Where is the starch? Egyptians search for potatoes as prices soar

Menna Alaa El-Din , Monday 29 Oct 2018

Citizens buy potatoes at Ministry of Interior outlets (Ahram - Magdy Abdel-Sayed)

On Saturday, Egyptians started queuing up in long lines outside the ministry of interior's makeshift food supermarkets to buy one of the country's most important starch staples; potatoes.

Two weeks after the potato shortage started, the interior ministry announced that it is making potatoes available to the public at its food outlets in several governorates at a wholesale prices to alleviate the burden on citizens.

The ministry is selling potatoes at EGP 6 per kilo, as the shortage pushed the price as high as EGP 15 (approximately $0.84) per kilo.  

The ministry's initiative, named 'We Are All One,' is sponsored by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, according to the ministry, which said that it is providing basic vegetables for lower than the market value to "lift the burden off citizens."

Egyptians have recently seen a hike in the price of some basic food commodities as inflation hit 15.4 percent in September, with the cost of vegetables increasing by a monthly rate of 17.2 percent., according to CAPMAS.

The interior ministry has allocated 20 tonnes of potatoes and tomatoes to sell over the upcoming two weeks. The ministry has also said that it has seized large stockpiles of potatoes hoarded by retailers.

The government's suggested retail price for a kilogram of potatoes was EGP 6 and potatoes at EGP 5 (approximately $0.3) before the shortage started.

Egypt produces around 5 million tonnes of potatoes annually in three harvest seasons, and local consumption is 4 million tonnes a year, according to data from the agriculture ministry.

Agriculture Minister Ezz El-Din Abou Steit said last week that Egypt exported 759,117 tonnes of potatoes over the past 10 months, and overall agriculture exports reached 4,408,389 tonnes, up from 4,071,790 tonnes in the same period last year.

Who is to blame?

The issue of the soaring price of potatoes has dominated the airwaves following the interior ministry’s announcement that it would sell potatoes at a lower price.

In statements to talk shows, the head of the agriculture ministry's Agricultural Services Department Abbas El-Shenawy said that the hike in prices came after retailers started hoarding potatoes to double their profit with the end of summer harvest season.

On Sunday, the interior ministry said that it has seized 700 tonnes of potatoes at one storehouse in Damietta as part of their efforts to combat profiteering from food commodities.

On Saturday, the ministry said it had seized around 1,632 tonnes of potatoes in Gharbiya, Daqahliya, and Beheira governorates.

According to El-Shenawy, citizens should expect the price of potatoes to drop to EGP 6 (approximately $0.34) or less after inspections are conducted at storehouses to combat monopolistic practices, and after crops from the new harvest season hit the market.

Some experts beg to differ, however, saying that they had warned of an impending crisis. 

The head of Egypt’s Potato Growers Association, Ahmed El-Sherbiny, has said in press statements that this year’s shortage was the result of farmers shying away from growing potatoes so they can avoid a repeat of losses in 2017.

El-Sherbiny said that farmers sold their harvest of potatoes in 2017 at relatively low prices, which led to losses of 60 to 70 percent of their capital.

El-Sherbiny said that during this summer season, some 40 to 50 percent fewer potatoes were harvested compared to last year, which he also blamed on a sharp increase in temperatures.

“We had warned [in January] of an impending crisis when it comes to potatoes prices, and that’s exactly what is happening now,” he said.  

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Abou Steit said on Sunday that warehouse owners have until 1 December to pull their stockpiles of potatoes out of fridges and onto the market.

Bread, Sugar and fries

For Egyptians, standing in line to get their hands on basic household food items in moments of shortage is nothing new, with the long queues bringing to mind the "sugar crisis" of 2016 and the "bread lines" of 2008.

In 2016, sugar, which is mainly used by millions of sweet-toothed Egyptians to sweeten tea and make sweets, disappeared suddenly from shelves due to planning difficulties, leading prices to skyrocket, before the government imported enough of the commodity to end the crisis.

In 2008, the Egyptian army's bakeries were called upon to increase the production and distribution of bread to eliminate a bread shortage that led to several deaths among citizens following clashes on bread lines.

There may be no bread lines or long queues for sugar at the moment, but, with the relatively high price of the traditionally staple food commodity rice, many Egyptians have had to rely more and more on the inexpensive starchy root as a source of energy.

Egyptians now need potatoes in any way, shape or form: as breakfast sandwiches, chips, pureed and french fries, all with salad and Tahini, to start the day, and for lunch a potato with tomatoes casarole and some bread could get the job done till supper-time.

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