopolis.
Since she enrolled her two boys at school in 2007 and 2009, Noha has bought the items on the stationery lists that the school hands out at a nearby store or at one of the big supermarkets. However, since the 2016 devaluation of the pound, she has been looking for offers and wholesale opportunities including those of Ahlan Madaris.
“It is much bigger than the regular small fairs, and it has everything that I need to buy for my children,” she said.
“It is a big wholesale fair that allows for the direct contact between producers and consumers without any of the middlemen that can disadvantage consumers, especially given the current high inflation levels,” said Barakat Safa, a member of the Stationery Division of the Cairo Chamber of Commerce.
According to Safa, while the local production of stationery, especially pens and pencils, covers up to 40 per cent of market consumption, 80 per cent of the raw materials required are imported. “Take for example the average pen. The ink cartridge and the tip of the pen are both imported,” Safa said.
“Inflation has hit everything, especially imported products or products whose production is dependent on imported raw materials or other items,” Safa said. The prices of basic stationery, including pens and pencils, have increased by between 60 and 70 per cent as a result.
Figures released this week by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, put Egypt’s annual headline inflation at a record high of 39.7 per cent in August, up from 38.2 per cent in July.
But the issue is more complicated than just the inflation rate, according to Safa. “There has been a sequence of devaluations that have hit the national currency, a lack of the foreign currency required for imports, and complications regarding letters of credit, especially since stationery is not considered as a priority commodity,” he added.
According to Nadim Elias, chair of the Printing Paper Division at the Chamber, there are also other factors. The past year has been particularly challenging for notebooks and non-school educational books, two essentials for most school pupils.
“The notebooks that people are buying this year were manufactured from paper that was bought last year or earlier this year. But two things happened in the last months of 2022 and the early months of 2023 — an increase in the international price of paper by around 70 per cent and a devaluation of the national currency by around 100 per cent,” he said.
“This means a huge jump in prices.”
Elias said that there had since been a drop in the price of paper that had taken the price down from $1,400 to a little over $1,000 a ton. In theory, he argued, this means that the prices of notebooks or educational guides should see a drop for consumers next year. However, he noted that whether this happens or not will depend on whether there will be another devaluation of the national currency.
In line with an agreement that Egypt signed with the International Monetary Fund in December last year to obtain a $3 billion loan, the government has committed to adopting a flexible exchange rate.
It was upon this commitment that the government floated the pound in the spring of this year from a little over LE16 to the dollar to a little over LE30. This week, the official exchange rate stood at around LE30.8. However, in the parallel market, whose presence is not denied by the government, the rate is around 30 per cent higher.
“We have been buying dollars on the black market in order to provide for our imports so that we can keep our factories running. We have been buying at the LE35 to LE38 rate,” said the owner of a notebook factory who wished to remain anonymous.
“This means that for me the devaluation has come in at well over 100 per cent, and obviously this increase is factored into the final price of the product,” he added.
The area of Fagallah in Cairo is a hub for mostly inexpensive stationery. “We have products that are made in Egypt and imported from places like China, Turkey, or India,” said Fares, who manages a small stall selling pens, notebooks, and crayons.
“We don’t sell the high-end products that are made in Europe, because there is a monopoly on the import of these items and because their prices are way above the budgets of our clients who are mostly the parents of children at state schools,” he added.
However, Fares said that over the past few years, his store has been frequented by some newcomers. “Particularly this year, we have been seeing people who are making their first visits to Fagallah because they are looking for more affordable prices and more affordable items,” he said.
A month ahead of the beginning of the school year, Radwa was also faced with what she said were “the shocking prices” not just of pens and notebooks but also of crayons, highlighters, and other items that children must have for school.
“I cannot believe the prices that I am seeing,” she said.
Radwa’s two children are at a state school. “I thought that with the current economic crunch the country is facing, the Ministry of Education would instruct schools not to make the traditional stationery requests this year — I mean it would be enough to buy pens, pencils, and notebooks without adhesive covers for the notebooks and crayons for drawing sketches,” she said.
“It is insane that I have to buy green and red covers for notebooks when the prices of the notebooks and the adhesive covers have increased by more than 100 per cent and the non-school education guides have increased by 50 per cent. It is so unfair,” she added.
Radwa argued that her children could not do without the educational guides “that are a lot more essential that their school books.” However, she added, her children could certainly do without the covers and crayons.
Iman, an art teacher at a state school in an economically challenged Cairo neighbourhood, said that over the past few years it has become increasingly noticeable that some of her students just say that they cannot afford to buy crayons or sketchbooks.
“I try to work around this by encouraging students to search for any colouring pens or pencils they might have left from a previous year or to share colours with their brothers or sisters,” she said.
According to Manal, a supervisor of art teaching in one of Cairo’s educational districts, the lack of attention paid by the Ministry of Education to drawing classes is unfortunate. “If the plan is to encourage students to consider joining vocational schools, then the first step in this direction would be to get them interested in art through drawing classes,” she said.
Previously, Manal said, the ministry used to allocate a few hundred pounds to each school to buy colouring pencils and sketch books to support those children whose families were not in a position to spare a few pounds to buy a box of crayons.
“And those are by far the majority in most state schools,” she stated.
However, less than a decade ago, this “small allocation was scrubbed,” Manal added. “This is very sad because the allocation should have been increased as more and more families, due to the increases in prices, are becoming unable to provide not just the box of crayons but also a few pens and notebooks.”
Ahmed, a Cairo taxi driver who has one child at a primary school in Giza, is dreading the back-to-school season.
“It comes with lots of expenses — school fees, school sandwiches, and school stationery,” he said.
“I hate to hurt the feelings of my daughter and tell her that I cannot buy things for her at school, especially as she is very bright. So, I had to take out a loan from the bank for a few hundred pounds to pay for the fees and buy her a uniform, pens, notebooks, crayons, especially as she is very gifted in drawing,” he said.
While Ahmed was in a situation to get one of the loans that have been made available to meet different needs over the past few years, others have resorted to charity to get a helping hand. Samia, who has been managing a small charity in Cairo for the past 25 years, said that she has been seeing unprecedented demand for assistance over the past “five years particularly”.
Stationery, Samia said, was the second reason after school fees that help is requested.
“We can usually help with used clothes and uniforms and used shoes and bags, but there is no way to re-use previously used pens or papers or colouring pencils,” she said.
She added that she is sometimes perplexed about whether she should give charity money to parents who wish to buy their children crayons because she is not sure that this is an essential use of the money.
“But what can I do if I am faced with a civil servant who used to buy crayons for his children? I only give enough money to buy the cheapest and smallest box of crayons,” she added.
Manal argued that the lack of economic means of some students should not be a reason to deprive talented boys and girls from finding their way. She added that there are many discrepancies between the financially privileged and the economically challenged — with art classes being one place where these discrepancies are most manifested.
Alia, whose son is moving into his first primary school this year in a semi-international school, agrees that there is a considerable discrepancy between the list of stationery she received for her son this year compared to those received by relatives whose children attend private language schools and state schools.
While her son has several art classes, other children at other schools do not have the same variety.
However, with the increase in school fees that was agreed by the Ministry of Education this year for all private schools, and the increases in the prices of “everything else”, Alia like others is feeling financially stressed.
Lamia, whose two daughters attend an international school run by an Egyptian administration, is also finding it “stressful” to buy everything on a stationery list that includes specific brands of crayons, water colours and brushes, a calculator “worth a few thousand pounds”, and “everything else”.
The issue of the discrepancy of opportunities is a major problem that Sanneya Al-Feki, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, sees in the education system in Egypt in general and not only in things like art classes.
Overall, she said, the issue of supplies has become extreme and not just unfair.
“It does not make sense to start with, and it has no impact whatsoever on the quality of education if you write your notes with an expensive pen or with an inexpensive pen,” Al-Feki said. “It is just one way in which the private schools try to assume a certain social profile to justify the high fees they charge,” she added.
Al-Feki said that for state schools it does not make sense to expect children to spend more money on notebook covers than the LE20 that a non-permanent teacher might earn per class to a maximum of LE1,900 per month, which is way below the LE3,000 stipulated as a minimum wage.
“It is the job of the Ministry of Education to stop the excessive demands for stationery and to make sure that students at state schools are not left at a considerable disadvantage,” she said.
“What schoolchildren need are smart and efficient school books that will spare them from the need to buy the now very expensive educational guides and to have decent classrooms and decently paid teachers who will be invested in the teaching process,” Al-Feki said.
“These are the real requirements of education, not adhesive covers and expensive pencils.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly