Egypt's small farms play big role in country's food supply but struggle to survive

A farmer collecting a pepper crop in el-Fashn, in Egypt's Beni Suef governorate, on June 13, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

SINDIYUN, EGYPT (AFP) - Egyptian smallholders grow nearly half of the country's crops, a lifeline role increasingly important after grain imports were stalled by war in Ukraine - but they are struggling to survive.

Despite their crucial role providing food for the North African nation's 103 million people, smallholders are cash-strapped and indebted, frequently selling their harvests at a loss.

"The farmer is dead, trampled," farmer Zakaria Aboueldahab told AFP, brewing tea on his rented plot of wheat and onions in Qalyubia, 30km north of Cairo.

"I'm trying to sell my onion harvest but I can't find a market," he said, the remnants of his crop scattered across the soil. "I just want to break even. I don't know how I'm going to pay rent".

His onions would sell in Egypt: but financing, marketing and infrastructure hurdles create massive gaps between supply and demand.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), small farms are the "primary producers" of food for domestic consumption in Egypt.

Farmers cultivating less than three feddans (1.2ha) - an area the size of a football pitch - till 35 per cent of arable land.

Yet they produce some 47 per cent of Egypt's field crops, the FAO calculates.

Larger farms focus more on exports - a dynamic that came to a head when Russia invaded Ukraine.

'Patriotic duty'

Egypt, the world's leading importer of wheat, relied on Russia and Ukraine for 80 per cent of its imports, providing the flour for Egypt's traditional flat bread.

Ordinary Egyptians eat bread at almost every meal, and Egypt's wheat farmers ramped up production to 40 per cent of the country's needs.

"Without the 40 per cent of wheat that we produce domestically," rural sociologist Saker al-Nour told AFP, the consequences of the war "would be much worse".

In March, Cairo ordered farmers to grow wheat, calling the "compulsory delivery" orders a "patriotic duty". By June, farmers had provided more than 3.5 million tonnes, according to the supply ministry, over half the domestic supply goal to August, and equal to the total amount supplied in 2021.

Compulsory crop deliveries were a pillar of president Gamal Abdel Nasser's socialist policies in the 1960s, but those policies were dropped amid the structural adjustment programmes of the 1990s.

With them went the former subsidies on seeds, pesticides and fertilisers, which have steadily shrunk over the decades.

"Instantly, when things got tough, it went back to compulsory delivery, but this time without the services that came with it," Dr Nour said.

To encourage farmers to grow wheat, the government had previously set domestic prices higher than imports.

But the unprecedented surge in global prices undermined that.

Stronger together?

Egypt's smallholders till 35 per cent of the country's arable land, but produce some 47 per cent of its field crops. PHOTO: AFP

"Now I owe money to the pesticide guy, to the fertiliser guy," Mr Aboueldahab said. "So if someone comes along and bids a low price, what am I supposed to do?"

One solution is for smallholders to join together and harness the power of technology.

Entrepreneur Hussein Abou Bakr launched a start-up finance company called Mozare3, farmer in Arabic, which offers farmers financing solutions and agronomy support.

It also helps farmers "become a bloc", in the absence of effective local cooperatives and sets prices "as a form of protection" against market fluctuations.

Dr Nour warns smallholders have "very limited negotiating power, especially when they don't have the storage capacity for their harvest".

But with illiteracy among smallholders at 32 per cent, according to the FAO, offline village associations are necessary.

As climate change bites, Dr Nour warns bottom-up approaches are essential.

These associations could, for example, communicate extreme weather events quickly and directly to farmers whose crops are at risk.

These tools exist, the sociologist said. "We just need to make them available to small farmers."

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