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Has Egyptian cotton reached the end of the road?

By Anne-Marie Bissada

It's an industry known worldwide - think about the last time you went into a shop to buy a towel. If you checked the label, chances are it said Egyptian cotton. But while the product itself is recognized worldwide, the industry is in a state of what appears to be a terminal decline.

Zagazig, two hours north of Cairo, is farming country. Villages here have been Egypt’s main source of cotton since production began in the 1820s.

One of the main factories here takes in cotton from the surrounding farms, cleans it, packages it and sends it up to the port at Alexandria where it is then exported.

The ghost of cotton past

But what used to be one of the country’s main sources of income, is now a shadow of its former self.

Showing me around the Egyptian Company of Cotton is Mohammed Ali. He explains how his whole family worked in cotton farming. Ali himself was a farmer, but he’s now a manager of the factory.

Having been a farmer for years, he told RFI: “I lived through everything before the free market.”

Ali explains how, now, with the introduction of a free market you can grow everything - except cotton.

The ‘free market’ he refers to means after 1994. In that year, the government made a decision that changed the landscape of cotton production when it decided to liberalise the market.  That meant Egyptian farmers no longer had direct government subsidies.

"Cotton was the source of revenue for everything, you could live off that, build a home, get married, have children, but not now," he says.

Ali is one of the lucky ones as he got a job managing this factory. He and the other men showing me around reminisce about the past:

"Honestly, I hope it gets better. If the government looks after everything, starting from giving out seeds, and insecticide, and helping them to commercialize their cotton - if it comes back to what it was before 1994 then yes it’ll be better."

Inside the cotton factory in Zagazig Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

The Cotton Institute, a centre created in 1907 in Giza,  is dedicated to improving cotton growing in Egypt.

Because of its location, each new variety of cotton is referred to as ‘Giza’.

Free market problems

Mohamed Negm is the head researcher at the Institute.He explains that the latest variety is Giza 96, which means since 1907, 96 different types of cotton have been created.

In addition to creating new varieties, the institute has developed programmes for farmers to ensure each cotton season is optimized.

Up until 1994, this programme worked. Negm explains:

"During that time the farmer made good money. The government gave him seed without money, the fertilizer, insecticide, the best sites, and helped him for agricultural practices, then took the cotton at low price.

"Initially, the farmer was supported through the growing stags. But afterwards, no more government subsidies. Each famer realized other crops would be more beneficial, so he began to grow other crops, more profit for the farmer. The farmer doesn’t care about the spinning mill.

With little supply, demand also began to dwindle. Negm explains that in the last twenty years, land given over to the production of cotton has gone down by 200,000 hectares.

Without government support, growing cotton was no longer a good source of income for farmers, starting in 1994, many turned to other crops such as rice and wheat.

White gold

Over at the Cotton Association of Egypt in Cairo, there are posters all over the office which refer to Cotton as White Gold.

"Because Egyptian Cotton has always been one of the main resources of income for the country it is called the white gold, or the fourth pyramid, and is a very important source of income." explains Khaled Schuman, the executive director of the association.

His organisation is not-for-profit and has been working to protect the cotton industry in Egypt.

While it only makes up two percent of the world's production, Egyptian cotton is renowned for its quality.

That’s why when a label says ‘Egyptian cotton’, it is now a protected logo: the flower with three petals means the cotton was grown in Egypt.

But don’t forget, cotton is not native to Egypt. In fact it was brought to the country in the early 1800s while at a time when the United States, India and other countries were the big cotton producers.

Then,  a Frenchman, Louis Alexis Jumel, was asked to find the best variety to grow in Egypt.

After collecting samples from all over the cotton producing world, and some disastrous experiments, Jummel managed to create a cotton strain that suited Egypt’s climate and soil. .

Soon Egyptian cotton became known for its high absorption rate and hardiness, but also its softness.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War in the 1860s, Egypt took over a lot of the global cotton production. Negm explains that the five-year war in the US meant Egypt quickly rose to be one of the main suppliers of cotton, adding “at the time, cotton here like petroleum in Arab countries.”

English interference

In due time, the cotton industry became the main source of income for the country. With the English in power at the time, Egypt’s textile industry was halted, and emphasis was put on producing raw cotton, as Negm explains "they [the English] stopped the textile industry in Egypt. They didn’t want the competition."

At the time England had its own big industry [textile] in Yorkshire and Lancashire. They wanted to make Egypt as a farm of England. So Egypt began to grow ginning cotton, and then it was taken to England for processing."

Given that Egypt was primarily an agricultural country, the large farming population gravitated towards the now lucrative crop.

Since then, the cotton industry has remained the country's biggest source of income outside of tourism. Because Egypt doesn’t have a lot of agricultural land the quantity of cotton has always been limited. But in world rankings at its peak, Egypt was fifth.

"We cannot be number one because our area of production is limited, not like India or US. You cannot imagine how many fedans or hectars they have versus us. But we are still the best quality until now,” adds Negm.

But the limited growing space also means all the cotton is hand-picked; so the cotton remains intact and softer, which makes it more valuable on the world market.

Cotton, cabbage and hay

Back in Zagazig, the fields are now filled with cabbage and hay. I’m here on the farm of Abdel Abou Shusha.

Hay planted during off-season Anne-Marie Bissada/RFI

While pointing to his fields of non-cotton crops, he explains how, with the end of government subsidies, growing cotton was no longer lucrative.

He laughs heartily when I ask him how long he has been farming “since I was 7 years old, and now I’m 74 years old .”

Wearing the typical shirt dress of the fellahin, or farmer, his grey galabaya and white head wrap is offset of by his piercing blue eyes.

While showing me around his fields, his children, and grandchildren closely follow beaming back with shy smiles.

"In the old days, everybody loved farming. I love farming, it’s a profession and the entire country lives off our produce,” explains Shusha.

While he no longer farms himself, he now surveys the process from sowing to harvesting.

With fewer people farming because of financial constraints, entire generations of farmers like Ali are beginning to disappear.

“My whole family were farmers. My father was a farmer, and so were his older brothers, but the generation after people began going to school, doing other jobs like teaching. From my five brothers, I’m the only one still here,” explains Shusha.

While families like Shusha’s have turned away from growing cotton all year round due to lack of government support, there’s another problem eating away at the cotton industry.

Anne-Marie Bissada RFI

In spite of the dwindling supply of cotton in Egypt, the namesake of Egyptian cotton has remained. So many companies around the world continue to brand their products with this label, though it no longer includes Egyptian Cotton. That means both supply and now demand of Egyptian cotton is being impacted.

"I can tell you that two years ago, 90 percent of the products taken to the market was not Egyptian cotton”, explains Schuman. “For the last ten years, every year we [have been] planting less and less because of fraudulent use [and] because of less demand".

Fighting back?

So how to stop such false advertising?

Negm recounts the moment that got him thinking about ways to protect the label:
In the last six or seven years, I was in the Netherlands, and I have a towel in the hotel, with a label saying 100 percent Egyptian cotton.

"I tested it and it wasn’t good. I tested it and found out it was 100 percent polyester. At that time we began our programme on how to protect the Egyptian cotton logo.

Back at the Cotton Institute, he and a colleague developed a method to test finished cotton products to see if they have the same DNA as cotton found in Egypt.

In doing so, the Cotton Association has been able to protect the label and ensure that producers around the world who want to create merchandise using Egyptian cotton, go through a licensing process in Egypt.

That means all products labelled 'Egyptian cotton' have a procedure which ensures traceability to cotton grown in Egypt.

“We are producing the best cotton in the world, but the government has to follow the world trade organization rules, so no subsidies, no direct subsidies,” explains Negm.

“We have to think how to help the farmer, because  in all the countries which are growing cotton, the farmers are subsidized. And if it can’t be done in Egypt, then no more cotton in Egypt.

The mislabeling of Egyptian cotton by companies worldwide has cost the country millions of dollars. But Schuman is hopeful the new efforts through licensing and traceability will help the industry.

"The textile industry is a very important source of income, and Egyptian cotton, but with lowered production, now the government [is] focusing 100 percent on the Egyptian cotton, and the textile industry as a whole," he says.

"You will see next season the quantity will be doubled, tripled, but it will take time. It will pick up in the coming years.

Back at the farm, Shusha is also positive about the future of cotton farming, adding "it’s all in the hands of god. Things are getting more expensive, but only God can solve everything."