Long Staple Cotton - File Photo/ Wikimedia Commons
CAIRO - 16 June 2018: “Before or after cotton,” was a common phrase used by Egyptians during the 1920s up until the 1970s, referring to the cotton harvest season.
“Everything in the life of Egyptians was linked to cotton, not only the farmers’, but even landlords’ who postponed any special occasions after the picking season was over. And many would eagerly wait for [the picking and selling to be over] because they had tied up all their money in it.
Festivals, weddings and even funerals were linked to the harvest season; it was more like a time frame for everything happening in life,” 74-year-old Hanaa Shawky says, recalling memories from her childhood in Sharkiya City. Her generation remembers waking up to the sound of farmers during harvest, singing songs about the “white gold,” as they called it.
Once the biggest producer of cotton globally, Egypt’s more than 20 million acres of cotton crops gradually started to disappear over the years. Only 220,000 acres of long-staple cotton were grown in 2017, according to official figures.
The number, however, is still an increase from 2011 figures; for instance, 2016/17 saw only 130,000 acres of cotton cultivated, the lowest in 100 years. The Ministry of Agriculture expects to double its production in the fiscal year ending this July, whereby it would reach 1.4 million qintar (around 247,000 tons), up from 700,000 qintar in the last fiscal year, and sell at LE 3,000 per qintar. Policies are currently being formulated to ensure the sector bounces back to its full potential.
The rise and fall of Egypt’s white gold
The industry was crippled by the liberalization of Egypt’s cotton sector in 1994, as part of a wider liberalization plan, and competition with the high-quality US Pima. The cotton sector was on its last legs till 2014, when it started to regain positive growth.
Liberalization had exposed farmers to volatile global prices and rising fertilizer costs, leaving the market unstable and shrinking. To stay in the game, farmers turned to the production of more lucrative crops and factories that use low-quality cotton. With half a million workers involved in cotton production and manufacturing, according to Cairo University agricultural economist Gamal Siam, the sector remains one of the most important in Egypt.
Before the liberalization of the sector in 1994, the state would subsidize all farmers’ needs; from seeds and fertilizers, to pesticides and even prices paid for the harvest. As part of a more open-market economy, however, the state lifted their protectionist economic policies and removed the most part of its subsidies and support for the cotton growers, leaving them with a much higher cost of production.
After 2011, the industry took a further hit given growing political and economic instabilities.
Despite a decline in cotton production since the 1960s, however, Egypt’s cotton is still a trademark, El Sayed Mahmoud, Operational Director at Jet Garments Factory tells Egypt Today Egypt during a tour of the factory.
“The comparison [between the past and present] is unfair, there are a lot of aspects to judge by, because the whole agricultural system has changed and the reputation of Egyptian cotton remains the same.
However, every cotton plant and type nowadays has its own necessity. We cannot say Egypt produces only high-quality or low-quality cotton, every type has its own place; the key is to fit the demands of the market.
For example, I cannot sell high-quality cotton for a certain market segment, my products will not sell and vice versa. It is all about marketing the product in the right way.”
The Jet Factory deals with the last process that cotton goes through to produce a final product, “We receive cotton after it goes through the spinning process [other factories are specifically in charge of this process].
Cotton enters the factory in the form of thread rolls [yarn], then we start the process of dividing different thread types according to the product type [pyjamas, underwear or training suits, and so on],” Mahmoud adds. Cotton, he explains, is generally categorized according to many factors, which determine its grade; these factors include thickness, length and where it grew. Mahmoud explains that cotton coming from areas near the Nile Delta is normally of the highest quality.
In 2017, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) launched a two-year project in collaboration with the Egyptian government and the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) to help revive the Egyptian cotton industry.
According to a report published in July 2017, “Egyptian Cotton produces some of the highest quality fibre, known all over the world as Egypt’s ‘white gold.’ Although an important pillar of the Egyptian economy, the textile sector plays a marginal role in the global textile value chain due to the absence of innovation, lack of a skilled workforce, high input prices, inefficient agricultural practices and an inability to meet international market needs.”
The project aimed to support cotton growers in applying sustainable agricultural practices and non-polluting production practices, while also improving the national mechanisms for quality assurance and organic certification.
UNIDO Director and Regional Representative Giovanna Ceglie says, “The Egyptian extra-long staple cotton is the gold standard for the world’s finest linens and clothing, however, its production and demand are steadily declining. This project aims to contribute to reversing this trend: together with our partners from the government and private sector, we want to help growers to produce more and better cotton, small and medium-sized enterprises to manufacture quality cotton products, and workers to benefit from higher skills and higher incomes. We emphasize the green aspect of this project as it will promote organic and clean production of cotton, as well as the social impact, as we intend to also support the poorer segments in the cotton value chain.”
Ceglie expresses optimism toward a sustainable creative industry in Egypt, suggesting that Egyptian producers’ creativity and attention to detail gives it an edge. Ceglie adds that the memorandum of understanding signed between the Industrial Modernization Centre (IMC) and the Creative Mediterranean Project on May 7, 2018 will ensure that Egyptians in the creative industry, in cotton and other fields, remain on top of the game and are able to compete globally with their counterparts.
“It is a forward-looking, multibillion economy; it is vital for the economy. It cuts across a number of economic sectors, from software to furnishing to goods to fashion; it is such an important part of many sectors. By ensuring a strong design sector, you increase the competitiveness in other sectors. When you combine the idea of design, creativity and cultural identity, it becomes even more important and even stronger,” explains Ceglie. The creative industry, Ceglie adds, is a multibillion dollar sector and so, it is important that Egypt competes.
“Egypt has one of the most extraordinary cultural identities in the world. Combining this with Egyptian creativity and craftsmanship will put Egypt on track for great success in this industry,” Ceglie elaborates. She adds that the creative industries are also rich in opportunities and can produce jobs that are vital in Egypt.
The goal to double cotton production this fiscal year comes as part of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts to increase cotton production and set appropriate cotton purchase prices from farmers, encouraging them to expand their cotton planting production in upcoming years and meet the needs of the local market. “Government officials must have been relieved to hear that Egyptian cotton exports will hit 38,000 tons at the close of the 2016/2017 season, up 19 percent on last year’s total,” Reuters previously reported.
The history of cotton production
Louis Alexis Jumel, a French agriculture enthusiast whose name is synonymous with cotton production in Egypt, was the first to convince Muhammad Ali Pasha that cotton can be Egypt’s number one strategic crop, capable of revolutionizing the country’s agriculture at the time (1818-1819).
History books at the Agricultural Museum in Dokki document Jumel studying cotton crops in the US before heading to Egypt. Upon discovering neglected cotton plants in an old garden in Cairo, Jumel spent some time experimenting before creating Egypt’s “white gold,” the extra-long cotton staple.
Amazed by the results, Muhammed Ali Pasha brought long-staple cotton seeds from India and ordered for it to be planted in the Nile Delta. The delta experiment was a huge and profitable success, resulting in Egypt’s special crop becoming an essential component of Europe’s textile industry.
Within a record short time, Egyptian cotton became a halmark of quality and a trademark in the most luxurious and prestigious fashion houses and clothing lines.
Egyptian cotton export made up 93 percent of Egypt’s export revenue. In fact, Egyptian cotton was so highly desired that after the American Civil War deprived England from American Cotton in 1861, Britain occupied Egypt primarily, “to make sure raw cotton was reaching textile factories in Britain,” as stated by Ali Shalaby in his book, The Crisis of the Great Depression and its Impact on the Egyptian Countryside.
According to a 1905 report by Lord Cromer titled British Controller-General in Egypt 1879, “England made sure to keep Egypt its ‘cotton farm’ and limit the country’s economic and industrial development.”
With activists calling for movements against the British Occupation, in 1927 pioneering Egyptian economist Talaat Harb established the first Egyptian textile factory in El Mahalla El Kubra, located in the center of the Nile Delta. According to the memoirs of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, in 1953 American President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent to the Secretary of State John Foster Dallas asking that President Nasser reduce cotton planted land for the benefit of American farmers; Egyptian cotton was their number one competitor. President Eisenhower would be “very grateful,” Dallas told President Nasser. To which, Nasser, according to Heikal, “literally opened his mouth in surprise.”
Since that moment, Nasser understood the importance of Egyptian cotton and started using it as a strategic weapon; he fully supported Egyptian farmers.
By 1969, cotton-planted acres exceeded 3 million, producing more than 10.8 qintars compared to 220,000 acres in 2017 and a production of 600,00 qintars, according to a Deutsche Welle report published March 2018.
Economics researcher and professor at Cairo University Mahmoud El-Henawy attributes this decline to policies that paved the way to the private sector, which gradually led to reducing cotton-planted land spaces during the 1980s and 1990s.