Sending a signal to organic farmers to grow more

Discriminating consumers power the growing market for healthier produce in Egypt.

IN JANUARY Egypt exported 271,960 tons of fruit and 115,523 tons of vegetables. (photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)
IN JANUARY Egypt exported 271,960 tons of fruit and 115,523 tons of vegetables.
(photo credit: THE MEDIA LINE)
In densely populated Cairo, nearly every street corner boasts a khodrawaty (vegetable seller) and a fakahany (fruit stand).
Stacks of artichokes, cucumbers and bundles of spinach often present the sole spot of greenery, while piles of mangoes and oranges displayed alongside banana bunches provide the sole reminder of agricultural Egypt in a cityscape of brick and concrete.
Unlike parts of urban America, there are no deserts bereft of fresh produce in Cairo.
But a recent EU-funded study found that the general standards for local market production are low, resulting in insufficient quality and hygiene levels.
The United Nations Environmental Program has found that the current mix of industrial and traditional farming practices have led to loss of agricultural biodiversity, increased desertification, land erosion, and loss of soil fertility.
“Most top-line produce is exported to Europe, providing Egypt with much-needed foreign currency,” said Mona Osman, who organized the Katameya Ladies Farmers’ Market in the city’s eastern suburbs.
In January alone, Egypt exported 271,960 tons of fruit and 115,523 tons of vegetables according to the Agriculture Ministry.
Produce exports exceed imports by a factor of 15.
“The arrival of international chains like [French owned] Carrefour and [German owned] Metro markets have provided middle-class consumers with a higher quality standard for fruits and vegetables,” said Osman.
“But we are bringing the hand-selected and organic product to the most discriminating shopper,” Osman told The Media Line.
Osman’s monthly event is held at the regal grounds of the Royal Maxim Palace Kempinski, a setting more evocative of the Persian Gulf or the affluent sections of Dallas, Texas, than the heart of the Egyptian capital an hour’s drive away.
The market also features homemade baked goods and traditional Arabic dishes like stuffed grape leaves and zucchini prepared by Syrian refugee women.
Like the established twice-weekly farmers’ market held in the courtyard of Zamalek’s Nun Center, it’s a community event with a focus on supporting sustainable agriculture and women’s empowerment.
“This event is about eating healthy, locally grown food with a minimum of pesticides,” said Nada Iskander, co-founder of Nun Center, a hub of holistic health programs reminiscent of Berkeley, California.
The Egyptian Center for Organic Agriculture was founded 18 years ago, but it was only in 2014 that the farm industry group secured the prized EU organic equivalence certification.
“It took time to raise awareness to get people out of the supermarket and back in touch with local food,” Iskander said.
Menar Meebed, formerly the Development Director at the American University in Cairo, is representative of both the vendors and the clientele at the new farmers’ markets.
“In 2011, after the revolution, I asked myself what I could do for Egypt,” Meebed told The Media Line.
Meebed started Minnie’s Dried Fruits & Vegetables, which produces solar-dried tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and an extensive inventory of local herbs and spices.
“We have a plot of land near Dahshour [approximately 40 kilometers south of Cairo] where there aren’t many job opportunities for women.”
“The women on the farm work in a safe environment and carry out strict sanitary practices, handling our foods with tremendous loving care.”
Swiss-born Sara Hanning-Nour transformed a traditional family holding into the capital’s high-demand source for top-line organic produce.
Sarah’s Farm operates stands at both the Katameya and Zamalek markets while running a delivery service based on in-season produce for restaurants and home cooks.
“Organics thrive in our dry climate,” said Hanning-Nour. “Our crop is less prone to pests, fungus, and disease.”
This week’s market visitors were enthusing over Hanning-Nour’s artichokes.
“When it comes to quality, sustainability, and knowing something about the produce you and your family consume, the answer is simple; the closer and more in season the better.”
American-trained Giza nutritionist Fatma Kamal sees a growing market for organics in Egypt.
“When you go to the supermarket and you pull your Egyptian pounds out and buy that Oreo, you’re sending a message to Nestlé to supply you with more of that,” said Kamal.
“It’s the same with health produce. When you put that money into an organic avocado or local bananas, you’re sending the same signal to the farmers to grow more.”
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