Agriculture is one of the most important sectors of the Egyptian economy, directly accounting for approaching one third of employment and providing income for over half of the population. The sector benefits from plentiful water from the Nile (though elsewhere water is scarce), along the banks of which most agricultural activity takes place, as well as year-round sun in much of the country and a location close to major export markets, such as Europe and the Gulf. Exports have risen rapidly in recent years and there is large potential for growth, though this will require better harnessing the potential of the small-scale farmers who dominate the sector, but suffer from problems like fragmentation of land use and a lack of access to market intelligence.
Ministry of Planning data put the proportion of GDP accounted for by agriculture, forestry and fishing at 13.4% in 2011/12, more or less unchanged from 13.3% in 2010/11. Agricultural GDP expanded by 2.9% in real terms in 2011/12, up from 2.7% the previous year. The sector is one of the most important employers in the country, accounting for 29.2% of total employment in 2011/12. The total planted area stood at 8.61m feddans in 2011, a figure that has expanded greatly over recent decades, having stood at around 5.8m feddans 30 years ago.
Arable land accounts for around 2.9% of total land and 100% of arable land is equipped for irrigation, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The great majority of irrigation is provided for by water from the Nile, the flow of which can be controlled with great precision thanks to the system of dams constructed along the river. The fact that very few farms are reliant on rain for irrigation combined with the country’s climate allows many crops to be grown year-round, in particular in Upper Egypt, where temperatures are higher than in the north.
Field crops represent the largest category of agricultural produce by value, according to figures from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), accounting for 38.4% of total farming output by value in 2010/11. Beef and other meats (not including poultry) accounted for 13%, vegetables for 11.7% and fruits for 9.2%.
While field crops dominate overall, tomatoes are the country’s largest individual crop, according to FAO figures, with the value of production standing at $3bn in 2011, double the value of paddy rice output in second place, on $1.51bn. This ranked Egypt the fifth-largest producer of tomatoes in the world. Despite the volume of output, little in the way of tomato production is exported (tomatoes do not figure in the top 20 agricultural commodities exported by the country, according to FAO data). This is in part because most tomato production is consumed domestically or processed to make tomato paste; however, much of the crop also suffers from sizable post-harvest crop losses. “Around 40% of the crop never actually makes it to the consumer,” said Douglas Anderson, regional director of the USbased ACDI/VOCA, an international development organisation, citing factors such as poor post-harvest handling and volatile markets resulting from traditional planting practices and supply gluts.
Rice was the second-largest crop by value of production in 2011, at $151m. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) put production by quantity at 4.25m tonnes in 2011/12 and gave a preliminary figure of 4.68m tonnes for 2012/13. Egypt has traditionally been an important cotton producer, though production has been falling over the long-term – from 528,703 tonnes of cotton lint in 1980 to 137,000 in 2011 according to FAO data – due to factors, including difficulty marketing the crop abroad and farmers’ preference for other crops. The USDA estimates 2012/13 cotton production at around 490,000 bales.
Citrus fruit production is dominated by oranges, which account for just under two-thirds of total citrus output. The country was the world’s 12th-largest orange producer in 2011 according to the FAO. The USDA puts production in 2011/12 at 2.35m tonnes and estimates 2.5m tonnes will be grown in 2012/13, thanks to increased harvest area. Artichokes are also among the nation’s most important crops.
“Taking into account that even now, with all of the current uncertainty, Egypt is still producing 20% of the world’s artichokes, the government should consider boosting production by giving more incentives to producers,” Mohamed Abou El Dahab, the CEO of food-processing firm, Cold Alex, told OBG.
Fisheries & Aquaculture
Total fish production reached 1.36m tonnes in 2011, according to CAPMAS, up 4.4% from 2010. CAPMAS put the total value of fish production in 2010/11 at LE16.8bn ($2.4bn). According to FAO figures, the aquaculture segment has been developing rapidly, with production rising from 595,030 tonnes in 2006 to 986,820 tonnes in 2011. In 2010, the country ranked as the eighth-largest producer of farmed aquatic animals in the world according to the FAO. The total value of Egyptian agricultural exports stood at $5.16bn in 2011, according to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), barely changed from 2010’s figure of $5.12bn but up strongly from previous years: the value of exports was $3.22bn in 2008.
Despite this growth Egypt continues to run a large agricultural trade deficit, with the value of imports standing at around three times those of exports in 2011, at $15.38bn; however, growth in exports has significantly outstripped growth in imports since 2008, suggesting the gap is closing.
Increased Investment and Foreign Expertise Required
“Egypt has the resources for agricultural success – the manpower, the soil and the water; however, the sector lacks expertise in some areas as well as money,” Kamal told OBG. “What is needed is joint ventures with large foreign companies, such as major European importers; this would allow Egypt to produce new crops and could see investors save 20% or so compared to importing crops, such as asparagus from Latin America. Now is the time for such firms to invest in Egypt as the political situation means that assets are inexpensive.”
Mechanization is eminent
One of the main challenges to the development of the traditional segment of agriculture is the high fragmentation of land ownership, which is caused by inheritance traditions under which land is divided among the sons of a farmer, breaking it up into smaller plots as each generation passes. Furthermore, land owned by a single farmer is often divided into several plots in different places, further exacerbating the problem and damaging the efficiency of farms. The small size of plots mean that is rarely worthwhile for small-scale farmers to introduce mechanization, which also undermines efficiency. As a consequence, the overall rate of mechanization in the country is low.
One potential partial solution to the issue of fragmentation is the consolidation of small farms into cooperatives. However, some observers also say that small-scale Egyptian farmers are less willing to band together than in many other countries. However, others assert that farmers are increasingly willing to pool resources, providing it is shown to be of benefit to them. “There is some resistance on the part of farmers to working together but it can be overcome; the key is to show them the economic benefits,” said Anderson. “Farmers often see cooperation as something forced upon them by the government,” added Alexandra Harrison, project director at ACDI/VOCA. “However, when it is presented as a choice or an opportunity, they are more likely to participate.”
Water and Soil Issues
Agriculture accounted for 86% of freshwater withdrawals in 2011, according to the World Bank. Although the Nile provides plentiful water for irrigation along its length, the country is mostly desert and extremely water poor on a per capita basis. Renewable fresh water resources per capita stood at 22 cu metres, ranking Egypt the fourth water poorest country in the world, according to World Bank data, and placing it well below the upper limit of “absolute water scarcity” of 500 cu m per person per year, as defined by the Falkenmark Water Stress Index (one of the most commonly used water scarcity measures). The country’s reliance on the Nile for agriculture faces potential threats upstream uses of water and dam-building, giving rise to tensions between Egypt and upstream neighbours, such as Ethiopia.
The government previously managed all agricultural irrigation facilities; however, this suffered from a lack of funds and was not always efficient. In order to improve the use of water, and in line with long-term plans to reduce the role of the state in the sector, the authorities are now delegating management and maintenance for some tertiary irrigation canals to farmers themselves. This is being done with the assistance of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which is providing technical advice and other support.
Another long-term challenge in recent decades has been the loss of soil to high salinity due to factors such as irrigation, the fact that the Nile no longer removes minerals from the soil by flooding, a high water table, and evapotranspiration, particularly in the delta.
Transportation more generally can also be a challenge for the sector. Given the large size of the country and the low population density in some areas and in Upper Egypt in particular, many farmers are often located a great distance from markets. The quality of roads away from major population centres is also often poor, slowing deliveries and making the transportation of equipment difficult (constituting a further barrier to mechanization). Small-scale farmers located far from markets are particularly reliant on brokers and middlemen, as they often do not have their own means of transporting produce.
Providing that current trends can be maintained, exports are set to grow and the agricultural trade deficit will be significantly reduced. However, with enthusiasm for large-scale desert reclamation projects appearing dimmer, much depends on the development of the traditional sector and ensuring that small farmers are aware of opportunities and integrated into markets. “Egypt has incredible agricultural potential and resources, but many countries with less in the way of resources are doing better in this sector,” said El Saied. “What the country is lacking is a market-driven strategy to make use of its agricultural advantages. We need to recognize that Egypt is an agricultural country and ensure that we use our resources properly.”
Oxford Business Group