23 Oct 2018
Cairo, Egypt
Organic Food and Agriculture

When Sara-Kristina Hannig Nour moved from Switzerland to Cairo seven years ago, she was greeted by a dazzling kaleidoscope of exotic fruits. “I was so impressed by produce that we did not have in Switzerland,” she said. “There were mangoes and pomegranates everywhere at the market.” As Hannig Nour learned more about the food industry, it dawned on her that — when it came to Egyptian fruits — looks could be deceiving. “What looked great on the outside was not always good for you.”

Within a year, Hannig Nour founded Sara’s Organic Food, which grows, sources and delivers pesticide-free and organic-certified fruit and vegetables. Since then, the company has integrated local farmers into its mission of getting more nutritious ingredients onto Egyptian plates.

Egypt has long struggled to contain the use of illegal pesticides in its food production industry. Used appropriately, agricultural chemicals improve crop productivity and guard farm produce against pests. Yet harmful pesticides do exist, and are blamed for causing serious diseases such as cancer — not to mention environmental hazards like soil and water contamination. Fallout from this problem recently hobbled Egypt’s export trade, as several Persian Gulf countries and Sudan banned Egyptian produce upon detecting unacceptable levels of pesticide residue.

With her various initiatives, Hannig Nour has tackled the threat of Egyptian pesticides at a domestic level. “There is a need in the [local] market for genuine, organic and pesticide-free food,” she said. Sara’s Organic Food is EU organic-certified and sourced from Sara’s Organic Farm — Hannig Nour’s property located between Cairo and Alexandria — and neighboring farms that follow EU standards. A second brand, Lara’s Premium Produce, is grown by partners that are switching to organic agriculture, or small-scale farmers who avoid pesticides under close monitoring from Hannig Nour’s agricultural engineers.

At present, clients can order customized, home delivery baskets filled with products from Sara’s Organic Food and Lara’s Premium Produce. This business model will soon shift for logistical reasons, as Hannig Nour focuses instead on supplying pre-packaged baskets at markets and directly supplying produce to supermarkets. But Hannig Nour has no plans to deviate from her overarching mission — building consumer trust in organic produce and developing responsible farming in Egypt.

Bringing farm to city:

Hannig Nour first tested the Egyptian appetite for buying wholly natural food in 2012, when she grew organic cucumbers and sold them at Cairo’s Nun farmers market. The cucumbers were an instant hit. “We sold out fast,” recalled Hannig Nour. The concept expanded into the popular Sara and Lara’s Baskets, a handpicked assortment of organic grocery essentials.

Emboldened by these achievements, Hannig Nour starting growing produce at what would become Sara’s Organic Farm, a family-owned tract of reclaimed desert that today boasts 972 acres of arable land. She and her dedicated team enriched the property to produce the Sara’s Organic Food range, which includes pomegranates, grapes, peaches, mangoes, plums, zucchini, eggplants, peppers, garlic and — of course — cucumbers.

While the “Sara’s Organic Food” brand applies to food grown at Hannig Nour’s farm, where all agricultural processes strictly follow EU organic certification rules, the business also supports small-scale farmers in the area. “Local farmers were interested in producing organic food, so we created incentives to support responsible farming,” Hannig Nour said.

The incentive has been Lara’s Premium Produce, a brand that local farmers can market their products under if they follow guidelines used in growing Sara’s Organic Food. Hannig Nour reports that her staff constantly regulate Lara’s Premium Produce farmers by conducting random product and soil testing, while also providing logistical support.

At present, the business runs as a true “farm-to-table” operation. Clients can order online and customize their own basket of organic fruit and vegetables, which Hannig Nour’s logistics team delivers to various locations around Egypt. Sara’s Organic Food completes around 100 of these orders per week; other customers collect baskets from food retail partners and farmers’ markets.

This level of customer service is admirable but, according to Hannig Nour, does raise a number of “logistical headaches.” Home delivery requires not only a constantly moving fleet of vehicles, but also many staff hours dedicated to filling customized orders.

“We need to re-assess this model, and it may be better to focus on retail sales,” said Hannig Nour. Increasingly, Sara’s Organic Food will supply its products direct to supermarkets, while asking its online customers to collect pre-packaged baskets from centralized locations like local food stores. Some home delivery services will continue, Hannig Nour predicts, but more so as “a handy marketing tool.”

A trust-building exercise:

A separate obstacle facing Hannig Nour also, perhaps surprisingly, motivates her entire business — wariness amongst Egyptians towards organic food. “We needed to build trust [in the community] because Egyptians are skeptical about buying organic,” she said. “This means that we need to guarantee transparency.”

Hannig Nour has taken on this challenge by involving her customers in the process of creating Sara’s Organic Food. “We want people to connect with food, so that food is no longer just an anonymous commodity,” she enthused.

People can visit Sara’s Organic Farm and watch how Hannig Nour’s staff practises responsible farming. The farm hosts special events about the importance of healthy eating, while the young (and young at heart) can gain inspiration from the farm’s playground-style Creative Space.

To date, profitability has been a split question. Hannig Nour reports that the business nets money from retail food sales, but the farm does not yet cover its own costs. This does not worry Hannig Nour, who always knew she would not achieve her ambitious, organic food dream overnight. “We have built the business very slowly, because farming takes time,” she reflected. “And I think this is the best way to go.”

 

Learn more about Sara’s Organic Food through its website, Facebook and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Sara’s Organic Food

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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