Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1129, 3 - 9 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

People of the soil

Abeya El-Bakry listens to what farmers have to say about an UNDP project

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Salasel, a three-year UNDP project, has worked on helping small landowners in Upper Egypt to become investors in the agricultural sector by adding value to harvests from very small plots of land. A series of marketing events and field trips to Upper Egypt were designed to develop small landowners’ awareness of developing the agricultural sector.

Upper Egypt farmers made LE27.6 million in profits through the selection of crops for export and adding value to them through manufacturing processes after harvest. Salasel has succeeded in equipping small farmers with tools to identify global and local market needs, as well as educating them in modern farming methods. The project is based on creating value chains for farmers in Upper Egypt to meet Egypt’s commitment to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to eradicate poverty by 2015.

Farming in Egypt is ancient. In addition to the fertile land, Egypt’s civilisation had always been concentrated around the River Nile — a most fertile soil. Upper Egyptians rarely thought of exporting crops, let alone the process involved in the export business. Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s policy after the 1952 Revolution transferred property to small farmers, each receiving five feddans of fertile land. However, with every generation, the plots of land became smaller.

Additionally, unplanned urban development and red brick manufacturing reduced the land allocated to farming, physically preventing farmers from engaging in large crop production. When the High Dam was built in the 1960s, the nature of the soil was changed. Previously, the river overflooded on the Nile banks every year, naturally tilling the land and fertilising it, but after building the dam the land received less nutrition, while climate change further transformed the soil. While these issues remain in question, the value chain project has aimed at creating a change in farmers’ mindset and views of agricultural production and farming methods. 

At the University of Beni Sweif, Wagdi Saleh, a Beni Sweif project manager engineer, said “most farmers were working on traditional crops like wheat, corn and lentils but we discovered that horticultural crops — that is fruits and vegetables — have a higher economic value. However, the farmers in Upper Egypt have never had the chance to know where these crops were needed, or where to get the seeds from. Salasel created a network of connection whereby it raised farmers’ awareness and connected them with modern farming equipment companies and opened farmers’ awareness of existing markets.”

Engineer Hassan Basri, chairman of Luxor Cooperation, said, “in Luxor, besides sugar cane and other traditional crops, there are 6,882 feddans set for exporting peppers, beans, cantaloupes and grapes. In 2002, insects destroyed the sugar cane harvest. It was then that we founded the cooperation to plant export crops rather than traditional crops. These crops provide a higher income. We never used to produce beans in Upper Egypt. We lacked technical support and marketing services. We received technical support from Salasel which has helped us create links between farmers and exporters to market our produce.”

“The idea of the project is simple,” said Wael Rafei, Salasel project manager. “The aim is to add value to the crops in each production phase — an idea new to Egypt. When the farmer grows crops, he looks at the next stage in the production or service process to meet its demands. He considers the next person his client and aims at meeting his objectives. The idea began in 2009 between four UN organisations and it so coincided that the Spanish government had a fund. The UNDP approached the MDG Secretariat and the project was approved since it meets five out of eight millennium development goals. Salasel received LE7.5 million from the secretariat.

“Three field offices were created and about 45 specialist employees were recruited in the first year. The project deals with small landowners from Beni Sweif all the way to Luxor. It is difficult to persuade a small landowner to take a risk on a small piece of land; large landowners are more willing to take that risk. The main challenge was to persuade farmers to change their methods of production in the use of fertilisers, pesticides, and how to care for the trees. However, when they saw a 30 per cent decrease in production costs, and a 25 per cent increase in productivity, they were convinced.”

Olfa Tantawi, communications and advocacy officer, explained. “In Luxor, we worked mainly on tomatoes while in Beni Sweif we worked on connecting farmers with exporting firms and factories. Farmers who have small plots of land were connected with big factories.” The project used facilities which were built during a previous USAID programme. There were already 108 plants which were not operating. “We worked on operating them for investment purposes. There are now between seven and 16 operating plants,” said Tantawi.

Small plot owners are considered those who have up to five feddans, though the project targets even smaller landowners (with up to 600 metres square). They decide to grow the land together, choosing a specific crop which they would then be able to market. Production costs would also be cut down since they can buy fertilisers together. Their togetherness adds value to the produce since it increases crop production and therefore creates better contractual agreements with exporters and manufacturers.

“The aim has been to transform farmers’ mindset. Working with the International Labour Organisation [ILO] to create training workshops and with a dedicated team of farming awareness instructors, the project attracted farmers by developing, explaining and discussing issues critical to production. Farmers were attracted by the idea of increasing their output which would then enable them to market that crop together.”

“Farmers need agricultural guidance and support,” confirmed a Beni Sweif chief Taha, a landowner. He himself benefited from the networks created by the Salasel value chains. “Last year there was a problem with the potato crop, but we were able to overcome it,” he says. “Cutting down production costs, and forming contract agreements are necessary for farmers which are being provided through the seminars organised for farmers.”

Nader, a farming instructor trainee, adds: “We have to work carefully with the farmers, because at first, they test your knowledge, and it is only if you successfully answer their questions that they will be willing to accept your advice. They have had a one-day workshop on growing cucumbers, and a couple of sessions on growing beans.”

“Under the fig tree, the farmers gather with the farming instructors to receive directives and listen to what they should do to develop the land,” said Bahaa Ismail, deputy joint manager of the project. “The farmers are not easily convinced, and do not receive criticism easily, but our aim is to make them realise the benefits of developing their methods.

“Technical support is central to the farmers’ development. It is concerned with farming techniques and manufacturing processes relating farmers to safe farming procedures. The problem with very small plots of lands is a political issue which needs re-definition in property and land use laws since lands have been decimated either through direct sales, or conversion into real estate property, or by distribution among heirs in a family. The idea of a cooperative society which started during Nasser’s era deteriorated during the past decades, so it has been difficult to convince landowners of the value of their land. For farmland to provide a return on investment, there should be a minimum of five feddans to give satisfactory produce. This is why we decided on collaborative work among small landowners. We are also trying a new project, vertical greenhouses, which would increase space and therefore generate more income for farmers. These schemes are considered practical applications which would motivate farmers in their land plots.”

Hassan explained that previously in Luxor they used to grow only dozens of feddans of exportable crops, but now the amount of land allocated for exportational crops has increased. “Through the project we learnt to add value to the crop, either through packaging, manufacturing or drying. Recently, we built a packaging plant in Luxor worth LE450,000 and staffed mainly by women. There is a female engineer and an accounting manageress. Men work as tok-tok drivers to market the produce. 

“The grape farmer, who is a large plantation owner, is now using the packaging plant to package his crops. Outsiders are also beginning to approach us to package their goods. Khair Zaman, the supermarket, has also approached us to pack its products. The project has also allowed us to package fruits and vegetables in quantities which are user-friendly. We can make half kilo packages, one kilo packages or even two kilo packages according to buyers’ needs.

“A value chain was created for the crops; we learnt how to develop proper packaging instead of fumbling with small individual efforts which were then scurried off to wholesalers. We learnt how to create a watering programme, received technical support through Salasel onsite offices. We have an office in Luxor, which is headed by Dr Noubi to help us with any problems we’ve got. For example, we had a disease a few years ago which affected the tomato crop, called Tuta Absoluta, which raised tomato prices very high. The offices provided technical support, identifying the disease, diagnosing it, and prescribing the appropriate pesticide for the land. The result was that the harvest yield was high, and prices dropped from LE10 a kilogramme to LE3.”

“Salasel works on two important activities in agricultural development,” Noubi Hefni, Salasel project manager in Luxor and Qena, said. “It offers technical support to small farmers who belong to civil organisations which we serve starting with the land which is translated into the choice of crop and farming techniques and later harvest and post-harvest stages. Each office works on the crops in its region. Our work is to develop the harvests to increase production in quantity and quality.

“We also provide marketing consultation. Upper Egypt’s farmers work on increasing harvest production but they face a problem when it comes to marketing their products. There was only one outlet for each crop. In the project we worked on contractual agreements, to negotiate farmer deals before farming to provide more than one outlet for each product. Additionally, farmers get educated in the safe use of pesticides, and how to choose them appropriately. We also target the local market as well as food manufacturers to provide raw material.”

As part of the programme, marketing sessions are organised to introduce farmers to manufacturers and exporters. During an interview in Beni Sweif, Saber Abdel-Fattah, undersecretary of the Directorate of Agriculture, argued that there are several points which should be taken into consideration to improve the agricultural sector in Egypt. “Legislation workshops should be organised to study the laws which should be attended by members from the agricultural directorate to discuss changes in legislation. Developing cooperatives to attract farmers to join them would improve the agricultural sector and increase membership subscription. Developing farming technical support and awareness to address the land’s needs and improve production and manufacturing processes, as well as recruiting graduates from the Faculty of Agriculture would create new employment opportunities which would also meet the sectors’ demands.”

These legislative directions could constitute a core programme for reforming the agricultural sector in Egypt to improve farmers’ status and increase revenues from the sector.

The project also aimed at increasing women’s participation in developing the area. Hassan from Luxor said they had a problem with women’s status in the countryside. “Women were forgotten. The UNDP programme took care of that. Women now have their own projects; they grow mushrooms and muscovy ducks. While women used to carry out their household chores, these were never considered their own projects. Now, women have their own projects. They manage their finances and receive their profits. For instance, there is a project of 160 sheep, which is managed by 30 women. They will raise them, and then after selling them, they will receive the profits.”

The women’s committee in the programme aimed at empowering women in Upper Egypt. In Beni Sweif, a committee of seven women were elected from a total of 70 women to tackle various social and cultural issues in the region. The committee is responsible for 14 small villages in the area. Mariam Tawfik, head of the Women’s Committee, said: “Women suffer from most social problems, whether environmental, farming or health issues. Even though several people intervened to resolve them we discovered that when women persisted in tackling their problems they succeeded. Solutions such as garbage collection, recycling and becoming involved in tackling educational problems were found.”

“As a civil society, we have managed to improve our income and develop our society, regardless of political and party activity,” says Hassan.

Salasel, which is in its final year, provides an infrastructure for the development of the farming sector. Its foundations are empowering the local population to meet market demands using collaborative teamwork and networking resources. It identifies market demands and raises its standards to meet them, but as the programme runs to the end of its term, there are questions concerning its replication, whether there are possibilities of continuing the programme under government directives or in other parts of Egypt.

“Since day one we have been concerned with the idea of sustainability, how to protect farmers, and maintain the effort to support them. We have considered forming new enterprises such as shareholding companies or units within cooperative societies which would generate revenue through member subscriptions, and other activities. Through our marketing sessions, we are being approached by people in various parts of Egypt who are interested in utilising our expertise to develop in their areas. On the whole, however, as a project team, our aim is to succeed with the farmers in the real world. If the project succeeds, then there would be different ways of replicating the programme, since it has already developed the infrastructure for development,” said engineer Rafei.

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