Egypt Plows Desert Into Farmland

Given the need to feed a growing population, agribusinesses take lead in land reclamation

ONCE just a stretch of barren desert, the terrain along the road from Cairo to Alexandria is changing, sprouting rows of low-lying plants, fruit trees, and rippling fields of verdant alfalfa.

In the past 10 years, there has been a marked increase in the amount of desert converted to farmland in Egypt. In fact, while in recent years the economy showed a 30 percent inflation rate, the prices of fruits and vegetables have stabilized as a result of the increase in supply coming from the desert, land reclamation specialists say.

These are important developments for a country that has lost 1 million acres of what little arable land it had along the banks of the Nile and in the delta valley north of Cairo to flooding and urbanization. The extensive misuse of farmland is forcing Egypt to import 70 percent of its food. This could become quite expensive with a population growing by 1 million every nine months. Desert development

The most successful desert farming has been done by companies in the huge agribusiness, like Dina Farms, an agricultural conglomerate with fields of lush green alfalfa, lines of trees sprouting plump, healthy fruit, and neat rows of cows munching on feed.

Forty-two kilometers (26 miles) of asphalt road wind from the completely mechanized and sanitized milking stations to the land-reclamation training institute to Dina's supermarket.

"I think agribusiness is the hope for desert development," says Adli Bishay, director of the Desert Development Center at American University in Cairo.

"These people have capital, good management, and government connections. If you have these three, there is no doubt about your success," Dr. Bishay says.

Still, while these big businesses are profiting, the road is not nearly so easy for the small desert farmers. Lacking expertise and money to start operations and purchase the necessary high-technology machinery, their dreams of land ownership and self-reliance are hard to fulfill.

"I was one of the first who tried to make it in the desert," says Atef Khalil, a farmer since 1978, who also works as a tour guide in Cairo. After years of labor, his efforts are beginning to pay off. "Of course, it wasn't easy. I had nothing then, just the desert."

The increase in reclaimed land is largely a reflection of government policy. With more people and less farm land, making the desert green became a priority of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.

In the mid-1970s, when it became evident that private individuals had more success with land reclamation than the government did, a program was formed to distribute land to high school and university graduates.

In 1981, laws were changed, allowing private individuals to purchase up to 300 acres of desert land and companies to purchase 50,000 acres, up from 100 acres per person or company. To date, more than 1.6 million acres of desert in Egypt have been made arable, more than 30 percent of it since 1981, according to World Bank estimates.

A combination of entrepreneurial spirit, experience, money, and influence makes for a successful desert farmer.

Engineer Hussein Osman, the owner of Dina Farms, is not only from one of the wealthiest families in Egypt, with plenty of good contacts among top government personnel, but he also gained experience in land reclamation in the late 1970s working on a government-run project 50 miles northeast of Cairo.

After only five months, Mr. Osman says, he had installed Dina Farm's infrastructure, including the irrigation system, roads, houses, and electricity. He prepared the soil for planting with fertilizers, and the land began to turn green. High-tech irrigation

He uses high-technology irrigation systems, getting water from underground reservoirs. The pivot, a monstrously long steel frame that rotates in a circular motion, sprinkles water over an entire acre of land, irrigating crops like wheat, corn, and alfalfa. Pipes run along the roots of the plants, watering the fruit trees using the drip technique.

Although Osman says land reclamation does not bring a profit for seven years, he has plans already under way to add nearly 4,000 acres to the original plot of 1,000. Dina Farms eventually hopes to have 30,000 acres under cultivation.

Another successful agribusinessman, Kamel Diab, president of Project and Investments Consulting Company (PICO), makes a profit from the desert through exportation and development of plant-tissue culture. Fifty percent of PICO's fruits and vegetables are exported, bringing in $5 for a kilo of strawberries, as opposed to 60 cents to $1 on the local market.

Dr. Diab has also built a laboratory where he develops new strains of plant tissue from other areas in Egypt and outside the country. In this way, PICO develops high-quality bananas, asparagus, potatoes, and other plants for export to Western Europe, the Gulf countries, and Libya.

Since 1986, Diab, who had worked with a government-owned agricultural export company, has expanded his operation from 450 to 2,500 acres and increased the number of employees from 100 to 1,000, including permanent and temporary workers.

The small farmer often faces more hurdles than the large-scale entrepreneur does, however.

"Don't tell me these big farmers are a model to follow," says Dr. Ibrahim Dessouqi Abaza, an agriculture specialist and economist, "because everybody is not engineer Hussein Osman. Small farmers have very limited resources. They need an infrastructure, water, electricity. Dina gets water and electricity very easily. The small farmer does not. If you had Osman's influence with the government and his money, you would be successful too."

Mr. Khalil, the small farmer who gave up a $10-per-month government job in 1978 to farm 30 acres in the desert 60 miles south of Cairo, moved to a dry, barren land. Without his family or access to transportation, stores, or a hospital, life was not easy.

For five years he farmed the land at a loss, getting as little as $7 per acre for some crops and taking handouts from the government and neighbors. "At this time everybody tried to help us," Khalil says, "because we were pioneers."

After years of perseverance, experimenting with different crops, raising cows, and then sheep, he now makes a profit of $5,000 per year, a good income in a country with an average salary of $17 to $24 per month for a government job. Recently he bought 20 more acres on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road.

Sobhi Mohamed al Beheiri began farming the desert in 1986, fulfilling every Egyptian's dream of owning property. "My family never had land before. It's ambitious to have land, instead of working for somebody else," he says. This room in his two-room house is small with mats on the floor and a few pillows along the wall. There is also a bedroom and a tiny dirt courtyard with chickens and ducks.

Participating in the government's land-reclamation program, Mr. Beheiri gets five acres of land with a built-in irrigation system, his house, $15 per month for six months, and a loan, plus free sugar, flour, and other essentials for three years.

Despite his enthusiasm for the program, Beheiri is eager to discuss his problems: not enough money for the increasing price of fertilizer, a lack of water, and a 50-kilometer (31-mile) distance to travel for supplies.

Other participants complain of an absence of marketing outlets, middlemen who pay low prices, workers who charge high rates, exorbitant transportation expenses, and huge outlays of money with no return.

Small farmers need to cooperate on larger plots of land, specialists say, with each person contributing his own expertise, whether it be marketing skills, irrigation know-how, or farming experience. They also need a better credit system to borrow money to buy the necessary technology for desert development and more training in land reclamation. Help from the government

Dr. Adel Beltagi, first undersecretary for land reclamation in the Ministry of Agriculture, says the government helps both small and big farmers by altering laws in their favor and selling them cheap desert land.

The government is improving the program for high school and university graduates, he says, by making it easier to borrow money, establishing a marketing system, and encouraging them to form cooperatives. It is also starting to place graduates next to the bigger, more successful farms in hopes they can learn from these larger enterprises.

Meanwhile, Dina Farms has a solution of its own to making land available to would-be rural dwellers. It is developing 1,000 acres of 5-acre to 10-acre plots complete with villa, lawn, small playground, a jogging track around the crops, sports center, and sports arena for urbanites craving some green space. This comes with an out-of reach price, however, $130,000 for five acres and $170,000 for 10 acres.

If potential customers have a tight budget or want to learn something about farming, for the not-so-small sum of $30,000 they can purchase a "youth farm." This includes a 6-acre to 24-acre plot with a smaller two-room house, cows, training classes in desert development, and a $50-a-month salary. Dina gets 10 percent of all profits.

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