Can sweet potatoes provide the solution to Egypt’s needs amid global grain shortage?

Jehad El-Sayed, Thursday 7 Jul 2022

Egypt’s Minister of Supply Ali Moselhi has recently said his ministry plans to add sweet potato to subsidised bread due to the global grains crisis. Moselhi's remark made headlines and raised questions among the public about the plan which is still being studied.

File photo: A number of Egyptian citizens queue to buy subsidised bread. Al-Ahram
File photo: A number of Egyptian citizens queue to buy subsidised bread. Al-Ahram

“Using sweet potato to make bread can save up to a million tons of wheat,” Moselhi said at a press conference on 26 June, noting that Egypt is self-sufficient in sweet potato and is studying the technology required for the process.

Working on this idea for more than 20 years, Abdel-Moneim El-Gendy, a researcher at the Ministry of Agriculture and founder of a research project for the production of bread from potatoes, has asserted in a phone-in interview with Al-Nahar channel that the “product is suitable for human consumption.”

The manufacturing process includes boiling sweet potatoes and adding them at a ratio of 35-50 percent. The rest will be wheat, El-Gendy explained.

He stated that high-quality bread is produced from this mixture, given the nutritional value of sweet potatoes.

“We are not talking about the sweet potatoes that are available in the Egyptian market, it is a new type of white potato we produce and it is less sweet,” El-Gendy said.

He asserted that one feddan of white potato produces about 20 tons annually, ten times more the production of wheat on the same area.

El-Gendy's statement came in response to a question about the quantity of potatoes produced in Egypt, especially that it is a summer crop, meaning that it cannot be relied on in the production of a strategic commodity such as bread in Egypt.

Egypt cultivates about 31,000 feddans annually of sweet potatoes, and produces about 450,000 tons annually, according to 2019 statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Sources from the Ministry of Supply asserted to Ahram Online that Moselhi's declaration “has not yet been applied in reality.”

"We still haven't received any directives from the ministry regarding this [potato] issue," an official source from the ministry, who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity, said.

“The step is still being studied,” the source said.

Moselhi’s announced plan came as an attempt to decrease the country’s wheat consumption and thus reduce the amount of wheat imported by Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer.

During a phone interview with Hadrat Al-Muwatin programme on Al-Hadath Al-Youm channel, Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait stated on Monday that the price of a ton of imported wheat noticeably increased to $504 from $130. 

Maait added that the country imports 12 million tons of wheat annually, and this huge difference in international prices places immense pressure on the state budget. 

In 2020, Egypt imported 12.8 million tons of wheat for about $3.2 billion, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).

This was not the first time the supply minister tackled the possibility of mixing wheat with other ingredients to produce subsidised bread.

Earlier in February, the minister said in an interview with TV presenter Ahmed Moussa on “On My Responsibility” program that the country has experimented with the idea of mixing wheat with barley in the production of bread.

"Barley is mixed with wheat at a ratio of 10 to 15 percent,” he said, adding that the experience proved successful and was better than using wheat only in the production of bread. 

However, the minister stated that the problem was that the productivity of an acre of barley is only one ton, which is too low to be relied on.

Egypt has in recent years imported nearly 80 percent of its grain from Russia and Ukraine through the Black Sea due to its high quality, competitive pricing, and the two countries’ geographical proximity.

On the heels of the supply chain disruptions caused by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, Egypt is currently diversifying its import sources, at the top of which is India, which has exempted Egypt from its recent wheat export ban.

On 30 June, Egypt's General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC), the country's grain buyer, announced contracting 815,000 tons in tender from four counties – France, Romania, Russia, and Bulgaria. 

According to the tender, which saw Egypt’s biggest single purchase of wheat in years, the GASC purchased 350,000 tons of wheat from France, 240,000 tons from Romania, 175,000 tons from Russia and 50,000 tons from Bulgaria, Egypt's news agency MENA reported, citing GASC. The contracted wheat will be shipped in August, September, and October 2022.

Given the fact that the war has raised the cost of importing wheat worldwide, Egypt has sought to increase local production, aiming to collect six million tons of the strategic crop during the local harvest season that lasts until August, up from the 3.5 million tons collected in 2021.

Moselhi said in late June that the government has already received a total of more than 3.9 million tons of wheat from local farmers during this wheat supply season — an increase of 10 to 12 percent from last year.

Moreover, the minister affirmed that the country has a strategic stock of wheat sufficient for nearly 5.7 months.

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