While Egypt’s agricultural exports were slightly affected by the global lockdowns introduced to halt the spread of the coronavirus, revenues did not decrease due to the increase in international prices on the back of the low supply of commodities and restrictions on international trade.
Citrus fruits topped the list of Egyptian agricultural exports, followed by potatoes and onions. Strawberries, grapes, and pomegranates led the exports of fruit. Official figures indicate that despite the pandemic Egypt has been able to export more than average quantities of garlic, mangoes, beans, and grapes since January.
Egypt’s exports of potatoes decreased to 677,000 tons in 2020, down from 688,000 tons in 2019. Onions decreased to 333,000 tons in 2020, down from 463,000 tons in 2019, and pomegranates decreased to 48,000 tons in 2020, down from 50,000 tons in 2019.
Grape exports increased to 138,000 tons in 2020, up from 112,000 tons in 2019; garlic increased to 34,000 tons in 2020, up from 28,000 tons in 2019; mangoes increased to 29,000 tons in 2020, up from 18,000 tons in 2019; and beans increased to 16,000 tons in 2020, up from 12,000 tons in 2019.
Ahmed Kamal Al-Attar, head of the Central Administration for Plant Quarantine at the Ministry of Agriculture, said that some countries had closed their borders to imports, while others had imported more, allowing Egypt to increase its agricultural exports.
He said that agricultural production in Egypt exceeded local demand, and the country always had the ability to increase such exports without affecting domestic supply. Exports also rejuvenate the agricultural sector and give farmers the opportunity to increase their revenues, Al-Attar said, encouraging them to plant crops that are in demand domestically and internationally and increase the extent of planted land.
Mustafa Al-Naggari, a member of the Agriculture Export Council, said the coronavirus crisis had had an upside for Egypt’s agriculture as it had meant that the country’s produce had reached new markets.
Potato exports to Europe were hard hit, however. Europe is a significant consumer of potatoes, which are extensively used in fast-food meals and served at restaurants. The closure of fast-food outlets and many restaurants in Europe during the coronavirus lockdowns had reduced demand for potatoes.
In the first quarter of the year, the price of a ton of potatoes dropped from $120 to $10 as a result of oversupply and in the wake of the international lockdowns and the closure of air transport, according to research published in May by the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies.
Europe’s lockdowns, reduced salaries, and sometimes layoffs had also led to a decrease in the purchasing power of European markets, with something similar also occurring in the Gulf, Al-Naggari said.
He said that Egypt primarily targets the European and Gulf markets, but these had been affected by weakened purchasing power and a rise in the prices of food items. But the situation had led Egypt to enter new markets in Asia and Africa that had originally imported crops from European producers that used cheap labour from countries like Morocco.
The suspension of air traffic during the lockdowns had led European producers to employ more expensive domestic labour, resulting in a hike in the prices of their produce, he said. This had meant that many importing countries had imported cheaper Egyptian produce instead.
Export operations were frozen in Egypt for 45 days during the coronavirus crisis in the first part of the year, however, due to the closure of sea, land, and airports in Europe and the Gulf. With the partial reopening, Egypt exported 1.5 million tons of citrus fruit, half a million tons less than scheduled but made up for by the global rise in prices.
Egypt’s oranges have vast potential in international markets due to global demand for Vitamin C, essential in the protection against Covid-19, Al-Naggari said.
The Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies anticipates that Egypt’s agricultural sector will witness a crisis in the fourth quarter of the year leading to increased costs of production because the country imports 98 per cent of its seeds.
This makes Egypt’s agriculture dependent on the flexibility of international markets and other countries’ preventive measures. The centre said that further restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic could introduce obstacles to seed imports, apart from those for citrus fruits.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly