Egyptian medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) have a good reputation in global markets, despite their weak contribution as a sector to the size of global trade for these products.
Egypt’s exports of MAPs registered $100m in 2016 out of $60bn (the total size of exports golbally).
Agricultural exporters and experts expected the sector to grow widely in the coming period, in light of the availability of all elements of agriculture and industry. The sector only lacks effective marketing mechanisms and expansions in organic farming.
The cultivated lands of MAPs in Egypt are estimated at roughly 80,000 acres, most of them located in Upper Egypt (Minya, Beni Suef, Assiut, Fayoum, and Sinai) governorates.
Wael Ghaith, head of the North Sinai Desert Research Center, said that the field of MAPs is qualified to enter the European market, and lacks effective marketing mechanisms.
He added that deserts represent 93% of the total area of Egypt, and that it is a perfect environment for the growth of MAPs due to its dryness. The ignorance of farmers of sound agricultural practices reduces the competitiveness of Egyptian products globally, he explained.
He added that North Sinai possesses rare types of MAPs, some of which became extinct while others are likely to go extinct. Thus, the centre established a gene bank for rare seeds to save them for more than 50 years hoping to replant them again in order to take advantage of Egypt’s distinctiveness in that field.
He attributed the farmers’ avoidance for exporting MAPs to their weak marketing, and their permanent search for brokers to export, which leads to a decline in their margins of profitability.
He pointed out that the fragmentation of the agricultural holdings among small farmers limits their ability to pay for marketing, so the desert research centre brought them together to network in order to improve the productivity of acreage, encourage organic farming, and market for its production.
He called upon the Ministry of Agriculture to teach farmers how to take care of wild plants resistant to pests of agricultural crops as in Halayib and Shalateen.
Farook Al Shobaki, head of the MAPs producers and exporters association, said that the cost of organically producing MAPs is high, but they enjoy high profit margins, especially as the EU considers them medical materials.
The European market is the largest importer of medicinal and aromatic plants, especially Germany and Poland, followed by the US and the gulf markets.
He explained that 80% of the sector’s exports are carried out by 10 companies, and that 90% of MAPs organically registered are exported.
He recommended establishing small sterilisation units in the producing provinces to expand exporter circles and purify plants.
He pointed out that there is only a single factory for plant sterilisation in 6th of October City.
He said that the sterilisation factory began operating in 2006 to reduce the cost of plants purification by 50%. The products were sent to Turkey and then re-packaged for exporting to global markets at high customs tariffs, which negatively impacts export rates in the sector.
He identified three challenges faced by the sector, poor drying, lack of knowledge of the mechanisms of marketing and packaging, and farmers’ lack of knowledge of international prices and production costs.
He expects the exports of MAPs to exceed $112m in 2017, compared to $100bn in 2016, a growth of 12%.
42% of Egyptian exports are directed to western Europe, 33% to North America and central America, 17% to Arab countries, 3% to Asia, 2.7% to South America, and 1.3% to Australia, and only 1% go to African countries.
He said that the low cost of labour, the outstanding climate, and geographical location that connects Egypt to the other five continents, and the international agreements signed by Egypt provide great advantages, such as customs exemptions. Egypt is also distinctive with some crops, such as marjoram, chamomile, fennel and basil.
He said that the seniority of Egypt in herbs trade globally gives it a competitive advantage, which must be strengthened with high-quality organic farms.
Abd El-Rahman Harraz, chairperson of Harraz Agricultural Seeds, Spices, and Medicinal Plants, said that the company depends on Egypt’s presence in international exhibitions to draw a mental image to its brand and to get to know the sector’s advances in terms of quality and prices.
Harraz added that small exporters are committed to quality, and provide export prices that are not commensurate with the cost of the product.
“The importer looks for quality, despite putting pressure on exporters to offer cheap prices,” Harraz said.
Egypt’s exports of MAPs includes caraway, cumin, marjoram, fennel, chamomile, and basil. Egypt occupies the first position globally in exports of fragrance oil (40% of the trade volume), followed by China, Indonesia, and the US.
Harraz explained that jojoba, cumin, and Nigella sativa oils are the most popular in European and Arab countries, and that the competition with east Asia and Argentina on exporting those products is fierce due to their fixed cost.
Amr Abu Doh, managing director of the International Company for Food Industries, said that the Ministry of Agriculture’s procedures hinder the importation of MAPs seeds required globally, which forces the companies to rely on local seeds.
He explained that when companies need to request seeds for planting a specific area from the ministry, it requires a special committee to purchase samples and try them to find out their suitability for the land and avoid damage. This is a good thing, but it takes years to be finished, he added.
“If the ministry approves the importation of the company, they restrict it to specific amounts, consistent with the land’s needs for certain seeds. These studies do not conform to global and modern studies, so companies resort to purchasing locally,” he said.
He added that desert reclamation is the only way to get rid of pesticide residues resulting from the contamination of the soil, but water scarcity and the difficulty of providing land with essential services is considered a major obstacle.