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Agricultural entrepreneurs are starting to find fertile ground

Under a fine spray of mist, row upon row of leafy greens are planted on waist-high tables, their roots suspended in nutrient-rich water rather than planted in the ground.

Ranging in color from the bright acid green of baby Batavia lettuce, the viridian of kale to the purple of mature ruby chard, the Egyptian Hydrofarms greenhouse on the outskirts of Cairo is home to a variety of greens that, until recently, were virtually impossible to find in Egypt.

The company, which erected its greenhouse in October 2012, is part of a mini-boom in healthy, clean produce that is taking off in Egypt despite the larger macroeconomic decline. Small companies like Egyptian Hydrofarms are finding ways to reach a niche but growing market through farmers’ markets, social media and online delivery services.

Organic produce is not a new concept for Egypt. Companies like Sekem, which produces the brand ISIS Organics, have been operating for decades. But with local guidelines for organic labeling unclear, and lax enforcement of standards, consumers are looking beyond labels, seeking to purchase vegetables from small outfits that allow them to get to know not only the food they buy but also the people who produce it.

“The quality of everything dropped. People lost trust in local produce,” says Egyptian Hydrofarms co-founder Adel El Shentenawy. “People are excited to find clean products that they can trust.”

Loubna Olama is the co-founder of monthly farmers’ markets in Sixth of October’s Arkan Plaza and New Cairo’s Katameya Heights. Agreeing with Shentenawy, she adds, “It’s becoming more trendy. There is a rising awareness of healthy lifestyles. People are really keen and eager for this kind of market.”

 “We have a very nice customer base — very health-oriented and nutrition aware clients. They wait for our monthly market,” Olama says.

Unlike traditional souqs, where vegetables may have changed hands half a dozen times before reaching customers, the produce at these farmers markets are sold directly by the people who produce them. In a little more than six months, Olama says, the numbers of these vendors has grown from five or six to more than 60, selling everything from vegetables and baked goods to handicrafts and natural beauty products.

A market for healthy produce can even be found in Sinai, says Maged El Said, founder of Habiba Farms. Established in Nuweiba in 2007, Habiba grows crops like swiss chard, asparagus, dates and pomegranates to sell at a farmer’s market in nearby Dahab.

For the time being, though, the market consists largely of foreign tourists and residents in nearby beach communities, who look for both a familiar range of produce and organic vegetables. “Maybe two or three percent are Egyptian and the rest are foreigners,” says Said.

“Interest in organics by locals is growing in Cairo, but not so much in rural areas,” he adds.

With a Cairo-based core clientele, Egyptian Hydrofarms’ experience supports this. A substantial part of their business comes from foreigners, and companies like the Four Seasons and Marriott Hotels that cater primarily to tourists, but interest is growing among Egyptians.

Take kale, for example, which became de rigueur among nutritionists abroad a couple of years ago. “At the beginning, only foreigners were interested. Now it’s a new trend,” says Shentenawy. Egyptians, too, have started digging into kale smoothies and salads.

The availability of new vegetables is also helping to drive a change in tastes.

Egyptian Hydrofarms partners Adel El Shentenawy (left) and Amr Bassiouny (right).

Amr Bassiouny, Egyptian Hydrofarms’ managing director, views staid iceberg lettuce as a necessary evil, which they had to produce in order to secure any orders at all. “You don’t have iceberg, you’re not going to sell the other stuff,” he says, gesturing towards rows of more sophisticated lettuces like oakleaf and butterhead.

“Now, people are asking for butterhead rather than iceberg,” says Shentenawy. “In the beginning, 70 percent of production was iceberg, but it kept shifting. Now it’s down to 20 to 30 percent. We’ve thought about stopping it.”

The market for pesticide free produce may be growing, but it is still a luxury product.

Egyptian Hydrofarms’ kale, for example, sells for LE18 per 100 grams via grocery store and online retailer Gourmet Egypt. Even the humble iceberg lettuce sells for LE7 per head. Meanwhile, according to government figures, more than a quarter of Egyptians live on less than LE60 a week.

It bothers Shentenawy and his partners that their products are beyond reach for most Egyptians.

“We’ve talked about it a lot,” he says, but the company’s costs are high. Getting started required an investment of about 150 times the start-up cost of a traditional farm. They use 90–95 percent less water than standard set-ups and no pesticides, but this yields few cost savings in Egypt, where both inputs are sold at highly subsidized prices. The government support system for agriculture, such as it is, is geared towards easing the costs of chemical and water intensive conventional farming.

Shentenawy and his counterparts on other farms are trying to counterbalance this exclusivity with an ethos of social awareness. Egyptian Hydrofarms has a volunteer program and hopes to host school fieldtrips and other educational events.

Habiba runs a free after school program for local children and has set up a foundation to support date farming in Sinai.

Even suburban efforts like the farmers’ market at Arkan help by supporting cottage industries that create an income stream for small producers, many of them from marginalized groups.

“Our mission is women’s empowerment, economic development and the inclusion of persons with disabilities,” says Olama.

Ultimately, though, farmers say the way to bring costs down and make chemical-free, environmentally friendly vegetables available for more people, is to scale up, with more farmers producing more vegetables and bringing down the cost of materials and seeds.

“We’re not very threatened by other people,” says Bassiouny. The farm is always open to students or even potential rivals, to visit and check out their methods. 

“Instead of trying to be afraid of competition, we’re almost encouraging it,” he says.

This call seems to be heeded in the halls of power. Expanding agriculture into desert areas appears to be a major goal for newly elected President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. On Sunday, he met with his Cabinet to discuss ways to cultivate an additional 4 million acres of land, and specifically discussed hydroponics as a potential solution.

In the meantime, Said, of Habiba farms, says the military has already given away 75 greenhouses to farmers in his area, although they did so without providing any training for people who have little or no experience with this style of farming.

Although he hopes environmentally friendly techniques like hydroponic farming will be adopted more widely in Egypt, Bassiouny says he is concerned that mass, state-led projects could actually make it more difficult for aspiring agricultural entrepreneurs to follow in his footsteps.

Already, a wave of military orders has driven up the price of steel, PVC fittings, plastic sheeting and other materials needed for greenhouses.

Small farmers may welcome growth, but it’s too early to tell how far the industry can expand without losing its roots.

Isabel Esterman