Through education, and tortoises, Wadi Food seeks environmental sustainability

A group of nine men move from olive tree to olive tree beneath the scorching sun. At every stop, within a matter of seconds, they call out a number — an estimate of how many kilos of olives they think each tree will produce.

The men work for Wadi Food, and they are gathered at the company’s northernmost farm in Wadi al-Natrun to estimate this year’s olive harvest. After tallying the count from the day, company co-founder Khalil Nasrallah says they estimate the farm will produce 6,600 tons of olives this year.

“This farm is very special. The others aren’t so productive,” Nasrallah says of the company’s largest and newest farm, which has developed over the last five years.

Wadi Food is one of the companies housed under a larger conglomeration called Wadi Holdings. Originally established by two Lebanese families in 1996, Wadi Food initially focused on olive oil production.

The company has grown tremendously since then. It began with only 30 hectares of olive groves and now has 1,610 hectares of land devoted to food production.

It offers more than 100 products, including table olives, pickles, olive pastes, pasta sauces, balsamic vinegar, capers and honey, according to its website. The company also exports to the Middle East, Asia, North America and Europe.

Nasrallah says his father came to Egypt after his poultry business, along with the family’s apartment, was destroyed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Nasrallah joined the family business after obtaining a master’s degree in horticulture in Canada.

“When I first came to Egypt, I wanted to do something that was good for the economy and good for Egypt,” he says.

His company aims to produce innovative, healthy and high-quality foods for the Middle Eastern market, Nasrallah says, adding that the company also places a strong emphasis on environmental sustainability.

The Wadi al-Natrun farm has 450,000 olive trees and is the company’s only completely organic farm. It uses the Trichogramma wasp to deal with pests. The wasp eggs are enclosed within little white cardboard satchels that hang from some of the trees.

Once hatched, the female wasps insert their own eggs into the eggs of agricultural pests, destroying them.

“It’s excellent. It’s better than anything we’ve ever used, and it’s better than pesticide,” he says. “It’s fully organic and it’s cheaper.”

But Nasrallah says organic agriculture is not always cost-effective, and that there’s not a big demand for it in Egypt.

“Organic crops will yield 20 to 30 percent lower, and organic certification is expensive. The compost and fertilizers are also expensive,” he says.

Other obstacles have surfaced. Wadi Food once delivered organic fruit and vegetable baskets to about 300 dedicated customers, but Nasrallah says about 270 of them have left Egypt after the 25 January revolution last year.

“2011 was the worst year we’ve ever seen as a group,” he says of the revolution’s impact on Wadi Holdings.

“We came out of it okay, only because we’re in the food business. People have to eat. That’s the only thing that kept us going,” he adds.

At some point, Nasrallah says, Wadi Food will switch to solar energy to pump water for irrigation, which he says accounts for more than 90 percent of the company’s energy use. But for now, the company relies on diesel fuel, largely because the Egyptian government subsidizes it.

“You’re at a disadvantage if you try to use sustainable energy,” he says. “Right now, it’s very, very expensive.”

Despite these challenges, the company has found other ways to practice sustainability. The company supports the Wadi Environmental Science Centre on its Kilo 54 Farm, named for its distance from Cairo.

The goal of the environmental center, according to its literature, “is to help redefine the relationship between students and their natural environment through outdoor environmental education.” It focuses its curriculum on various topics, including water, renewable energy, pollution, waste management, wildlife, botany, sustainability and biodiversity.

Ereeny Yacoub, the elementary school coordinator at the center, says she sees some challenges to environmental education in Egypt.

“It’s mainly the link to the environment that’s just not there. Also, the concept of environmental field trips is not there yet,” she says.

Nonetheless, the kids still get excited and enjoy the activities at the center, Yacoub says. But, like Wadi Food, the center has taken a hit in the wake of the revolution.

“In good years, we’d have 70 students per day. But the last two years have been unpredictable. Some days we don’t get any students at all,” Yacoub adds.

The company also contributes to efforts to save the endangered Egyptian tortoise, and breeds them on the Kilo 54 Farm. Nasrallah says his motivation for this comes from a sense of responsibility to give back to the land.

Nasrallah works on this project with Egypt’s lead conservationist, Sherif Baha el-Din, who was part of a larger effort to protect the tortoises. Baha el-Din initially kept the tortoises on his roof, but eventually volunteered to house them on the Kilo 54 Farm.

The farm currently has about 300 tortoises, Nasrallah says. But Baha el-Din says there are some problems with breeding the animals — primarily, a high mortality rate caused by the difficulty of providing proper nutrition to the animals in captivity. There is also the challenge of figuring out where to release them.

“Ideally, what we should be doing is using the offspring to reintroduce them in areas where the species have disappeared. But we have a problem in terms of finding suitable areas that can be secure enough to release them and good enough to maintain them,” says Baha el-Din.

He hopes they can begin to release the tortoises this winter, and says that Salloum, a small strip of land on the Mediterranean coast near the Libyan border, could support a small population.

Another problem is that the animals are too small for tracking devices. This will make it difficult to monitor them after release and prevent them from being collected and sold on the illegal pet market.

Yet Baha el-Din says, “Even if you’re not 100 percent certain of how they’re doing where you release them, it at least makes sense to try. It’s the best chance they have to go back to nature.”

Next to the Kilo 54 farm, Nasrallah points to what he calls a “concrete invasion,” a housing development of upper-scale, cookie-cutter homes that remain uninhabited. That kind of building, he says, is taking valuable land and threatening Egypt’s ability to sustain itself in the future.

In contrast, he says he is proud that Wadi Food pursues environmentally sustainable practices.

“Egypt has a lot of issues to deal with. We are limited in land and water, and both are being abused,” Nasrallah says. “Our number one priority should be to save what we have.”

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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