06 Sep 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Organic Food and Agriculture

Ahmed Tony is not your average social media and marketing expert; outside his day job, he is working towards making Egypt’s food supply more sustainable. At the beginning of the year, Tony and three partners founded Maten’s Farm in the outer Cairo suburb of Tagamoa. The business will focus on creating fertilizer from food waste, with plans to eventually produce fruit and vegetables for public sale.

The founders of Maten’s Farm are passionate about redressing Egypt’s dire array of problems related to food, from malnutrition to costly food waste. Yet they insist that their business model makes good commercial sense, filling a yawning gap in the Egyptian and Middle Eastern food industries. With some capital injection, Maten’s Farm hopes to demonstrate that profit and environmentalism can go hand-in-hand.

“The whole world is facing huge trouble with food,” says Tony, one of the founders of Cairo-based organic food project Maten’s Farm. The business will focus on vermicomposting, the process of creating high-quality plant fertilizer from worm manure.

As an Egyptian, Tony knows all too well about food-related problems. The world’s most populous Arab country annually produces around 73 kilograms of food waste per capita. This takes a toll on the Egyptian economy, with a study finding that Egypt loses about EGP 11 million every year on wasted wheat, oranges and tomatoes alone.

Food waste contributes to an even more important public health challenge, which UNICEF describes as Egypt’s “double burden of malnutrition.” The rate of “poor” access to food stands at 16 percent across Egypt, and rises to an alarming 38.7 percent in underdeveloped Upper Egypt. At the same time, many other Egyptians are locked in a counter-intuitive struggle with obesity. UNICEF traces this trend to poor dietary habits and a general lack of education about healthy eating.

At the start of this year, Tony and his colleagues founded Maten’s Farm in response to these pressing, food-related concerns. Tony’s regular job is with a national company as a social media and marketing expert, but he plans to transition into a full-time role managing Maten’s Farm.

Vermicomposting ensures that food scraps do not go to waste, and are instead reincarnated as organic fertilizer capable of producing healthy food. To this end, the star recruit at Maten’s Farm is the African Night Crawler, a species of worm renowned as a highly efficient composter. The worms eat food waste, digest its nutrients and produce manure that can be used as plant fertilizer.

So far, Maten’s Farm has successfully produced trial samples of fertilizer, with a view to commencing public sales by early 2019. According to Tony, the vermicomposting industry offers lucrative business opportunities in Egypt, while also making a positive social contribution.

Mounting the business case:

Tony believes that a glaring opening exists in Egypt for a business like Maten’s Farm. “The competition in the [organic fertilizer] market is weak,” says Tony. “Vermicomposting is new to Egypt.”

Vermicomposting is viewed as a growth industry outside Egypt, as interest mounts in using small-scale farming and more efficient waste management processes. In a 2013 TED Talk, Matthew Ross described the fertilizer created by vermicomposting, known as “black gold” in agricultural circles, as having “value as a soil additive [that] is unparalleled.” Harvesters like Maten’s Farm can turn significant profits by supplying the sought-after fertilizer to farmers.

Within Egypt, Tony argues that a strong appetite exists for high-quality soil additives not just from the agricultural sector, but also from food and landscaping companies. “Our target market is large and has a demand for our products,” says Tony.

Based on his marketing expertise, Tony is also confident that Maten’s Farm can attract more clients still from the general public. “A lot of people here cannot get healthy food,” says Tony. “They eat food of bad quality that is treated with chemicals, which affects their health.”

Maten’s Farm conducted an open session on the basics of vermicomposting three months ago, and will contribute to an organic farming event at the Egypt Public Library in October. The founders have also published educational videos on social media. These public outreach efforts help raise awareness not only about the Maten’s Farm brand, but also of the very availability of healthily produced food in Egypt.

Everyday Egyptians can also add value to Maten’s Farm while making a tidy profit for themselves — by helping the business source organic waste. Tony explains that his business model will incorporate paying community members who donate food waste for his African Night Crawlers to munch on. This ensures a constant flow of organic matter for Maten’s Farm, while giving local families an additional source of income.

“There is so much food waste around Egypt, but now people can use their waste to make money,” Tony says.

 

Getting a financial push:

Now Maten’s Farm is seeking investment so that it can purchase industrial-grade equipment, which will speed up the production of fertilizer. Funding would also assist a proposed expansion of the business beyond vermicomposting. Tony has started experimenting with growing hydroponic tomatoes, and perceives commercial opportunities for domestic sale and foreign export. In particular, wealthy Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia have a strong appetite for high-quality fruit and vegetables.

Tony is confident that he and his business partners have the necessary expertise to capitalize on these market openings. Maten’s Farm has already contacted potential buyers through platforms like Facebook, but has plans to create a dedicated online website for organic crops and fertilizer. “No one in Egypt has made a website to directly connect seller and buyer,” Tony asserts, “so we are going to do that.”

If Maten’s Farm can deliver on its founders’ grand designs, then building a more sustainable Egypt may be a commercially viable enterprise as well.

 

Learn more about Maten’s Farm on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/matenswormfarm/).

Photos: courtesy of Maten’s Farm

Since getting his MA in Middle Eastern studies last year, David has worked as a freelance journalist based in Accra, Ghana, and Cairo, Egypt.David Wood
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