Egypt is one of the world’s largest citrus producers but its fresh produce output extends far beyond oranges. Grapes, stone-fruit, berries and vegetables also feature highly on the agenda and with more producers keen to increase their production, Egypt is finding itself going head-to-head against some of the world’s largest players.
According to Abdul Rahman Raouf, counsellor for economic affairs at the Egyptian Embassy, UK imports of Egyptian produce have grown substantially, amounting to 71,000 tonnes in 2004 compared to 57,692t in 2003.
Grapes and citrus are leading the way and Raouf notes that every effort is being made to widen Egypt’s export base.
“Egypt’s position has been growing in terms of exporting to the European market and we believe that it will continue to grow in the coming years,” agrees Pico’s Alaa Diab.
Indeed, Diab thinks it is time Egypt was perceived as a viable alternative to traditional suppliers. “The risk of southern Europe not delivering volumes during the winter months can be high, whereas the Egyptian climate is much warmer and much more stable during the same period,” he claims.
While observers have previously accused Egypt of lacking the necessary marketing tools and infrastructure to make the fresh produce sector a leading player in the global arena, producers are keen to demonstrate that the industry is moving forward.
According to Belco president Sherif El-Beltagy, the company is committed to investing in new technologies, product development and infrastructure to stay ahead of the competition. “We use every avenue available at Belco to deliver new varieties and a higher quality standard of produce,” he says.
“Belco realises the importance for safe products in the European market, we are EurepGAP approved and have achieved BRC and Tesco’s Nature’s Choice accreditation. Our next step will be to be audited on the ethical trading base code. Belco uses these standards to improve its systems and procedures and to assure our customers of the safest fresh produce they can receive.”
Over the past year, Pico has also focused on delivering the best quality goods at the right time, in the required volumes. “Continuous follow up on the application of our quality assurance systems in all aspects of production has been a major area of work and we have achieved EurepGAP, BRC and ISO certification,” Diab explains, adding that the firm is additionally working in compliance with ETI social standards and is careering towards Tesco’s Nature Choice certification.
“By integrating all these key aspects into one operation we have managed to deliver what our customers require,” Diab says.
All the hard work seems to be paying off and many companies are hoping to capture further market share in the UK and the rest of Europe this season.
The UK accounts for 45 per cent of Pico’s exports and this figure could swell as the company aims to increase shipments by 10-15 per cent in 2005. In terms of products, Pico has increased the amount of land devoted to table grapes and stone fruit and is also looking at expanding its vegetable and salad acreage.
The company is one of the pioneers of strawberry production in Egypt, devoting more than 200 acres to the red berry. It is also a major partner of ReDeva - Redbriodges breeding subsiduary.
The industry is optimistic about future strawberry prospects. “We are extremely excited by three or four varieties that are showing great promise in Egypt,” says Ian Waller, sales director for Redbridge Worldfresh, a division of Redbridge Holdings.
According to Waller, Egypt is a firmly established supplier of winter strawberries. “This is mainly due to the fact that the country’s climate mirrors that of Israel, which was the first choice for winter strawberries for many years,” he explains, adding that constant media attention given to the health-giving properties of berries has resulted in large rises in Egyptian production.
Waller believes that the increase in good-eating varieties is helping to fuel repeat purchases of strawberries during the winter months.
Meanwhile, leading grape supplier Fruitex has set itself an ambitious target and according to the company’s Husam E Awad, exports are expected to rise 40 per cent in the next three years (see page 26).
Similarly, Belco is looking to make gains this season and is confident that it will do so following significant investment in its fresh produce facilities and staff. The company ships peach varieties Florida Prince and Desert Red to the UK and fills the gap in production after the southern hemisphere season and before Morocco and Spain come on line.
“Our peaches are grown on different farms along the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road and we have been increasing production due to high demand from the UK and other European countries,” says El-Beltagy.
The company is also preparing for the new grape season, with shipments beginning in mid-May. According to El-Beltagy, the campaign will kick off two weeks earlier than usual.
“We have covered a lot of plots with plastic and added windbreaks, thereby keeping the grapes in a warmer climate which helps them blossom faster,” he explains.
The company mainly supplies the varieties Flame and Sugraone, although it also ships some Crimson and Thompson grapes. According to El-Beltagy, the season generally ends at the beginning of July or when Spanish producers increase their volume. “This year, we estimate Belco will export at least 2,000 tonnes,” he notes.
As well as its fruit operations, vegetables are also an important part of the company’s portfolio. One of Belco’s objectives is to supply the UK with green beans and mangetout. “We are exporting more than 2,500 tonnes to other European countries and ship them over nine months of the year,” El-Beltagy says.
In addition, Belco claims that its salad onion exports have risen 50 per cent this season and will increase once again in 2006 due to high demand. The company has also begun growing small volumes of peppers and is confident of securing a strong following for this item.
According to El-Beltagy, the UK market is probably one of the most developed in the world, but it is also one that will never fully mature. “Our customers are always interested in product development, different packaging, different varieties and specifications and producers are always trying to supply the supermarkets and the end consumer with better quality and safer produce,” he says, adding that other European countries are beginning to set the same benchmarks as the UK.
Belco believes that in order to survive in the increasingly competitive marketplace, investment is vital. The producer extended its packhouse in 2003 to 3,000 sqm and has built a new storage area for its packaging.
“Our other constant investment is in the training of our employees,” El-Beltagy says. “We give all our employees training in EurepGAP and BRC requirements and offer literacy courses to those who need them.”
Offering a high quality product is obviously a priority and Pico focuses heavily on its postharvest operations. The company has recruited new, well-trained, quality-control personnel along-side training its own staff in packhouses. “To date, this year has been the most successful yet in terms of quality of final product, which indicates that the postharvest system in place has been successful in addressing all the critical points and controlling them,” Diab claims.
“Furthermore, we have developed our packing lines and are now importing a punnet packing line for grapes.”
Egyptian producers are keen to supply as many areas as possible and a number of companies are hoping to target new countries this season. Pico is interested in expanding its influence in Europe and believes Austria and Denmark offer opportunities. The company is also keen on eastern Europe, as is Belco.
Producers do however concede that transporting fresh produce can be a struggle. “Finding the airspace today is a tough task, which leads to very high shipping costs and thus narrows the Egyptian window of export as we cannot compete with other countries that have much lower transport costs,” Diab tells the Journal.
However, marketers believe that despite this obstacle, Egypt’s strengths make it a force to be reckoned with.
NILE RUNS AND RUNS
The stone-fruit season is well underway at Blue Nile Egypt with shippings having begun on April 7. According to md Hisham El Meleigy, the campaign is expected to run until mid-May with the Florida Prince nectarine the most popular variety.
Blue Nile’s grape shipments are due to start on May 25, with Sugraone and Flame still the preferred varieties. However, El Meleigy has hopes of bringing the season forward with the development of new early varieties which would start arriving as early as May 10.
Expansion is on the horizon for the company and its partners with Egyptian grape exports to Europe expected to rise from 700 tonnes to 2,000t in 2005. The UK’s share of the total is due to increase significantly from 150t to 750t.
While meeting the strict specifications required for European trade can be challenging, El Meleigy highlights the security provided by the UK retailers in particular and is optimistic about Blue Nile’s success in the market despite competition from fellow non-EU countries, Morocco and Israel.
He says: “The UK market still has room for growth if we can provide improved varieties in taste and appearance and in the start and end date of our production.”
Although, there is a place in the European market for better quality products, El Meleigy believes forthcoming opportunities in eastern European countries will be particularly attractive.
Not only is Blue Nile accredited with EurepGAP, Nature’s Choice and BRC certification but it also boasts important points of difference, he claims: “Our advantages are extensive packing facilities, and as a group we have five pack-houses in five different locations. Also 90 per cent of our grapes are from our own farms and under our own control.”
El Meleigy says the company is working on various new developments. “Blue Nile is continuously upgrading its production facilities.
“By next season we will have new production facilities, and we are in the process of growing new varieties of grapes and nectarine to extend our window for those two products. We have combined with two other companies in Egypt to improve our presence in central Europe and the Middle East. This helps us utilise our whole crop as they each take different specifications,” he says.
ALL SYSTEMS GO FOR KADCO
The South Valley project, also known as the Toshka project, has attracted significant attention in recent years. This long term irrigation and development initiative is located in Southern Egypt and aims to develop 200,000 hectares of new lands using water from Lake Nasser.
One company that is heavily involved in the project is Kingdom Agricultural Development Company (KADCO), which controls a sizeable 40,000ha of land. Following trials conducted in 2000 on its research farm, KADCO has planted a range of crops including grapes, melons and field crops.
“We have hired several international experts and all activities are performed within an environment friendly framework taking all social responsibilities into account,” says Daniel Leroux, KADCO’s ceo.
Last year, the company began exporting commercial volumes of grapes to the UK and Continental Europe and is planning to ship a wide range of varieties this season. Harvesting began in late April with the Perlette variety, and will be followed by the seedless Flame, Sugraone and Thompson varieties.
KADCO is keen to increase its grape exports and next year some 75ha will be devoted to the varieties Sugraone, Thompson, Princess, Victoria and Red Globe. “By 2009, we are hoping that table grapes will be grown on 250ha,” Leroux says.
In addition to grapes, KADCO is also busy with its melon operations. The company began exporting the varieties Cantaloupe and Galia to the EU last December and new lands are currently being developed in order to raise export volumes.
As KADCO prepares to expand its operations, the company is also in the process of tendering its post harvest facilities. These include a packhouse, pre-coolers and cold storage. “This facility has been designed according to the highest standards and with a total area of 20,000 sqm, it will be the largest one in the country,” KADCO says.
“We are still very small compared to our competitors but we are aiming to be one of the major players in Egypt,” Leroux says. “We have the soil, the water, the team, the means and the spirit. Through our research farm, we have been accumulating experience and know-how.”
Leroux notes that two years ago, detractors claimed that crops wouldn’t be able to grow in the Toshka area. However, following KADCO’s success, a number of companies have begun looking at sites in the region, Leroux claims.
FRUITEX BOLSTERS GRAPE OPERATIONS
Husam E Awad, md of Fruitex, one of Egypt’s leading grape growers, is confident the firm will reap the benefits of its latest acquisition: a vast area of land in southern Egypt, making it the first Egyptian company to establish production sites in both the north and the south of the country.
“This has put our company in a leading position to supply our clients in the UK and elsewhere in the EU with quality table grapes from late April to mid-August,” he says.
Fruitex produces and exports Flame Seedless and Sugraone grapes. In addition, more varieties could be added to its portfolio in the near future. “We have continued to test and evaluate several new varieties and will start commercial plantation of a very new and promising white seedless variety that we will disclose in the near future,” reveals Awad.
Fruitex cites Mexico, Morocco, Israel and to a lesser extent Brazil, as its main competitors. However, Awad claims that Egypt enjoys many advantages over its rivals. “Our excellent weather and close proximity to the EU means we can send consistent supplies during the summer months,” he notes.
According to Awad, UK retailers are demanding clients with very high quality expectations. “In recent years, other European retailers have followed the UK model and have also demanded the same level of high standards,” he says. “We believe that these standards are very healthy for the continued growth of the fresh produce sector in the UK and the EU. Despite the difficulty of these requirements, they have kept Fruitex on its toes, and have been the main reasons for the growth the company has witnessed in recent years.”