Egypt's Agriculture export increases: a mixed blessing

Elizabeth Hagen, Saturday 2 Jul 2011

A predicted jump in vegetable exports is good news for big agrobusiness firms that can afford to meet European standards

Two Egyptian women farmers carry away their produce of tomatoes during the harvest of the crops on their land on the outskirts of Cairo (Photo: AP)

On Monday, 6 June, the Egyptian Agriculture Export Council announced that it expects a major jump in vegetable exports to the EU since the E. coli scare has hit the European produce market hard. Council Chairman Sherif Al-Beltagy has predicted a LE2 billion jump in exports compared to 2010.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, agriculture makes up 15 per cent of Egypt’s GDP and employs more than one third of the labour force.

Exports of crops like grapes, potatoes and green beans, some of Egypt’s biggest agricultural exports to Europe, are on the rise as a result the recent E. coli outbreak, trade agreements with the EU, and Russia’s most recent period of drought. El-Beltagy says produce exports to Russia have almost doubled in the last year. “Last year’s production was about 260,000 tonnes. This year we are at about 470,000.”

Egypt’s proximity to European markets, when considering greater shipping costs from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, makes it an attractive trade partner if the country’s farmers succeed in adapting to foreign “private voluntary standards.”   

Ministry of Trade and Industry records show Egypt shipped almost $720 million (about LE4.3 billion) worth of agricultural goods to Europe last year. In June 2010, a European Commission Regulation went into effect eliminating customs on nearly all agricultural products originating in Egypt. None of the exceptions are on Egypt’s most exported or highest valued crops.

The value of agricultural exports to Europe has more than doubled since 2007, falling slightly last year, but now rising again according to the ministry.

Lead economist at the Egypt Centre for Economic Studies, Dr. Magda Kandil, is somewhat sceptical that the export boost will meet expectations as the EU tightens regulations on food safety. “Regulations in Europe are likely to be tougher. I think Europeans are likely to become extremely guarded and reserved. They are not going to create an avenue for further risk,” says Dr. Kandil.

El-Beltagy sees this as an incentive for farmers to improve agricultural practices and lower production costs, improving domestic food-quality in turn. “The impact on the local market will be good,” says El-Beltagy. “If you are sending, for example, one tonne to the packhouse to be sorted and exported it is not all going to Europe or other countries.” He says up to 40 per cent of higher quality produce, free of pesticides and other residue, stays in the country.

A 2009 report published by the UK’s International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) bears this theory out. Their agribusiness and development expert studying effect of exposure to private standards on small growers in Kenya saw farmers’ earnings double, a significant increase in crop diversification and higher quality produce spilling over into local markets.  

However, Cairo University macro-economics professor Ahmed Ghoneim warns that higher earnings will not be spread equally across the agricultural sector. “Those who are already exporting to the EU are likely to see an increase. For those who do not meet those standards it is unlikely that they will be able to make changes in time to see any increase in profits.”

In addition to the need to secure funding and support for Egypt’s small farmers, encouraging compliance with export standards may require greater government regulation to succeed. Forging a stronger national agricultural framework is the first step in enforcing the quality-control measures that will lead to safer, more profitable produce.   

Within the next few months, El-Beltagy told Ahram Online, the Egyptian Agriculture Export Council, working with the ministries of agriculture and trade, will broaden requirements making it easier to identify the specific farms individual produce comes from. El-Beltagy says this may come in the form of barcodes or registration numbers for both export and local market growers.

Ahmed Mahmoud, a farmer in his 60s, plants rice and corn in Kafr Zeheida. His reaction to increased regulation in the future: "Farmers don't even know what barcodes are. How can you expect them to put it on their products?"

Official statistics on the number of farmers growing for domestic versus foreign markets do not exist. “In my opinion, most of them are working for export,” says El-Beltagy. However, Mohamed Samy, who heads a non-profit training consortium for Egypt’s agricultural technical schools, estimates that 90 per cent of Egypt’s farms grow for local sale. This means the majority of poor farmers will not see profit from the predicted rise in exports.

Samy’s organization, Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities (MUCIA), is a USAID-funded network of American universities and upper-Egypt agricultural schools working to educate small-scale farmers and connect them to export markets. “Those small scale farmers don’t have the resources or the training to be able to meet those standards and explore opportunities to export,” says Samy.

The IIED report cites costs of “approximately US$6,500 [about LE39,000] per average group of 30 farmers to successfully go through the entire process and attain certification.”

Even when this initial price tag is funded by donor aid, there are also annual fees to renew standards certificates, which farmers usually agree to cover themselves.   

To export, farms must be able to finance training costs, crop analysis and foreign audits. The process can take years and compliance is much easier for larger farms or collectives of small growers.

For farmers without access to non-profit training groups like MUCIA, the costs of updating agricultural techniques and acquiring private standard certifications are often prohibitive.

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