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How climate change could make Egypt's coffee cultivation a reality

One Egyptian experiment has successfully cultivated coffee beans, but analysts believe environmental factors are still unfavorable for localizing.
24.05.24 | Source: Al Monitor

The announcement last month that Egypt’s Horticultural Research Institute had successfully localized coffee cultivation went viral on social media and caught the media’s attention.

A team of researchers from the Ministry of Agriculture-affiliated HRI had been experimenting with growing coffee in the country since 2007. They found no success until April, when the researchers harvested coffee for the first time in al-Qanater al-Khairiya city, Qalyubia governorate, with each tree producing seven to nine kilograms of coffee beans.  

Are climate shifts blessing for Egyptian coffee cultivation?

The weather pattern changes Egypt has witnessed over the past two years due to climate change — including higher temperatures and increased rainfall — prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to adopt plans to cultivate tropical crops that are uncommon in Egypt. The aim is to reduce import costs for certain produce as global prices increase due to climate change and decrease the demand for foreign currency. A foreign currency shortage is in large part fueling Egypt's economic crisis. 

The HRI research team believes domestic coffee bean cultivation is now possible due to increased humidity caused by the climate shifts, as coffee crops thrive in high humidity. The coffee plants are grown using mist irrigation systems under trees such as palm, avocado and mango trees to ensure protection from direct sunlight, which could dry out or burn the tree’s leaves.

Even as the successful experiment went viral on social media and was covered widely by the local press, the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation directed the team not to promote this achievement. In a meeting with the research team of the HRI on April 24, Agriculture Minister El-Sayed El-Quseir directed the ministry to refrain from announcing the results of any research experiments before their outcomes are fully assessed.

Gamal Abdrabboh, a professor of horticulture at Al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Agriculture, discussed the experiment with Al-Monitor. Abdrabboh explained, “The quality of the locally cultivated coffee beans and the percentage of caffeine and acidity compared to the quality standards of the world’s best coffee beans are key factors in the success of local coffee cultivation."

Abdrabboh went on, “We do not want to downplay any research experiment. We still need more studies on the economic feasibility and return on coffee cultivation locally for consumption purposes, and on the consumer acceptance of Egyptian produce." Noting that the HRI experiment is still in the initial stages, he said that it is "limited to a small area in the vicinity of the Qalyubia governorate. It would be good to experiment in other areas in Egypt closer to tropical climates.”

However, some researchers downplay the possibility of localizing coffee cultivation in Egypt, arguing that the climate conditions in the country are not similar enough to the tropical climate where coffee beans thrive. They maintain that research should focus on staple food crops in the Egyptian diet such as wheat, rice and corn, all of which Egypt imports in large quantities. 

Abdel Baset Oqaili is a plant nutrition consultant at the Desert Research Center, a local research center affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture working to achieve sustainable development in desert areas. He is not overly optimistic about coffee cultivation in Egypt.

“The lack of the plant’s environmental requirements such as sunshine duration, humidity and temperatures would cause a physiological defect,” Oqaili told Al-Monitor.

“Climate change may allow the cultivation of new varieties of produce, but the climatic factors in Egypt are still unsuitable for coffee growing unless a genetic modification or hybridization of the seeds is carried out,” he added.

Coffee crisis

Coffee prices have risen in Egypt in recent months. According to March data from the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the prices of coffee, tea and cocoa saw a 57.9% increase in December 2023 compared with December 2022.

Coffee distributors attributed the increasing prices to the high exchange rate of the Egyptian pound against the dollar. Hassan Fawzy, head of the coffee department at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, said in press statements in February that another reason for the surge in coffee prices was the tension in the Red Sea, where Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been attacking commercial shipping, contributing to high customs and shipping fees.

Egypt’s imports of non-roasted or decaffeinated coffee hit $167.6 million in the first 10 months of 2023, marking a 1.9% increase compared with the same period in the previous year, according to foreign trade data from CAPMAS. Egyptians consume about 70,000 tons of coffee annually.

On April 28 Al-Monitor visited the famous Shaheen Coffee shop in Cairo, where the prices of Yemeni and Ethiopian coffee exceeded 1,200 Egyptian pounds ($25) per kilo.

Mahmoud Fathallah, a worker at the coffee shop, told Al-Monitor, “During the past three months, coffee prices have increased by up to 50% for some items, and the price of Yemeni coffee has reached 1,280 pounds [$27] per kilo."

The International Coffee Organization’s annual report for 2023 said Egypt along with Algeria, Morocco and South Africa registered a combined 13.6% drop in coffee consumption compared with 2021 due to low economic growth and associated weak purchasing power.

In contrast, Egypt’s consumption of basic food commodities such as wheat, corn and rice increased last year. Wheat imports were among the top imported commodities in 2023, with Egyptian imports rising by 92.5% from 2022, according to CAPMAS data.

Egypt is among the top countries with the highest real food inflation, at a rate of 12% year-on-year, the World Bank said in its Food Security Update released in April. The North African country is seeking to ensure food security and achieve self-sufficiency in strategic food commodities through its domestic agricultural production by implementing several national projects for land reclamation and cultivation. These projects include the reclamation of 1.5 million acres of land, the East Owainat Project, the New Delta and Toshka projects.