Egyptians angered over sharp rise in vegetable prices

Cairo announced three-month ban on export of onions in bid to bring prices down

A vegetable stall at a market in Cairo. EPA
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A recent rise in the price of onions, one of the most highly consumed vegetables in Egypt, has been met with anger from citizens already reeling from record-high inflation.

Onion prices per kilo surged to 35 Egyptian pounds this month. They were 10 pounds cheaper last month and about 12 pounds per kilo a year ago.

In several statements over the past week, the government pointed the finger at “greedy traders” whom it said were hoarding produce to drive up prices and make more profit.

Noura El Refaey, 41, an Egyptian homemaker, also blamed traders, saying that different vendors have been giving her different prices for the same kind of vegetables, leading her to believe that more intervention is needed to keep them in line.

“You’re talking about vegetables – they are the only thing that many people can afford right now, so there should be more effort to ensure that we are protected from these price increases,” Ms El Refaey told The National.

In a bid to bring down prices, the government last week announced a three-month ban on onion exports, which amount to 1 million tonnes annually – a third of the country’s total annual output, according to data from Egypt’s state statistics agency.

However, on Saturday, the Egyptian Ministry of Trade and Industry announced that the ban would be postponed to October 1 on account of previously arranged export agreements.

Price increases are not limited to onions: other popular vegetables such as tomatoes have doubled in price over the past month, from 10 pounds per kilo in late July to 23 pounds on Monday.

“The most important vegetables for any Egyptian home are tomatoes, number one, onions, number two, and potatoes, number three,” Hatem El Naguib, vice-president of the vegetables union at the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce told The National.

“They are all in abundant supply this year but their prices have increased significantly for a number of reasons.”

The spike in prices has been caused by a drop in supplies at Egyptian vegetable markets this season, Mr El Naguib explained.

A large portion of the country’s tomato crop, which is harvested in the summer season, was ruined by unseasonably high temperatures, he added, and the drop in supplies due to the same demand as last year drove prices up.

Furthermore, tomato prices have risen sharply over the past week because it is the end of the summer season, which means growers are selling the last of their wares as they prepare to tend to crops like spinach and other leafy greens harvested in December and January.

Many farmers have chosen not to plant onions this year because it is not as lucrative as other crops, according to Mr El Naguib.

“Last year, the price of onions was quite low, which prompted many farmers already dealing with rising costs of living to plant more profitable crops instead,” he said.

“This left us with a significantly reduced onion crop compared to last year. We were aware that this would be a problem months ago at which time we approached the government and asked that they reduce exports this year. They finally approved it this month.”

Mr El Naguib explained that most merchants mainly hoarded crops with the intention to export them.

“Some of these are big players who store up to 100,000 tonnes for export,” he said.

“The government knows them by name and was completely aware of their storage of these crops. However, with drumming up dollars being the primary concern for the government right now, it prioritised exports over the needs of the local market.

Supply and demand mechanisms determine these prices, he said, and added that there are unexpected factors that also play a role, such as the high temperatures this year and “other climate change factors”.

“In my opinion, governments have a responsibility to implement policies that offset such misfortunes,” Mr El Naguib concludes.

Egypt’s cash-strapped central bank has enacted a number of initiatives over the past year to drum up more US dollars amid an ongoing crunch that has left much of the country’s industries paralysed due to their dependence on imported components for their operations.

Vegetable prices in Egypt have increased by 98.4 per cent compared to the same month last year, according to data from the national statistics agency. The country’s headline inflation hit a record 37.4 per cent in August on the back of higher food prices.

The rise in food prices has left many Egyptians unable to afford the most basic necessities and has sparked an increase in the use of deferred payments – even for vegetables.

On Friday, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior announced the arrest of 12 people involved in a robbery of a lorry carrying potatoes.

The streets in the videos circulated online at the weekend are seen covered in potatoes, some of which had been crushed by passing cars. Dozens of Egyptians can be seen rushing to fill their bags and pockets with the vegetables.

While some criticised the robbery, others saw it as a sign of the difficulties facing millions of Egyptians in making ends meet.

Updated: September 27, 2023, 6:12 AM