Hassan’s a university graduate – his degree is in business. But he doesn’t commute to an office every day. His place of work is a farm 200 kilometres from Cairo. And it isn’t even land in the fertile Nile Delta. Strangely, it seems, Hassan has chosen to farm in the desert.
He was tempted by a government offer of land to any graduate willing to farm it. Have Hassan and 40,000 other graduates been true pioneers, when the knowledge economy worldwide isn’t providing enough jobs?
Hassan lives in Al Yashaa… in what looks like a normal village. But the villagers here are not the farmers they appear to be. Almost all the men and many of the women in the village are graduates. And it’s not just here. Throughout the desert east and west of Cairo dozens of villages are made up of thousands of graduates who’ve come to farm. Many without any farming experience at all.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Hassan admits. “Any little problem became a puzzle for us. The land was sandy. The first crops we planted just dried up. Then the water would stop because the electricity didn’t work…or the electricity would work but the water would stop. So if it was a hot day the plants would dry up completely. That’s what it was like – you would plant again and again.”
Cairo’s where he came from. There aren’t many capital cities that better represent the modern globalized metropolis. Its cafes are teeming with young people who make up a massive percentage of Cairo’s population, as they now do throughout the Middle East where two in three people are under the age of 25.
Dina El Mofty, Director of INJAZ, explains: “Hundreds of thousands are graduating every year from this system of vocational schools and over 700,000 jobs have to be created every year to meet the intake of these graduates. It’s a tremendous challenge, it’s a tremendous burden for a government. So you find that youth are perceived as more of a liability.”
Tareq Nabil is trained as a surveyor, but after years of trying to find work now takes whatever low-paid job he can find.
Twenty-five-year-old Tareq is a surveyor. But after years of trying to find work now takes whatever low-paid job he can find. “Most of my generation, especially my friends, are in the same situation. It limits our way of thinking. We can’t think about the future because we know that at best we can earn only enough to pay for our basic needs. No jobs, no money, no thinking.”
Like other countries, Egypt has seen education as a route out of poverty… and for a long time it was, since every graduate was guaranteed a secure government job. Today, a bloated government can no longer afford to employ every graduate… yet many continue to believe it will.
In the same village as Hassan now lives, meet Badr. He’s taken the same decision – a graduate returning to the land. Unlike Hassan, Badr knew what he was doing. He’d grown up in farm country and studied agriculture.
“If someone came from a farming background like me, it was easier for him to adapt. A lot of people would ask for my advice and I was happy to give it because it was crucial for them to understand what to do in a place like this.”
Badr studied agriculture, but still found farming in the desert tough.
But here in the desert – the only land they could afford – even the experienced Badr found it tough.
Mohamed Gomaa, Head of Land Reclamation at the Ministry of Agriculture, explains the thinking behind the scheme: “The state’s national plan is to reclaim about 150,000 acres of land each year. It’s something we have to do. We have no choice because of over-population. We also have to have a secure source of food to feed the population and in order to secure food you have to secure jobs so it’s all linked.” And so today Hassan in his fields is the product of a remarkable and largely unnoticed historic experiment. A whole colony of graduates like him – nearly 40,000 over two decades – have headed into the Egyptian desert. Here they became farmers and put behind them the notion of a government job. Four out of ten eventually failed.
One organization, the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development or IFAD, has been training farmers on how to grow crops for export and then linking them to markets.
Says Abdelhamid Abdouli of IFAD: “We found graduates were more receptive to new ideas and new agricultural technologies. The land was also close to both Alexandria and Cairo. So we could see there was potential to produce high quality crops suitable for exporting to the Gulf and international markets.
“Almost all crops are irrigated by the Nile. Some critics say why waste these valuable resources in the desert? It is definitely not a waste of water because the land is now arable. There have also been improvements to livestock. People now have milk for their children and they can sell the surplus. All of these things generated economic growth in the desert communities.”
At last Hassan is starting to get the hang of things, especially now the long promised tractor finally arrived. In a village where eight in ten are graduates – this social experiment has amounted to a successful community.
Hassan says: “Living in this village with the graduates is special. We were almost all the same age when we received the land. The graduates who stayed faced the same problems and when they had difficulties, they supported each other. So now it’s like a big family here.”
And their collective efforts as farmers has resulted in the reclamation of more than one million acres of land. And the emergence of a new desert economy.
Maybe the government never intended it quite this way. But it seems Hassan and the graduates may have got lucky after all. They’ve made money on their investment and helped others too. As for the millions of other graduates who can’t find stable jobs in the global economy, they may yet have to wait for their own fairy tale.
Dina El Mofty’s organisation Injaz-Egypt is a member nation of Junior Achievement Worldwide and Young Enterprise Europe; the world’s largest and fastest growing organization specializing in economic education.
ACDI/VOCA is an economic development organization, founded in 1963, that fosters broad-based economic growth, raises living standards and creates vibrant communities. In Egypt, they are helping smallholders through public/private partnerships.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has several operations in Egypt, and has published areport on Smallholder contract farming for high-value and organic agricultural exports. And here is the website of theEgyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation.
The BBC News website has a report on the Young in the Arab World.