From molasses to disinfectant

Sherif Sonbol , Tuesday 19 May 2020

Sherif Sonbol traces the journey of Egyptian sugarcane from field to alcohol bottle during the coronavirus pandemic

photo: Sherif Sonbol

With antiseptics becoming a staple household item due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and the convergence of people across the world, Egyptians being no exception, on sterilisers, it seemed a good idea to embark on a quest to purchase these valuable items.

Following a tour of Cairo pharmacies, a small bottle of alcohol was found to cost LE30. A few days later, a bottle of the same size, but with a different odour, cost LE70, and a one-litre bottle was priced at LE230.

The strange thing was that when this alcohol was sprayed on the hands it didn’t volatilise instantly but stayed put a bit like glycerol. People’s hectic search for antiseptic alcohol was soon over when the Armed Forces flooded the Egyptian market with low-priced bottles of alcohol. But soon the market was once again out of stock.

“A large portion of Egypt’s alcohol was exported pre-coronavirus. This is no longer the case with the rising demand from the local market,” chemist Mahmoud Abdel-Aal, manager of the Hawamdiya distillery in Giza, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The Hawamdiya distillery produces between 125,000 and 130,000 litres of 95 per cent concentrated alcohol. Another factory in Abu Qorqas produces the same amount, while a smaller factory produces 20,000 litres,” he said.

“However, production in the third factory came to a halt because the storage lots are full with more than 400,000 litres of 95 per cent concentrated alcohol, which is equivalent to 520,000 litres of the 70 per cent concentrated alcohol that is in demand on the market,” he added.

Transforming sugarcane into products such as molasses and sugar cone in Upper Egypt (photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Something didn’t add up: the market is thirsty for alcohol, but the factories can’t produce any more because their storage lots are full. “The majority of alcohol bottles on the Egyptian market do not contain the antiseptic ethyl alcohol. Instead, they contain isopropanol, which smells like ethyl alcohol but is less permeable and less effective. You can tell the difference by the glycerol effect isopropanol leaves,” Abdel-Aal explained to the Weekly.

“Vendors prefer to sell isopropanol because it is cheaper, while taxes on ethyl alcohol are extremely high,” he said, noting that a “factory sells a litre of ethyl alcohol for LE13 before the taxes are added, and the vendors buy it for LE90.”

Egypt’s only source for ethyl alcohol is molasses, which is made of refined sugarcane or sugar beet. Sugarcane is the country’s second most important crop and is best found in Qena governorate.

Unconfirmed sources on the Internet say that the ancient Egyptians drank sugarcane juice. However, Ahmed Tolba, secretary of the Egyptian Heritage Association, said that “the Umayyid governor of Egypt, Quora bin Sharik, introduced the cultivation of sugarcane into Egypt, while politician Omar Makram Al-Siyouti introduced red sugarcane during the reign of Mohamed Ali, whose grandson the khedive Ismail gave special importance to sugarcane to become the country’s second most important crop after cotton.”

Hopping on a train to Naga Hammadi in Upper Egypt to visit a sugar factory established by Abboud Pasha and enjoying the scenery of the sugarcane fields flanking both sides of the train, I recalled a statement by former minister of agriculture Ezzeddin Abu Steit that Egypt cultivated 248,200 feddans of sugarcane and produced 2,483 million tons of sugar.

photo: Sherif Sonbol

By 2018, the total area planted with sugarcane had reached 325,000 feddans, the majority of which are in Upper Egypt. The production of 255,000 feddans is acquired by eight state-owned sugar companies, while the remainder is used to produce syrup.

In 2019, sugarcane production in Egypt was 1,100 tons, up from 408 tons in 1970, with production growing at an average annual rate of 2.32 per cent.

According to a Farmers Syndicate study, 500,000 families depend on growing sugarcane as a source of income, while Abdallah Al-Shafei, a former head of the Sugar Crops Research Institute, an affiliate of the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, said that 10 tons of sugarcane produce one ton of sugar.

Manufacturing sugar in Egypt started in 1891 with two large companies in Upper Egypt. Other companies established by pashas and rich families could not compete in the market, said Zeinab Hussein, a professor of modern history at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

photo: Sherif Sonbol

UPPER EGYPT: Upon arriving at the Naga Hammadi station, there was a boy selling gallab, known in Cairo as sugar cone but rarely seen in the capital nowadays.

I was received at the station by Hossam Abboud from the Abboud Pasha Sugar Company, who explained on the way to a sugarcane field that sugarcane was not harvested in the traditional sense of the word, but rather “broken”. He added that “the canes are broken above the stem to grow back the following year, and the process takes places annually between late December and late April.”

Sugarcane is watered once a year with a large amount of water throughout its five-year lifespan. When the soil is finally ploughed, crops that don’t exhaust the soil such as grass are grown for some time before re-cultivating sugarcane, Abboud said.

Sugarcane needs high temperatures to grow, which is why its cultivation is centred in Upper Egypt from Minya to Aswan through to Assiut, Sohag, Qena, Luxor and Armant, Abboud said. He added that the founder of the Abboud Pasha Sugar Company had built three factories for manufacturing sugar in Armant, Naga Hammadi, and Kom Ombo before establishing a factory in Hawamdiya in Giza for refining sugar. The four factories overlook the Nile.

“The factories produced big blocks of sugar that were transported via the River Nile from Upper Egypt to the Hawamdiya factory to be refined. This is why he also established a company for river transport,” Abboud said.

Arriving at the sugarcane field, it was unfortunate to find that the process of breaking the cane had already concluded. There were parked fleets of trucks waiting to load the sugarcane before taking the crop to the factory.

photo: Sherif Sonbol

Moving on to the workshop where sugar cones are produced, we found men and boys working to manufacture gallab. “Sugar cones are made of molasses and carbonate. They are poured into a copper pot to boil before they are moulded and left in the sun to dry,” explained Khaled, one of the workers in the spacious workshop. Some people prefer to eat the sugar cones, while others break them up and use them to sweeten other foods and drinks.

On the way to the molasses press, Abboud explained that “farmers prefer to break their harvest earlier in the day when the dew is still covering the canes so that their hands won’t be hurt. The factory controls which fields will be harvested by sending trucks to the fields in advance. The farmers don’t break their sugarcane unless they observe the parked trucks in front of their fields.”

Leftovers from breaking the canes are usually taken by farmers and used as feed for their livestock. “It’s a tradition that has been maintained for hundreds of years that they take the leftovers for free,” said Abboud.

Ahmed Abdel-Samie from the molasses press said that “28 industries are based on sugarcane, including sugar and vinegar manufacturing. Molasses is a suitable environment for the growth of micro-organisms used for aerobic and anaerobic fermentation. Molasses is also used in industrial fermentation to produce ethyl alcohol, active yeast, and perfumes such as the 555 Cologne which is highly in demand today because it contains 70 per cent alcohol. After the sugarcane is squeezed, the remains are used to make granular wood and paper pulp.”

The owner of the 150-year-old molasses press, Younis Fawi, explained that he presses the farmers’ sugarcane in return for 20 per cent of the molasses produced.

The molasses is poured into pots where it is levelled. The foam on top protects it against dust. It is left to cool for two days before it is packed. The leftovers are used as fuel for boilers or as feed for livestock.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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