About 300 people are sitting around tables set up on the ground when Mohamed al-Gawhary, a strawberry farmer, arrives in the small town of Kafr al-Suhby in the north of the Qalyubiya governorate on December 8. Gawhary can tell the crowd is angry, even from afar, and as he approaches the voices become louder and blend together. It is strikingly unusual activity for an otherwise quiet town, he thinks.
Gawhary waits for a bit, and the crowd swells to 400 people.
In a video that circulated on Facebook, people gradually lower their voices, and Gawhary takes the microphone. “We are all in the same boat,” he says to the crowd. “If we do not unite against the exploitation of companies, we will start eating dirt.”
The gathering in Kafr al-Suhby, which included some of the most prominent strawberry farmers in Qalyubiya and other neighboring governorates, was an attempt to put an end to the exploitation of export companies, according to Gawhary, one of three people who called for this action.
The meeting took place after exporters cut the price of a carton of strawberries, roughly three kilograms, from LE120 in early November to LE50. After a few hours of discussion, the farmers decided to boycott the export companies for a week and sell their produce to the local markets instead. But they also decided to form an association for strawberry growers, for which they have already started the procedures.
According to Hussein Abu Saddam, the head of the Farmers Syndicate, there are about 26,000 acres of strawberries cultivated in Egypt. Some farmers call strawberries “red gold” because the yield usually sells for a high price in foreign markets, Abu Saddam tells Mada Masr.
Egypt started cultivating strawberries during the reign of Mohamed Ali, as Hassan Zayed, the deputy minister of agriculture in Qalyubiya, explains. Strawberries were initially grown in the fields of Maadi, and then in the village of Deir in Toukh, Qalyubiya. The yield per acre ranged from 1 to 2 tons until 1981. With the development of the agricultural sector, yield per acre reached 25 tons in some areas, especially because farmers started using better soil sterilization techniques as a healthier alternative to pesticides, Zayed explains.
Gawhary cultivates 15 acres of land in Belkas, Daqahlia. He has 30 full-time farm workers, in addition to seasonal workers, with strawberry cultivation being a year-round endeavor. Farmers spend three months prepping the soil, followed by nine months of maintenance on the way to production. One acre of land could require up to 1,000 farm workers over the year of cultivation. Each acre of land costs farmers around LE100,000 per year, sometimes reaching as high as LE140,000.
Tamer Shaat, owner of Red Gold, a strawberry producer in Beheira, says that Egypt’s strawberry crop can be divided into three categories. The first category is the crop that meets Europe’s high standards, where each strawberry is carefully chosen. The second category includes the yield that is exported to Arab countries, in which the quality of strawberries is of slightly lower quality. And finally, the third category is the yield that goes to the local market, which is of the lowest quality.
According to the chief of the Farmers Syndicate and the data presented by Agriculture Export Council during the Food Africa expo, which took place at the start of December, the largest portion of strawberry yield goes to the production of frozen strawberries. Local consumption of fresh strawberries comes next. And about 9 percent of each season’s yield, the lowest proportion but also the most profitable, is exported.
Data from the Agriculture Export Council shows that strawberry exports brought in US$86 million in 2019, up from $64 million in 2018. Most Egyptian strawberry exports go to markets in Belgium, Germany, Russia, England, France and the Netherlands.
However, changes in Egypt’s strawberry season are affecting its international competitiveness.
Shaat has worked in the agriculture business for more than fifteen years. Years ago, he says that the export season would begin in early November and end in June. But because of climate change, the strawberry season has now become shorter, starting in December and ending in April. Strawberries are a winter crop, and they don’t grow in hot summer temperatures. “But now the entire year has turned into one summer,” says Shaat.
Gawhary faces the same problems. He started cultivating strawberries 10 years ago, which, despite some of the challenges, passed relatively fruitfully. However, climate change is now affecting his produce. “Farmers are barely able to get back what they spent on their lands,” he says, adding that there have been recurring losses due to heavy rain that causes the crops to rot.
Shaat explains that changes in the climate have caused Egypt’s strawberry season to end early, which has been an advantage to Egypt’s biggest competitors, Spain and Morocco. By early January, these countries start to export their fresh, high-quality yield at a lower cost due to their proximity to Europe, reducing the demand for Egyptian strawberries.
Export pricing also determines pricing in the local market, according to Shaat. Now, as the export season effectively ends after Christmas, with prices dropping sharply, farmers try to take in high revenues during the export season to compensate for losses later in the year.
Apart from climate change, strawberry exports suffer from recurrent crises due to high levels of pesticides. Essam Abdelaaty, one of the largest strawberry farmers in Qalyubiya, tells Mada Masr that export companies that buy produce from farmers are responsible for coordinating with the Agricultural Quarantine Authority to inspect strawberries to ensure their safety.
ِAccording to Hisham al-Bahrawy, who owns an export company, the export process is as follows: the exporters submit requests to the Agriculture Export Council to inspect the crops of farmers whose produce is to be exported, which provides them with the identifier codes for those farmers’ crops. The Agricultural Quarantine Authority then takes samples from the farmers with the corresponding codes. Based on the test results, the export request is either approved or denied. Finally, the exporter whose request is approved acquires the produce and prepares it for shipping, which usually takes more than 10 days.
However, some exporters try to circumvent these measures. Bahrawi, who has been in the import and export business for 12 years, says that some exporters obtain low-quality crops from the farmer before the codes are distributed and store them without any oversight over the refrigeration process. After that, they go through with the normal procedures, in which inspection of a farmer’s higher quality crops is performed. Upon obtaining the approvals, those exporters ship the low-quality frozen strawberries along with the approved crops.
This has caused a large number of shipments to go bad, which has pushed different importers abroad to demand compensation from Egyptian exporters by requesting new shipments with lower prices. In order to achieve this, those companies have had to lower the price with which they buy crops from farmers, prompting other export companies to do the same, which has brought on the latest crisis.
In August 2016, the United States suspended Egyptian strawberry imports after reports claimed that 134 people were infected with hepatitis A after consuming Egyptian frozen strawberries. And in June of 2017, Saudi Arabia also banned the import of Egyptian strawberries.
Meanwhile, farmers are complaining about the complete absence of state intervention. “The state is oblivious to what is happening to us. It does not have any role in the strawberry production process from the moment of farming until export.” says Abdelaaty. “They don’t even intervene in the follow-up and guidance procedures for production standards and pesticide use.”
After a few meetings, strawberry farmers decided to hasten the process of establishing the Association for Strawberry Farmers, which now counts about 1,000 farmers from Qalyubiya, Beheira, and Daqahlia among its ranks. The association will organize the production process for strawberries and establish production guidelines for all members of the association, one of which is to standardize pesticide use to ensure that the production meets the conditions of European markets and also yields enough for the Egyptian market.