CAIRO: Hunched over in a dark galabeya, Haj Gamal may appear an unlikely vector of economic reform. He has spent his entire life farming wheat and sugar cane in a village outside Beni Suef, the same two staples that his parents grew before him.
With little attention paid to the laws of supply and demand, he once grew his crops and then took them to market in the hopes of finding someone to buy them. He and his fellow villagers were living on a bare subsistence level, without enough money to even send their children to school.
But now, thanks in part to business training he received under a recently completed USAID project, Haj Gamal has gone to the market in a whole new way. Armed with an internet connection and a new understanding of market forces, he and his neighbors now grow more lucrative cash crops for sale in Cairo and on the international market.
They have made the leap from subsistence farming to small-scale yet shrewd agro-business, and have organized into a cooperative farmers’ association, one of 104 established with the help of the American aid agency.
“Before we used to cultivate beans, wheat and sugar cane, but now after researching the market we decided to grow cantaloupes, green beans and organic onions, says Gamal.
“When we started out we just [cultivated] 20 feddans of cantaloupe and now we have 200 feddans of it.
Gamal’s story is typical of Upper Egyptian farmers who participated in USAID’s El Shams program – short for Enhanced Livelihood from Smallholder Horticultural Activities Managed Sustainably – which provided business and skills training and support to communities of small-scale farmers and also helped them form cooperative farmer’s associations.
Launched in September 2003, the El Shams Project is part of USAID’s Agricultural Exports and Rural Incomes horticultural grant and it is coming to an end on September 20, 2007. Throughout the life of the project, El Shams organized small land-holding farmers throughout Upper Egypt into voluntary, member-based, service associations.
USAID provided each farmers’ association in nine governorates with a computer and a stable internet connection. It helped them compile databases of marketing information as well as a list of contact information for buyers, exporters, processors, wholesalers, and suppliers of seeds and other farm supplies.
“If there is a problem with the cantaloupe or spring onion crop, the farmers have a database of experts to help them solve the problem and to give them advice on raising different crops and on post-harvest handling, said Ibrahim Siddik Ali, an agricultural marketing specialist who worked with the program.
“They have learned how to search the net to learn about market conditions and other relevant information, he adds. “Some farmers’ associations even have their own websites so anyone can contact them.
Local businessmen like the project too.
Mona Shaer runs a company that exports fruits and vegetables from Egypt. She prefers working with farmers’ associations because it is easier than dealing with hundreds or thousands of farmers across many provinces who each till small plots of land.
“For me the foundation of these associations has been a good thing, she says. “It allows me to communicate with one responsible body, so I don’t have to run around and talk to hundreds of small farmers who maybe have 1 or 2 or 3 feddans each.
“It also makes it easier to communicate international market demand to the farmers, she adds.
The results of the project have been promising. Upper Egypt is home to 40 percent of poor Egyptians and 70 percent of those who live in extreme poverty.
In many villages, few children attend school and many work in the fields alongside their parents. This is especially true for young girls, who are kept at home and work throughout their childhoods to pay for a bridal trousseau for their eventual marriage.
During the project’s four-year run, farmers saw their average daily wage double from LE 7 a day to LE 15. In some communities, which produced crops requiring more skilled handling, the wage jumped to LE 30 a day.
This has had an effect on school enrolment too, says USAID. They point to the case of the village of Awlad Yahya in Sohag, where only 10 percent of school aged children were enrolled before the El Shams project began.
In 2005, the community began cultivating green beans for export, and soon the average annual income for a farmer producing only one feddan of green beans jumped to LE 30,000.
As incomes rose, more farmers began to hire skilled labor to perform tasks once completed by their children. Many sent their sons to school, and once they realized that educated village boys would prefer to marry educated girls, they began to send their daughters to school as well.
By 2007, says USAID, 100 percent of school aged boys and 70% of school aged girls in the village of Awlad Yahya were enrolled in the local primary and secondary schools.
Ibtisam, a smiling young woman from Qena governorate, says she is living proof of the changes that the business training program has brought to many rural communities.
She is the first woman to lead a farmers’ association in a province where many girls are not even taught to read. Her new position commands a great deal of respect from her neighbors and challenged social norms about what a woman is capable of doing.
“Now that we have more money and more skills, woman can get out of their old box, she said. “We never have to go back to the way it was again.