How Egyptians Farm Without Rain

Special report from Egypt

Farming in Egypt is quite fascinating; there is no rain and the whole country is al­most covered by desert, but agri­culture still constitutes one of the pillars of the country’s economy.

Conquering the desert: farms in Western Nobariya. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

Conquering the desert: farms in Western Nobariya. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

Less than 6% of Egypt’s area is cultivated and inhabited, the populated areas being situat­ed along the Nile River which crosses the country from South to North. The remainder of the country is mainly desert.

Yet land is worked intensively and yields are high. Cotton, rice, wheat, corn, sugarcane, sugar beets, onions, and beans are the principal crops. Increasingly, modern techniques are applied to producing vegetables, flow­ers and fruits, in addition to cot­ton for export. That makes agri­culture a cornerstone of Egypt’s economy (20% of GDP) along with the Suez canal and tourism.

With a population of around 90 million people of whom some 30% are involved in agriculture, Egypt can’t rely only on the little land available along the Nile, and projects to invade desert areas to the east and the west have been undertaken. For instance, thou­sands of hectares of desert area in Western Nobariya Region, close to Alexandria, have been over­taken since almost three decades ago for graduate farmers to turn into arable land.

According to agriculture of­ficials, this was made possible by huge investment to get water from Nile River to the desert for irrigation, with canals of as long as 100 km connecting the river to these areas. Apart from the ir­rigation system relying on canals connected to Nile River, forage irrigation options are also avail­able to facilitate drop, flood, and sprinkle irrigations among oth­ers.

Ibrahim Ali Ali, who settled in Western Nobariya more than 15 years ago, now grows oranges and grapes on 5 feddans (around 2 ha), which earns him an income of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (Frw 2 million) per season. The same experience can be seen in many parts of the country as far as in Ismailia in the north-east.

Soheir Hassan, the deputy Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, who is also the head of agriculture in the Is­mailia Governorate, confirms that their farming activities rely for 90% of the Nile River water to grow mainly mangoes, but also olives, citrus fruit and wheat.

Dedicated TV stations

This achievement should set an example for farmers in other parts of the continent, including Rwanda, where agricultural pro­duction is easily disrupted by ex­cessive rain, but also by draught or irregular rains. One of the main reasons is that mechanisms to stock rainwater for agriculture are almost nonexistent and there­fore, even with a good number of rivers and lakes in addition to rainfall allowing two agricul­tural seasons per year, farmers in many African countries can still suffer.

Obviously Egypt’s particular experience requires huge invest­ment to modernize agriculture with irrigation and mechaniza­tion facilities. On the other hand, good policies and proper mecha­nisms to timely channel relevant information to beneficiaries is an­other major factor determining the fascinating success.

“In whatever we do, the most important part is agricultural ex­tension,” Soheir Hassan pointed out.

Practically, this is an applica­tion of scientific research into and new knowledge of agricul­tural practices through farmer education aimed at improving agricultural productivity. It en­compasses a wider range of com­munication and learning activi­ties organized for rural farmers by facilitators from different dis­ciplines, including agriculture, agricultural marketing, and busi­ness studies.

“In every district, there is an agriculture extension center which equips farmers with nec­essary skills and information on how they can improve their agri­culture production,” the deputy Minister of Agriculture explains.

The North African country is divided into 27 governorates (equivalent to provinces), and Hassan points out that each of them has its research center sta­tion for agriculture.

On the other side, the extent to which Egyptians invested in agriculture media reflects how they recognize the role of effec­tive communication for achiev­ing great change. The country has four dedicated public TV station channels to convey pro­grams and information to farm­ers. Other print and audiovisual communication materials are also widely used to educate and inform farmers.

Some people would argue that such an investment is their choice of doing their business, but what can be admired and emulated is the spirit and effective commu­nication of conveying relevant information to farmers; rather than imposing them good plans that they sometimes don’t under­stand.