As the month of May nears its end, heralding summer in Egypt, Upper Egyptian sugarcane farmers are finishing their harvest, their main source of income for the first half of any year.
Upper Egypt’s governorates are home to 77 per cent of the nation’s sugarcane fields, their hot climate making them a perfect planting ground for the crop.
Fifteen per cent of the crop’s cultivation takes place in Middle Egyptian governorates such as El Fayoum, and 8 per cent takes place in the Nile Delta provinces in northern Egypt.
Harvesting sugarcane is labour-intensive, making it a popular seasonal job for many people in Upper Egypt who rely on it to make ends meet for the duration of the harvest, which typically takes place between December and June.
A little south of Luxor, local sugarcane farmer Sayed El Manhool, 62, manages two feddans, or about 0.8 hectares, of land on which the crop has been grown since 1952.
He oversees the operations with his uncle, Khalifa El Tohamy, 84, who has been there since the first sugarcane stalk was planted.
Every day during the harvest months, a team of 10 day labourers takes on each hectare of crop, chopping the long stalks with scythes and packing them on to large lorries.
From there they are sent to one of the many refineries in the five Upper Egyptian governorates that specialise in the sugar industry: Luxor, Aswan, Qena, Sohag and Al Minya.
“During the six months of the harvest, I hire about 100 employees for my two feddans," Mr El Manhool says.
"Ten men come in each day and do their work. The next day another 10 people show up. Sometimes they are the same men, and sometimes new men come.”
The workers’ jobs vary. There are harvesters, workers in charge of spraying the crops with pesticide, and when the harvest is done, others come in to clear the land completely so it can be resown with new seeds.
The harvested stalks are taken to one of the refineries, weighed and sold.
The farmers receive their wages when all of the refineries’ stocks have been sold, a process that can take months to finalise.
“We send in our crop to the refinery and we wait sometimes 10 or 11 months to receive our earnings,” Mr El Manhool says.
Egypt’s annual production of refined sugar amounted to 2.85 tonnes last year, 900,000 of which came from sugarcane, with the rest extracted from sugar beets.
Egypt’s sugarcane fields occupy about 360,000 feddans
The nation’s sugar consumption last year came in at about 3.2 million tonnes, leaving a deficit that was filled by the state through imports.
But this deficit has been decreasing over the past few years amid increased efforts by the government to boost the nation’s sugar industry.
This year, the US Department of Agriculture forecast that the rate of Egypt’s sugar production would grow by 75,000 tonnes or 2.6 per cent in the 2021-2022 year.
Mr El Manhool says the crop is quite versatile and produces a wide range of other products.
“You can extract alcohol from it," he says. "You can produce plywood from it. You can make molasses from it.
"In total you can make 24 different kinds of products from sugarcane."
While the pandemic affected most of the world’s industries, Mr El Manhool says it did not hinder his operations in any major way this year.
“In the city people felt the effects of the lockdown, but out here in the fields, we haven’t been affected at all by the pandemic," he says.
"The weather this year is nice and hot, which promotes the growth of sugarcane and fills each stalk with lots of juice."
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