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Egyptian citrus sector must work hand in hand

Citrus is one of the major crops cultivated in Egypt. Citrus is grown all over Egypt with the main production areas located around the Nile River basin. In total there are around 210,000 hectares of citrus grown in Egypt producing approximately 5 million tonnes of citrus annually with approximately 1 million tonnes of fresh fruit being exported worldwide.

Over the past 5 years Egypt has comfortably occupied a position between the 3rd and 5th largest exporter of fresh citrus in the world according to FAO statistics. The local citrus industry itself has developed in tandem with this growth in production. Several farmers seized the opportunity in the past 10 years to plant citrus, some farms exceeding 6000 hectares alone.

Packhouses and exporters alike have been utilizing the abundance of fresh citrus to open new markets and reach new records of export each year as is evidenced by the increasing number of total exports over the past 10 years.

More than half of Egypt’s fresh citrus exports are directed to Arab countries as well as Russia and Ukraine. European countries absorb anywhere between 10-20% of the exports of fresh citrus. Almost 43% of the land cultivated in Egypt for citrus is located in newly reclaimed desert land and has therefore benefited with modern advanced systems of management. Newly established farms have also benefited from new varieties that have been made available over the past 10 years by professional nurseries in the sector.
Another 40% of production is considered to be older orchards; however, overtime these orchards are beginning to renew their plants and management methods. All these indicative facts lead to the summation that in the coming years Egypt will be producing an increased amount of quality citrus. According to forecasts within 5 years the production figure will reach approximately 10 million tons.

The Pro's and Con's of the Citrus Sector in Egypt

This rapid growth in production of fresh citrus and export has not been without its constraints and problems. The faults are to be found within areas of quality control, logistics with regards to cold chain management and transport, and a surplus production far outpacing local and international demand.

The issue of quality control is a double edged sword. Quality control measures exist at every stage of the supply chain however, awareness of them among the various people in the industry and enforcement by authorities is often weak. In turn this produces an overall industry where some operations conform to the best quality standards while others are lacking.

Compounding this issue further, is the fact that price of labour and production in Egypt is very low which makes adoption of new technologies difficult due to their more premium costs. For example, on average 1 hectare of citrus cultivation would cost approximately 800 Euro to manage per month. Due to this low cost of production a lot of farmers are discouraged or unable to afford the costs associated with using more advanced systems of cultivation which often necessitates the use of expensively taxed imported goods or large scale machinery. Due to this phenomenon the sector is often slow to embrace new innovations and practices which could produce a more consistent higher quality product at a better value in the long run.

Advancements are being made with regards to making certain technologies more accessible and introducing fiscal reforms to encourage the export sector in general, but as of yet the results of those that have been introduced are unclear.

Logistical challenges also pose difficulties for the industry. Cold chain management from harvest to delivery forms one of the main obstacles in Egypt. The problem mainly rests in poor knowledge on behalf of the farmers, packhouses, and freight handlers to deal with sensitive goods and maintain the cold chain properly. With regards to transport issues problems arise in the handling of the product and delivery using poor trucking equipment as well an old road network infrastructure that slows transport times.

With regards to the last point there have been recent developments to improve the overall road networks and make areas more accessible faster. However, with regards to the technology available for transport and cold chain there is still room for developments to be made.

To deal with the surplus of production in Egypt, which is responsible for driving the price of fresh fruit down, the industry needs to consider various solutions. One alternative is to open new export opportunities. To that end there have been several trade commission meetings with various countries. The most promising market seems to be in Asia where demand is very high for citrus products and where Egypt's exposure is quite low at the moment.

However, expansion in export of fresh citrus alone can only account for a fraction of the surplus anticipated. So the more pertinent solution to the problem comes in the form of processing. Citrus fruit is one of the few fruits where over 30 different byproducts can be extracted; from the most obvious being the juice to the oils and essential vitamins that can be attained from various parts of the fruit. It is therefore imperative that Egypt explore the vast processing opportunities available for citrus in order to utilize the abundance of fruit available. Several recent processing initiatives are being explored by the industry in realization of these facts.

In conclusion, Egypt's citrus export potential with regards to citrus products fresh and processed is steadily rising. The constraints that meet Egypt mainly concern issues of quality assurance, knowledge transfer, and training in various sectors. In order to navigate these issues the most suitable solution at this juncture is to encourage more cooperative ventures rather than individual initiatives.

In order to achieve success there needs to be more pooling of resources and efforts in the citrus sector itself; in order to include the small and medium farmers that need assistance and increase productivity and quality on all levels. A unified effort needs to be made on behalf of the government, various cooperatives, and NGO's to educate the labour in all levels of the supply chain. Training courses, targeted subsidies, and information distribution alone can help Egypt expand its grasp on citrus export and open up more possibilities for the future.

For more information:
Hussein Marei (Operations Manager)
Marei Nursery - Egypt


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