Price hikes for fresh greens leave Egyptians in the red

Bassem Abo Al Abass, Saturday 2 Apr 2011

Market traders say it's just seasonal variations but experts suggest failed pest control and fertiliser monopolies are behind a recent surge in tomato prices

A precious commodity or ripe for a price correction? (Photo: Reuters)

Already struggling to make ends meet, Egyptian families are suffering from a leap in the price of fresh produce that's putting pinched household budgets under further strain.

For the last two weeks grocery shoppers in Cairo have have to dig deeper in their pockets as the price of a single kilo of tomatoes has soared from LE1.75 to LE7 with other locally-grown salad staples following suit.

Market-traders have told worried buyers they're responding to higher premiums charged by fruit and vegetable wholesalers and seem to be unaware of any wider reasons behind the climb. "It's a seasonal thing, prices rise when winter turns to summer," one vegetable-seller told Ahram Online -- a claim not backed up by past price fluctuations.

Experts say there are more complex explanations behind the unprecedented rise: agricultural and business practices and the wrath of mother nature herself.

"There's been an increase in fertiliser prices due to the monopolistic practices of some companies, especially after the revolution," Ahmed Hassan, professor of agriculture at Al-Azhar Assyout University told Ahram Online. "A 50-pound sack of fertiliser used to cost LE75 - now it's up to LE110." There has also been a rise in insecticides, compounded by increased labour costs, with the price recently doubling to LE150 per litre.

Nature, too, is taking a bite. "Many tomato crops have been infected by an agricultural scourge called Tuta absoluta," says Hassan.

Originally from South America, Tuta absoluta is a species of moth which feeds on tomato plants, burrowing into stalks and consuming green and ripe fruits. It only appeared in North Africa over the last two years but can potentially destroy 100 per cent of tomato yields.

"We haven't found a cure yet and that is affecting the harvest, killing crops and tightening supply," says Hassan.

Ahram Online checked prices of other vegetables at one of Cairo's major markets where costs per kilo were LE5 for zucchinis, LE7 for beans, LE5 for peas, LE3.5 for potatoes and LE6 for aubergines. Green peppers were up to LE6 per kilo from LE1.5 earlier in March.

Food prices in Egypt spiked in January after widespread protests disrupted transport and forced shops to close.

Urban consumer price inflation, the most closely watched indicator of prices, rose to 10.8 per cent year on year in January, up from 10.3 per cent in December, according to government statistics.

"Month on month, most indicators were steady, but food prices spiked in January," says Mohamed Rahmy, an economist with Beltone Research.

Food prices, which make up 39.9 percent of the urban consumer price inflation basket, rose 2.4 per cent in January after falling by 1.9 per cent in December and 2.2 per cent in November.

Tarek Tawfik (Farm Frites), Helmy Abou Elaish (Sekem Farms) and Ahmed Heikal (Dina Farms) are the main large-scale producers of vegetable crops in Egypt.

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