If you go to Berlin, Germany, this week, you may run into banners announcing Egypt’s participation in Fruit Logistica, a major fresh produce trade show held annually in February. Around 70 Egyptian companies are taking part in the event this year that runs from 6 to 8 February.
The advantage of the fair is that it is attended by buyers from all over the world, unlike other fairs which may target a certain part of the globe alone, said Hisham Al-Naggar, a member of the Agricultural Export Council (AEC) and CEO of Daltex Corporation, a major exporter of fruit and vegetables.
Egypt’s exports of agricultural produce reached 4.1 million tons valued at $2.1 billion during the 2017-18 export season, according to data from the AEC, with the country exporting to more than 140 countries.
Egyptian exporters of agricultural produce have come a long way in recent years, Al-Naggar said, remembering a time when only five Egyptian companies had taken part in the Berlin fair.
Today, they are much more well-established and attend the event to conclude deals, Al-Naggar said. Whereas in the past their produce was sometimes of only average quality and sold cheaply, today it is of very good quality and sells at prices that compete with those of produce from France, Turkey and other countries, he explained.
The EU total imports reached around 32 million tons of fruit and 15 million tons of vegetables in 2017, according to data from the Egyptian Commercial Service (ECS).
Egypt is the fourth-largest exporter of vegetables to the EU, exporting around 335 million euros worth of produce. Its exports include potatoes, green beans, onions and garlic, and it is the 16th-largest exporter of fruit, with around 365 million euros worth of fruit reaching the EU from Egyptian shores, including oranges, grapes and strawberries.
Egypt has been the world’s top exporter of oranges over the past three years, Al-Naggar added, and this year Egyptian strawberry exports to the EU exceeded the EU’s tariff-free quota for the first time since the Egypt-EU agreement went into force in 2004.
Half of Egyptian strawberry exports to the EU currently go to the UK. According to Amr Al-Beltagi, a member of the board of the AEC and Belco, an Egyptian top exporter of fruit and vegetables, Egypt is negotiating an export quota for strawberries with the UK after it exits the EU this year, making further room in the current EU quota for more strawberry exports to the remaining EU countries.
Dates are another crop Egypt wants to see exported, with the country currently exporting less than one million euros worth of dates, tailing a list of exporters topped by Tunisia. According to Al-Beltagi, Egyptian dates do not have characteristics required by the EU and there is a need to improve post-harvest processing.
Consultants have been hired to help Egyptian producers meet both these aims, he said.
Egypt’s climate is one of the factors that favour Egyptian agricultural exports, especially during the winter months in the EU. However, Egyptian producers must also be prepared to meet the standards and specifications required by the EU, Al-Naggar said, adding that producers must carefully monitor quality and packaging, for example.
Any failure to meet EU specifications by one exporter could affect the reputation of others, he said.
Al-Beltagi said that the EU listed permissible pesticides and residue levels for each crop and carried out random checks to make sure requirements are met. A few years back, some grape shipments were found to contain higher residues of certain pesticides, so the EU decided to test larger quantities the following season, he said.
As a result, the AEC, the Egyptian Agricultural Veterinary Authority and the Horticultural Export Improvement Association started implementing their own inspections regimes, approving companies whose crops met the specifications and clearing them for export.
The following season Egyptian grapes were found to be suitable for the EU market, and the harsher inspections regime was lifted.
The same thing could be done with exports to other destinations to avoid incidents in which some Gulf countries have complained of finding residues of pesticides in Egyptian exports and thus have banned them.
Instead of banning or punishing all exporters, there should be a more transparent system, and exporters should be held accountable to it, Al-Beltagi suggested.
There are also other challenges facing Egyptian exporters, whether domestically or in the markets they export to.
Globally, Egypt’s exporters face the challenge of increasing protectionism, whether in the EU or elsewhere, Al-Naggar pointed out. This trend has become stronger since President Donald Trump took office in the US, and each country is now doing more to look after the interests of its own growers.
Domestically, Al-Naggar said that Egyptian exporters’ costs had increased on the back of high inflation and high interest rates. Higher fuel prices have also pushed up costs of production, he said, though cheap energy had also meant inefficiencies.
He said that agricultural producers in Egypt needed electricity to operate water pumps, but that “they must use water efficiently if they want to save energy, leading to savings in water as well as in electricity.”
Although the depreciation of the pound following its floatation in November 2016 should have enabled Egyptian producers to offer more competitive prices, this was often not the case because it doubled costs, Al-Beltagi said.
Many raw materials used on farms in Egypt are imported, he said, but floating the pound was the right decision because a business model built on subsides, whether of the currency or of commodities, was not sustainable.
Agricultural investors needed a helping hand for the sector to realise its potential, Al-Beltagi said, including by facilitating land licensing and access to water. Export subsidies were another issue, since while the government has earmarked assistance to exporters, it can be complicated to collect it.
There was also a need for faster shipping to Europe, especially of perishable goods, Al-Beltagi said.
Al-Naggar said that agricultural exports had been criticised because of the water used to grow them, but such criticisms were unfounded as modern technology could improve efficiency.
Moreover, the sector was labour-intensive and was an important source of employment. If the jobs were not there, there would be more poverty and more attempts at illegal migration, he added.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egyptian fresh produce in Berlin