Farming Fish and Lettuce in the Egyptian Desert
Against the odds, one Egyptian farm is attempting to grow fish and produce in the Sahara—but is this a real oasis or just a mirage?
All photos by the author.
To the west of the main city of Cairo lies one of many satellite settlements, Sheikh Zayed. Built from scratch over the last two decades and surrounded by desert, it has become an expensive suburb for affluent Egyptians escaping the chaotic capital. It is the last place you would expect to find a farm, and certainly not a fishery.
The man to talk to about that would be Farris Farrag. An ex-investment banker with qualifications in economics, Farrag spent much of his life outside of Egypt, in Britain and the United States. He returned to his home country in 2011, when a popular movement took to the streets to oust the 82-year-old president Hosni Mubarak. Like many in Egypt during that period, Farrag was inspired to do something to help the country, and gave up his banking career to return to Cairo.
"I wanted to do something I love," he says, "and I'm passionate about fish and I love farming stuff." But his passions were challenging ones to realise in a country that is 95 percent desert.
Although once "the breadbasket of the Roman Empire," Egypt these days is a net importer of food, and struggles to produce enough to feed its rapidly growing population. It comes down to a shortage of agricultural land; in other words, a shortage of water. The Nile provides over 80 percent of the country's water needs, of which 85 percent is used for agriculture. But the river is not getting any bigger, and the country has already pushed how much it can extract from it to the limit.
Despite Egypt's looming water crisis, however, Farrag has not been put off his dream of sustainable farming. It's made him even more keen on it.
"I got interested in aquaponics in the States," he says. Aquaponics is the method of growing fish in tandem with produce. Salads and vegetables are cultivated hydroponically, using the water itself as the growing medium, and the same water is used to farm fish. The water that the fish are farmed in becomes rich in nitrates and nitrites that are toxic to the marine life but, with a bit of help, make for a perfect hydroponic medium for the plants. After these substances are absorbed into their roots, the water can be transferred back to the fish to be used again.
It is a far cry from the normal methods of agriculture currently employed in Egypt. The majority of farms are flood-irrigated from the Nile, using the ancient technique of allowing water to flood over the land with little control, leading to huge losses in water to runoff and evaporation. The water that finds its way back to the river is more often than not contaminated with fertilizer, creating water pollution. Farrag decided that more efficient systems were just what water-scarce Egypt needed, and that he was going to begin the first Egyptian commercial venture into aquaponics. Furthermore, he was going to do it in the desert.
"You don't need arable land for this kind of thing," he says. "In fact, when I look for land, I'm looking for a location nobody else wants." He chose the unlikely spot in Sheikh Zayed, just around the corner from the Hyper One Mall, on a vacant patch of land had few signs of life, save for a handful of olive trees. He set up his fish tanks and his hydroponic systems, and began his venture in 2012. He named his new venture Bustan, the Arabic word for orchard. Four years later, it's producing a variety of salad greens, vegetables, and huge amounts of Nile tilapia.
"We use groundwater," he says, referring to the vast undergound network of water that sits under Egypt, Libya, Chad, and the Sudan. Farrag pumps up enough water to fill his system, and keeps it in constant circulation. He only pumps more to replace the small amount lost in the process. The project is dedicated to sustainability. "We run a zero-waste system and we buy everything here in Egypt; we don't import anything." Farrag invested into state-of-the-art equipment to get as much produce for the lowest water usage possible.
Farrag's produce has become popular among Cairene restaurants and health food stores in its own right, but he still sees his venture within the big picture of Egyptian development. "We do a lot of knowledge sharing," he says. "We work with lots of academic institutions and research centers." Farrag is also responsive to entrepreneurs in Egypt who are looking to start similar businesses. "The science and technology is not yet diffused enough—it's still in the early stages of development." It's his ambition to bring more efficient water technology to the mainstream.
His project is not without its limitations, however. His admirable commitment to sustainability means larger overheads than his competitors. A head of lettuce can be found in Cairo's markets for as little as LE1 (about $0.11 US), while Farrag's aquaponically produced lettuce sells for LE5 to LE7. In a country where a half the population lives on less than $2 a day, the higher cost prices the majority of Egyptians out of buying from him. Bustan's market is limited to the discerning upper-classes with money to spend. The high startup costs and risks involved in following Farrag's lead puts many off investing in systems of their own.
Then there is his reliance on ground water. "The water here is free," he says. "There is no legislation to stop people using it." The water he uses is a fossil resource—when it is gone, it will be gone forever, along with any oases and villages that rely on it to survive. While Farris makes every attempt to use as little of the water as possible, there is no financial incentive for others to do the same. The water that Bustan needs will eventually run out.
The project may be impressive, but it is not the sole answer to the country's water problems. Farrag understands this. "At the moment, it's a niche," he says, "and it's not the only solution." But nonetheless, he believes that he's doing something important for Egypt and the environment. "If I can move the needle along just 1 percent, I'll feel like I've done my bit."