Graduating to a new life farming Egypt’s desert

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Graduating to a new life farming Egypt’s desert

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© IFAD/Marco Salustro

El Shohada village, a woman cleans carrots during the harvest.

An innovative scheme in Egypt is creating work for the country’s large number of unemployed graduates and boosting the economy by reclaiming agricultural land from the desert.

After receiving a degree in agricultural engineering from Cairo University, Ahmad Abdelmunem Al-Far was unemployed, except for occasional work in a garage or as a waiter. Then he responded to an announcement offering opportunities on reclaimed land for unemployed graduates and his life was changed.

Al-Far received a plot of 2.1 hectares of reclaimed land when he joined the IFADsupported West Noubaria Rural Development Project. In partnership with the Government of Egypt, the project is helping ease some of Egypt’s most pressing social and economic problems.

On half of his farm, Al-Far cultivates fava beans, onions, green peppers, tomatoes and potatoes to maintain soil nutrients and quality and to meet market demand. He and his wife have also bought cows for the production of meat, cheese, butter, ghee, yogurt and fresh milk for their own needs and to sell at market.

On the other half, he successfully planted oranges, which have become a cash crop. “Oranges sell very well in the summer because of the high demand from hotels and restaurants,” Al-Far says. “The project staff accompanied us from the very beginning, from seeding to harvest, providing technical advice, seed, fertilizer, pesticide and market information. Thanks to project support, I was able to produce 16,000 kilos of oranges in the first harvest four years ago and reached a record of 40,000 kilos in 2008.”

Helping graduates feed themselves and others

Every year, about 700,000 young people graduate from Egypt’s vocational schools. With not enough jobs to go around in Cairo and Egypt’s other cities, many of these graduates end up unemployed. At the same time, Egypt urgently needs to grow more food to feed the nation’s expanding population.

The West Noubaria project grew out of the IFAD-supported New Lands Agricultural Services Project, which closed in December 2000. The New Lands project was designed to assist small farmers in establishing sustainable, profitable farming in three new land zones in Noubaria over an area of approximately 71,400 hectares. The West Noubaria project offers loans for land – with a 30-year repayment period and a grace
period of five years – in an effort to tackle the high rate of unemployment among young graduates and the pressing need to reclaim land to produce food.

Turning the desert into a source of jobs and food

“The state’s national plan is to reclaim about 150,000 acres (60,000 hectares) of land each year,” says Mohamed Gomaa, Head of Land Reclamation at Egypt’s Ministry of Agriculture. “We have no choice due to overpopulation. We also have to have a secure source of food to feed the population, and in order to secure food you have to secure jobs, so it’s all linked.”

Egypt’s agricultural land is concentrated in a narrow strip of the Nile Valley, in the former flood plains of the Nile Delta and in the ‘new lands’ reclaimed from the desert, mainly since the 1952 construction of the Aswan High Dam. The fertile land of the delta has fed Egyptians for thousands of years, but the population keeps growing, while available agricultural land is shrinking as urban areas spread. With the exception of the Mediterranean coast, there is scant rainfall and farming is possible only with irrigation.

The area of cultivated land per person is only about 0.05 hectare, among the lowest in the world. The West Noubaria project area covers 23,520 hectares on either side of the Cairo- Alexandria Desert Road, about 90 kilometres south of Alexandria. This former part of the western desert is the last of the ‘new land’ zones in this part of Egypt to be opened up and settled.

The project helped Al-Far and his fellow farmers by offering food rations to new arrivals for four years, a credit fund, upgrading housing, introducing systems for sewage and refuse disposal, and training the graduates in crop and livestock production and water management. Project extension officers taught the new farmers how to make compost from crop waste.

The project also contributed to a drip irrigation system that has improved crop productivity considerably, allowing farmers to diversify their crops and introduce cash crops they were unable to plant before.

Linking farmers to markets

Even the best designed projects can have teething problems. In the case of the West Noubaria project, the new irrigation method was an outstanding success, for example increasing the productivity of tomatoes from about 4.5 tons per hectare in 2003/04 to 7.5 tons in 2006/07.

But farmers were not making decent profits from their produce. Transportation costs from the distant villages to Alexandria were high, and middlemen took too big a bite out of farmers’ revenues – most producers had difficulty marketing their products.

So the project expanded its activities into farmer education, holding regular seminars, in cooperation with marketing associations, to teach the new farmers about the benefits of working collectively.

Farmers learned that they could cut their transportation costs by more than half by sharing the cost of a larger pickup truck instead of transporting their produce individually.

The project also helped farmers develop direct links with exporters and major buyers in the domestic market, cutting out the need for middlemen.

Shipping food locally and around the globe

The 36,000 participating farmers used this help to achieve some eye-catching successes. Domestically, this has included supplying fresh oranges and authentic mozzarella cheese to resorts in Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheikh. Farmers also export sweet peppers and sun-dried tomatoes to Italy and the United States, peanuts to Germany and Switzerland, and raisins, artichokes, apricots, peaches and potatoes to a variety of European countries.

Perhaps their most impressive contract is with Heinz, the global food company, which now buys more than 6,000 tons of tomatoes each year from 300 project farms. Heinz provides the farmers with seed of the needed quality and guarantees to buy half their harvest at an agreed price. If the farmers cannot sell the remaining tomatoes in the domestic market, Heinz is committed to buying them, too.

The desert community puts down roots

There are other signs of progress in the villages in addition to agriculture. Badr Ramadan Abas Al- Samahy came from an agricultural background and found it easier to adapt to farming in the desert than other graduates, but there were certain areas in which even he was powerless.

When his wife, Samia Ismail Desoki, went into labour with their son, there was no hospital or doctor in the village of Al Yashaa. The family headed off to the nearest city, but couldn’t get there in time, and so their son, Mohammed, was born in the desert. 

Now there is a health centre in Al Yashaa and a school that Mohammed attends, both of which are supported by the project. The children are growing up calling the desert their home, and putting down roots that will help the community grow and develop over the coming generations.

Taysir Al-Ghanem, IFAD’s Regional Communication Manager for the Near East and North Africa, believes the project has set a standard for others to follow. “It has created an example of how to bring life to the desert, give jobs to youth and boost the economy,” he says. “This is a relatively small experiment, but it has created an economy where there was none, and now there is a community where there was once only desert.”