Kahk biscuits in some houses and coloured eggs and feseekh (salted fish) in others — this is how this year’s calendar embraces traditional Egyptian feasts. Egypt’s Muslims and Christians are once again fasting and celebrating feasts around the same days this year.
The Eid Al-Fitr at the end of the holy month of Ramadan is expected to be on 22 April this year, while Easter is on 16 April and Sham Al-Nessim is on the following day.
Egypt has a rich and diverse food culture, especially during Ramadan. Some of the traditional dishes include rokak, molokhiya, and different kinds of pasta. For desserts, konafa comes on top, then qatayef, and for Ramadan special beverages there are sobia and khoshaf.
Yet, this year there is at least one major difference from other years, and that is in the considerable price increases for food products, among other necessities, that have been recorded recently. Ramadan and Eid shopping is now more challenging than ever for many households as a result. However, good food is still essential, and it cannot be sacrificed.
The idea of guests bringing their own dishes to Ramadan gatherings may have found its way into many people’s traditions this year, even if some Iftar meals seem to include fewer dishes than in previous years. Home-made desserts, fewer beverages, and more Iftars at home are Ramadan 2023 habits. Egyptians always seem to find a solution when it comes to celebrations even in the toughest times.
“We only make one dish and two maximum. And we try to limit our purchases by making everything at home,” Berbara Kamal, a young woman living in Cairo, said.
The cost of some essential foods has been rising steadily since the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by the Russia-Ukraine war that started on 24 February and resulted in the Egyptian pound losing its value compared to other currencies.
Food prices have gone up as well due to higher transport and import costs and trade disruptions. The World Bank’s Commodity Markets Outlook for April 2022 reported that the Ukraine war had changed global trade, production, and consumption patterns, keeping food prices high until the end of 2024. Many developing countries are especially affected by inflation in food and fertiliser prices.
Since the beginning of the year, food prices have not stopped rising in Egypt. The Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) reported that food and drink prices rose by 10 per cent in January compared to December last year, as inflation soared to 48 per cent.
The Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) calculated that core inflation reached 31.2 per cent, from 24.4 per cent earlier this year. Inflation has been increasing since early in 2022, pushed by Covid-19 impacts on supply chains, the consequences of the Ukraine conflict, including shortages of foreign currency and more expensive commodities, and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound. These factors have put pressure on the prices of many goods and services.
Food prices and inflation are closely related. When the pound depreciated against other currencies, it made imports more expensive and exports cheaper. This directly affected the prices of many food items, since Egypt relies on much imported food.
The CBE may also have to raise interest rates again in order to curb inflation. Economic models estimate that Egypt’s inflation rate will reach 33 per cent by the end of this quarter, drop to 8.5 per cent in 2024, and then go down to 6.5 per cent by 2025. But these estimates depend on other factors staying the same.
They also assume that the Ukraine war will end later in 2023, putting an end to problems with grain delivery and energy prices, and that other issues related to supply chains will stabilise. Egypt’s best option to bring in hard currency lies in increasing its manufactured exports, which is not taking place at this point.
On a global level, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts global inflation will fall from 8.8 per cent in 2022 to 6.6 per cent in 2023 and to 4.3 per cent in 2024. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, inflation was at 3.5 per cent. Inflation reached a record high in the US last year due to supply chain problems and the Ukraine war, increasing from below two per cent in 2018 to around 10 per cent.
The IMF warns that there are downside risks to the global economic outlook, such as new variants of Covid-19, geopolitical tensions, social unrest, and policy uncertainties. These factors could worsen inflationary pressures or hamper the recovery.
In Egypt, people’s habits have changed as they adapt to the price increases. Less-privileged households in particular suffer more from food price inflation because they spend a larger portion of their incomes on food. Such households have changed their consumption habits using different strategies to cope with price shocks, such as eating less meat and poultry products like chicken and eggs.
A CAPMAS survey showed that 94 per cent of the families surveyed said they had cut down on their meat consumption, 93 per cent had reduced their poultry intake, 92.5 per cent had eaten less fish, 75 per cent had purchased less rice, and 69 per cent had bought less fruit.
But these healthy food groups provide essential protein sources, which reducing their consumption indicates a possible decline in the quality of diets. Other foods that provide protein and other nutrients such as fish and milk have become more expensive.
Some households reported that they were eating more of less healthy food groups in order to save money. There were only two foods that households reported eating more of —potatoes and unsubsidised kinds of pasta.
GOVERNMENT EFFORTS: The government’s national food subsidy programme is making efforts to maintain the consumption of some unsubsidised and nutritious foods that many poorer households have reduced due to their high prices.
Minister of Supply and Internal Trade Ali Moselhi said that Egypt has enough wheat stockpiled for four and a half months of consumption during the launch of seven new food factories in Sadat City in the Menoufiya governorate as part of Silo Foods Industries’ second phase. He also revealed that Egypt has secured 91 per cent of its sugar requirements and is importing 97 per cent of its vegetable oil.
To increase local production, Moselhi said that Egypt plans to plant 250,000 feddans of soybeans and 100,000 feddans of sunflowers this year. He pointed out that Egypt had imported less raw sugar in 2022 than in 2017 and that a new factory in Minya would help achieve self-sufficiency in sugar production.
However, accumulating grains and food oils is still an issue. It has created market stress and false demand for some items, said Mohamed Attia Al-Fayoumi, secretary-general of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce.
In the first week of February, the CBE announced that Egypt’s foreign reserves had grown for a fifth consecutive period from $34 billion in December 2022 to $34.22 billion today.
They had started to fall with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, recording $37.1 billion at the end of March 2022 and $33.1 billion in August. The higher reserves will cover Egypt’s imports for eight months, higher than the worldwide average and sending a soothing message to importers and investors, Al-Fayoumi said.
He said the main goal was meeting local market demand regardless of price issues. More than 1,000 outlets across the country were offering goods at lower prices as part of the “Welcome Ramadan” initiative three months before Ramadan, he added.
This government initiative offers goods at discounts of between 15 and 30 per cent at over 1,000 outlets across the country, according to Matta Beshai, head of the Supply and Foreign Trade Committee at the Importers’ Division at the Chambers of Commerce.
Beshai said that this had helped to curb price rises in January and preserve price stability. He clarified that he did not foresee prices decreasing significantly in the first quarter of 2023, but the initiative had helped to safeguard consumers from sudden shocks.
“The decision to offer these goods is to reassure people that the most essential goods they might need during Ramadan are available in enough quantities,” said Deputy Supply Minister Ibrahim Ashmawi.
The initiative also gave people enough time to stock up on food items before Ramadan. Similarly, a three-month government price-control scheme for rice was launched in November last year. After roughly four months, a cabinet meeting on 15 February reversed the decision and ended the scheme in its original form after various problems.
The Supply Ministry said that sellers must keep the price per kg of packaged fine white rice at LE18. The price for unpackaged rice, which is of a lower quality due to less thorough milling of the grain, is at LE15 per kg. The price of a lower-quality variety can be sold for LE12.
Unfortunately, the scheme did not entirely achieve its desired goal. What was an attempt to protect people from the effects of rising inflation on a vital food item was unpopular among vendors. Many merchants argued that the fixed prices were too low for them to make a profit.
Some of the country’s largest producers, unhappy with the lowered profit margins caused by the price controls, lowered their output and increased the production of other, more profitable foodstuffs.
A decrease in supply followed, especially at larger supermarkets, a fact that was noted on social media by thousands of shoppers. The reduced supply was worsened by unhappy sellers withholding stocks and waiting for prices to increase despite the consequences.
After a while, the low supplies made merchants disregard the ministry’s rules and sell rice for between LE21 and LE25 per kg. As supplies decreased, demand for rice increased significantly as more livestock farmers began to use it as an alternative to yellow corn.
This is an essential component in various kinds of animal feed, and it has been in short supply over the past year because of strict import controls to limit the outflow of foreign currency at a time when Egypt’s foreign reserves had shrunk.
Eventually, the ministry imported 25,000 tons of rice in March, listing it on the Egyptian Commodities Exchange so that sellers can buy it according to market-determined prices without government controls. Rice at lower prices remains available at the government’s food outlets and at annual Ramadan food drives.
Hussein Abu Saddam, head of the Farmers Syndicate, praised the decision to terminate the earlier decision. “It was necessary for the decision to be reversed so that sellers and farmers could release the rice they had been keeping in storage,” he said.
Abu Saddam recommended that more land should be used for rice cultivation, especially in Fayoum and the New Valley, to meet the needs of the growing population. He added that the government has reduced the amount of land planted with rice because the crop uses large amounts of water. He suggested planting dry rice instead, as this requires moderate quantities of water in similar amounts to wheat and barley.
Some 200,000 feddans of land were planted with dry rice this year due to a lack of suitable seeds. However, next year there should be more seeds available, leading to increased production, Abu Saddam said.
The Shoulder to Shoulder initiative, launched on 17 March in the presence of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, is one of the largest social-protection initiatives in Egypt’s history and also bears witness to the government’s desire to protect the population from rising prices.
Held in Cairo Stadium, the launch aimed to distribute millions of boxes of foodstuffs to the most vulnerable groups in order to mitigate the effects of economic difficulties before the month of Ramadan. The stadium saw a large attendance from different age groups and more than 50,000 volunteers from all over Egypt.
It was organised by the National Alliance for Civil Development Action in all the governorates of Egypt, and it takes place in cooperation with the Decent Life Foundation, a member of the Alliance NBK and Al-Safi Group.
INDIVIDUAL EFFORTS: Adding to the government efforts, there are Maedat Al-Rahman, or Ramadan banquets, on almost every main street this Ramadan catering for those in need.
Many people are trying to help lower-income households by making itaam (offering food) and charitable donations. Not only that, there have been videos on the Internet made by public figures and influencers encouraging people to contribute,
For example, Nourhan Kandil, a pharmacist and social-media influencer, shared a video of her producing food for others during Ramadan that inspired those who do not cook. She even asked her followers to meet up and cook together.
Mohamed Al-Baz, the founder of the Healthy & Tasty Company, has shared a few pieces of advice on his Facebook profile on how to choose the best itaam food options, especially with the Eid approaching.
Al-Baz did a survey asking low-income families what they would like to find in bags of Ramadan food this year. The answers indicated that a kg of rice is better than three bags of pasta as pasta is not so filling. In order to make a pasta dish, you also need sauce or tomatoes, which is an added cost.
Rice, however, only needs a spoonful of oil, the respondents said. Beans were better than black beans, they added. Some people said they ate both, and others said they did not. But none of them said they did not like beans. Lentils were favoured by many, whether in summer or winter. Oil was seen as very important and affected by the price increases. So, the more oil bottles, the better, the respondents said. All this needed to be accompanied by some chicken. Finally, sugar, tea, and salt were a necessity in every home.
Nonetheless, as food prices have gone up, preparing cheaper dishes has been getting harder to afford. As a result, ideas of ways to save money without compromising nutrition have been shared by mothers, housewives, cooks, and anyone who is interested in food.
To avoid waste and save money, many people have created dishes that use leftover bread or pastry. From making cheese and yoghurt at home to adding vegetables to beef or replacing meat with eggplant, new ideas are being shared every day.
“I no longer go out to buy clothes during the Eid because they are so expensive. Instead, I wait for the discounts,” Marko Gerges, a young man from Cairo, said.
The question remains whether the government’s and other efforts will neutralise the food price increases, however. Food is a way of celebrating special occasions and festivals. Egyptian dishes reflect different aspects of the culture and are a way of expressing hospitality and generosity as sharing Iftar meals is a must during Ramadan.
“We don’t feel the pressure to buy new clothes anymore for the Eid. We only buy clothes when they are on sale, whether before or after the Eid,” Nana Zakaria, a working woman from Cairo, said.
Some traditions are being scaled back, among them avoiding Ramadan’s expensive dishes and sweets, abandoning traditional egg colouring, and not buying new clothes for the Eid. But this will not suppress the joy of the occasion, and everyone will still be able to celebrate the feast.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly