The Daily Star (Lebanon)

Egypt seeks to weave cotton renaissanc­e

Government hopes new measures can help to reinvigora­te the once-lucrative industry

- By Aziz El Massassi

CAIRO: Treading carefully among his sprawling green plants in the Nile Delta, Egyptian farmer Fatuh Khalifa fills his arms with fluffy white cotton picked by his workers.

Durable, fine and luxuriousl­y soft, cotton sourced from Egypt has long been seen as the best on the market.

But recent years have been far from smooth for the North African country’s farmers.

“I cultivate 42 hectares and it’s expensive … while the price [of cotton] is very low,” said Khalifa, who has been growing the premium long-fiber variety for over 30 years.

Profits are “meager,” he lamented, his head shaded by his cap from the unforgivin­g sun on his farm in Kafr al-Sheikh.

Cotton was once Egypt’s main source of wealth, in the 19th century, as the Nile Delta provided fertile grounds for the crop, used to make the towels, sheets and robes coveted by Europe’s burgeoning bourgeoisi­e. But decades of fierce internatio­nal competitio­n has diminished returns.

Well-marketed short-fiber cotton – while lower in quality than the long-fiber variety – looks good and has increasing­ly been used by textile giants, dealing a heavy blow to Egyptian players.

The U.S. and Brazil are now the world’s top cotton exporters, according to a report this month by the U.S. Department of Agricultur­e, followed by India and Australia, leaving Egypt trailing far behind.

Back in 1975, Egypt exported $540 million of cotton.

By 2016, the sector’s export receipts had fallen to $90.4 million, according to the Massachuse­tts Institute of Technology.

The popular uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 dealt a fresh blow to the cotton industry, as political and economic chaos hit production and export chains.

Egypt’s output of cotton fibers fell to as low as 94,000 tons in 2013, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultur­e Organizati­on, down from 510,000 tons in 1971.

Last year brought producers some respite, thanks to rising prices and higher export volumes.

But a trade spat between the U.S. and voracious importer China has seen benchmark global cotton prices fall afresh, as traders take fright over Beijing imposing tariffs.

The commodity was trading at a shade under $0.77 a pound in early October, after having reached $0.95 – the highest level in more than six years – in early June.

In Egypt, the price has dropped back to the minimum guaranteed by the state of some 2,700 Egyptian pounds [$150] per 100 kilos.

Egypt’s cotton union says buyers are even demanding lower prices without triggering any interventi­on by the government.

Others offer a different diagnosis of the sector’s ills.

“The drop in prices is not in itself a bad thing,” said Ahmed ElBosaty, CEO of Modern Nile Cotton, one of the biggest companies in the sector.

Bosaty said the major challenge is boosting productivi­ty.

“A rise in productivi­ty rather than prices would ensure better incomes for workers,” he said.

A cotton expert at the Agricultur­e Ministry acknowledg­ed that modernizat­ion is key.

“Productivi­ty is rising,” Hisham Mosaad said.

But cotton enterprise­s must invest in mechanizat­ion as the industry is still entirely manual, Mosaad added.

Another challenge is few Egyptian firms make finished products.

“We produce raw cotton for direct export,” said Mohammed Sheta, director of research at the Kafr al-Sheikh cotton institute.

Egypt does not have “the factories or the means allowing us to transform it into fabric,” he lamented.

The state has tried to spur activity, boosting areas under cultivatio­n over the last four years by about 50,000 hectares, to more than 140,000 hectares.

In an experiment­al move, the government in September even allowed the cultivatio­n of shortfiber cotton, but only outside the Delta region.

Experts and farmers remain skeptical, believing that Egypt will struggle against foreign heavyweigh­ts in the short-fiber market segment.

But many companies see the situation as urgent.

Even though official exports of Egyptian cotton rose 6.9 percent by volume in the three months to the end of May compared with the same quarter of 2017, there was a 57.9 percent fall in consumptio­n of Egyptian cotton at home, due to the domestic market turning to imported products.

At the high end of the value chain, designer Marie Louis Bishara runs one of the few Egyptian firms that produce high quality finished products locally for the internatio­nal market.

Young men and women work side by side in her modern factory in northern Cairo, in roles ranging from overseeing looms to packing finished shirts.

Promising Egyptian quality, she has dedicated one of her lines to local long-fiber cotton.

“We try to show the world that if you want to make luxury products, you have to use extra-long cotton from the Delta,” she said.

Shirts, trousers and jackets stamped “Made in Egypt” have gone from the design stage on her factory floor to grace shop shelves in France, Italy and her home country.

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 ??  ?? Egypt’s cotton industry has been steadily declining since its heyday in the mid-1970s.
Egypt’s cotton industry has been steadily declining since its heyday in the mid-1970s.
 ??  ?? Egypt almost only exports raw cotton, since it does not have the means to process it into fabric.
Egypt almost only exports raw cotton, since it does not have the means to process it into fabric.

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