Egypt’s herb farmers eye overseas markets
On a sunny summer day amid green fields in Egypt’s Fayoum Oasis, Khaled Abdul Nabi sat under the shade of a mango tree watching his workers preparing lemon grass crops to be exported to Europe.
Just like most of his peers and neighbors in Agamyeen village in Fayoum Valley, 42-year-old Abdul Nabi inherited farming from his ancestors.
For decades, Abdul Nabi grew wheat, rice, cotton and corn in his 50-acre farm. But 13 years ago, the man decided to shift to the cultivation of organic medicinal herbs to earn more money.
The middle-aged man started a company to grow, process and export herbs and is now sending his produce of some 20 species of medicinal herbs and spices to Europe, the Americas and China.
“The idea to grow organic medicinal herbs came across my mind when some farmers in my village started to plant them here,” Abdul Nabi said while the fragrance of dried lemon grass filled the space. “They told me that European companies have tested the soil and the weather here and said they are unique for growing medicinal herbs.”
Carefully observing the workers packing the dried lemon grass at the collecting station near the farm, Abdul Nabi said herbs and spices grow well in the valley and dry areas since they need both, hot climate and small amount of water.
“These fertile valley farmlands that are surrounded by endless desert are exceptional for herbs growing,” Abdul Nabi proudly says.
Egypt has been home to a variety of herbs for thousands of years as Ancient Egyptian relics, temples and tombs contained hundreds of medical prescriptions with medicinal herbs.
So far, Egypt still produces the finest herbs, with Fayoum as the only producer of organic Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAPs). These crops are mainly grown in Upper Egypt’s provinces of Minya, Beni Suef, Assiut and Fayoum.
Some 1500 acres are cultivated with MAPs in Fayoum, while the whole country grows these crops in 100,000 acres.
Abdul Nabi says his products reach the standard specifications of the European and global markets, adding that he follows primitive ways such as hand farming and hand collection to maintain the high quality of the produce.
“We hand pick and harvest the crops with our hands, sun-dry and clean them and then pack the crops at the factory for export,” he says. “My goal is to export high quality raw herbs to gain more customers.”
The cost of farming organic herbs and spices are relatively high, Abdul Nabi says, “but we make good profits because most of the produce is exported.”
Abdul Nabi says Fayoum has two farming seasons, the winter and summer seasons.
“In the summer season, we plant lemon grass, mint, sesame, moringa, basil and marjoram. In the winter season we grow calendula, camomile, onion, garlic, fennel, caraway, anise and coriander,” Abdul Nabi says, sipping from a hot cup of red tea.
Last year, Abdul Nabi managed to export 70 tons of MAPs, a number he believes that can be doubled if he
finds more customers.
The man said that he started to export lemon grass to China two years ago, adding that he hopes to send more of his crops to the Chinese market.
“Chinese market is promising and big, hopefully Chinese importers would buy more herbs and spices in the near future.”
Although Egyptian MAPs have a good reputation in global markets, the sector does not largely contribute to the size of global herbs trade.
Last year, Egypt’s exports of herbs, seeds and spices reached $100 million, while the total size of exports globally exceeded $60 billion in 2016, according to Egypt’s State Information Service.
“All we need is a good marketing system and relying only on organic farming because that’s what foreign importers seek,” Abdulnabi says. “I expect that this business will grow rapidly because we have the potentials for this kind of farming.”
He believes that the government should strongly helps farmers of MAPS with expertise and marketing planning since the industry is mainly meant for export, which will help the country get badly-needed foreign currencies.
“This sector is more important than natural resources. It can be the main pillar of Egypt’s economy,” he says confidently.
These fertile valley farmlands ... are exceptional for herbs growing.”
Abdul Nabi, farmer