With Ramadan only a few days away, people are beginning the tradition of buying different kinds of nuts ahead of the holy month in order to use them in traditional dishes, whether savoury or desserts.
These include rice with nuts, or roz bi-al-khalta, katayef, a sweet filled with a combination of crushed nuts and dried fruit, and the famous konafa, which was originally filled with nuts as well. There is also khoshaf, a mixture of dried fruit and nuts usually served during the main Ramadan meal.
All these dishes that include nuts can be costly, but for the sake of tradition people used to manage to budget to buy them. Yet, after the decline in value of the Egyptian pound in 2016, this became more and more difficult.
Nuts can be expensive, and a kg of pistachios or hazelnuts can cost LE350 or more, especially during Ramadan when there is huge demand. For this reason, the government has organised fairs in every governorate to sell nuts and other products essential for Ramadan at reasonable prices. But these unfortunately stopped during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I no longer sell nuts since the prices have rocketed, and they are too expensive for my customers,” said one shop owner in Bab Al-Louk, a lower middle-class district in Cairo. His shop was once famous for selling nuts, but now it only has pumpkin seeds and peanuts along with other products. “These are the products I can sell,” he said. “I will be waiting until prices are more affordable before selling pistachios and hazelnuts again.”
According to the International Nut and Dried Fruits Council (INC) in a 2019 report, Egypt imported 1,727 tons of hazelnuts and 1,124 tons of dried apricots in 2017 and produces nine per cent of global date production at 98,000 tons. According to statistics issued by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAMPAS) in 2018, Egypt spends some $50 million every year on importing nuts.
This could be about to change as a result of an initiative by a professor at the Agricultural Research Centre (ARC), Sami Abu-Raya, who has been teaching farmers how to plant nut trees after a project funded by the ARC and other government institutions ended. He offers detailed instructions on social media to help them to do so.
“The main reason behind the initiative is the fact that Egypt spends millions of dollars every year to import nuts to meet the needs of consumers, especially during Ramadan. The bill has been increasing year after year,” Abu-Raya said.
He was determined to look for an alternative, saying that “we conducted research under the supervision of the ARC to determine whether growing nuts in Egypt would be possible. We then asked the government to finance a project through the Scientific Research Academy (SRA).”
“Unfortunately, the project only lasted for three years, while an average tree needs three or four years to start producing nuts. We could not wait longer than that,” he said, adding that they wanted the project to last for six years to show farmers how to grow and look after the trees, allowing them to see the results for themselves.
But they were able to train farmers in different governorates to plant nut trees, even if the project did not last long enough to help them to market their products.
Abu-Raya’s initiative to grow nut trees can spare Egypt $50 milion annually on importing nuts
A lot of the work used social-networking platforms to share expertise. “We started to work on the project in 1998, in terms of the research. The instruction took a lot of effort, since the practical part of the project was intermittent. It started in 2005 and ended in 2007, and then started again in 2014 and lasted for three years when the project was not financed anymore,” Abu-Raya said.
“Some farmers took care of their trees, while others uprooted them since they were unable to look after the trees and needed guidance. The person who inspired us to start our project online was the secretary to the governor of Southern Sinai, whom I met during a visit of the governor to our St Catherine’s project. He advised me to spread the idea through the media and social media,” he added.
As a result, Abu-Raya posts bulletins for farmers on his Facebook page in which he tells them what they must do each month to look after their trees. He posts videos with information about planting nut trees on his YouTube channel.
He would like to see this initiative have the success of previous projects and the culture of growing nut trees spread in Egypt. “During the previous project, we worked with hundreds of farmers and helped them to take care of the trees. We told them what type of climate and soil was suitable, how to prepare the land for planting, and how to provide their own seeds. We also organised theoretical and practical workshops,” Abu-Raya said.
This information is now available on social media.
All about nuts: Nuts are rich in carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and fats, along with other nutrients. Almonds, according to a 2006 study published by the SRA, can help to combat cancer.
A US Food and Drugs Administration report has said that a handful of nuts per day can help to prevent many diseases, including heart disease, Abu-Raya commented, adding that after Egypt has covered its needs for nuts, the surplus could be exported, adding millions of dollars to national income.
“But the process needs guidance by scientists in the field, since nut trees need special care. This is why I worked with a group of colleagues who are experts in different fields to discover the optimal conditions for growing nuts in Egypt, including climatic conditions, soil types, and irrigation,” Abu-Raya said.
“Experts in nutrition were needed to determine what kind of nutrients should be used and the right amount for different places, as this can differ. There was also the question of pests and how to combat them.”
Abu-Raya has been cooperating with different universities and research centres and the ministry of agriculture. He has been working on growing nut trees for 20 years, and starting in 2014 he led a team to plant 500 feddans of trees in governorates including Suez, Ismailia, and Northern Sinai and Southern Sinai, including at Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, Ras Sedr, Al-Torr, Wadi Feran, St Catherine’s, and other places. The trees grew successfully in these areas.
According to Abu-Raya, some of the advantages of growing nut trees in Egypt are that they do not need much water. Another advantage is that it only costs LE22,000 per feddan to do so after planting the trees and installing irrigation systems. The gain could be as much as LE280,000 per feddan after a couple of years. Trees can also be planted in gardens if they are five metres or so apart, or with other plants like fava beans that can provide them with nutrients.
Not only can nut trees meet the needs of consumers, but they can also solve other problems, Abu-Raya said. “They could be a great job opportunity for jobless young people if the government provided them with land, a water supply, and a house to live in,” he added.
He said that what some people have said about nuts not being suitable for planting in Egypt is not scientifically true. “To grow nut trees successfully, you need a number of hours of cold in winter from October to February to break what is called a tree’s ‘resting phase’ so that it is able to grow flowers and then leaves in spring. The summer heat is no problem, since the trees need some heat to grow properly, contradicting what some people say about nut trees being not suitable for growing in hot countries,” he said.
Pistachios need about 900 hours of cold weather, which is fine for the St Catherine’s area in Southern Sinai, as well as in the middle of Sinai and elsewhere in the governorate of Minya. Larger nuts need about 500 hours of cold weather, and almonds and pecans need about 200 hours of cold weather, Abu-Raya added.
He explained the difference between a nut tree and a fruit tree in terms of growth cycle and financial significance. “Nut trees are a type of fruit tree, but they are a little different. The part that is mostly eaten is the seed, not the pulp like with fruit,” he said.
“For instance, when we eat a mango, we eat the pulp and throw away the seed. However, when we eat nuts, we do the opposite. Another difference is that the part surrounding the nut is the hard peel or rind. The leaves of the trees constantly fall, and this means that the tree is alive, but may not grow much. This is an advantage, since its nutritional needs are fewer than with other fruit trees. It stays as it is for a long time.”
Most nut trees can also survive a moderate amount of salinity in the soil. Nut seeds can be stored for long periods as long as they are kept in a cool place at a temperature not exceeding 25 degrees Celsius and humidity not exceeding 70 per cent. The best type of soil to grow nuts is sandy soil because this does not store water for a long time and protects the roots from rotting. Nut trees can be successfully cultivated in the stony land around St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, for example.
“What we should do today is conduct climactic, economic, and scientific studies on places that have suitable weather conditions for growing nuts so that we can help farmers to grow them. We want to be able to set up experimental nut farms to explore possibilities, and we would like to see the government finance a new project that would last for at least six years. We also need decent accommodation for scientists who travel to different governorates to monitor the nut trees,” Abu-Raya said.
“Moreover, we have been importing treatments to treat root diseases, and these can cost a lot of money. We should produce them locally, and we should also produce the seeds. Our priority should be to focus on planting more nut trees at the least expense,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly