By Rachel Peabody
ISA Director of Communications
When you have a growing population of people, coupled with a growing demand for protein, the relationship between U.S. soy and Egypt becomes increasingly opportunistic. The citizens of Egypt are increasing their protein intake, and soy-fed poultry and aquaculture markets are a way to efficiently do that.
Enter the Illinois Soybean Association.
In January of 2023, Illinois soybean farmers and members of the ISA board and staff boarded a plane to embark on a trade mission to Egypt where they would experience, firsthand, the country’s insatiable infatuation with soy from Illinois. In this special edition of Bean There, ISA Director of Communications, Rachel Peabody, will take us inside this unforgettable adventure to share the sights, sounds, and opportunities-in-wait. Welcome to Egypt!
Saturday, January 14: On Our Way!
Flying into Cairo at around 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening, somewhere along the descent, I snapped a photo of the city laid below me. I could see lights and life and what looked like a hive of activity.
Cairo is home to more than 9 million people and largest city in Egypt. To put that into perspective, that’s 3.5 x more people than we have in Chicago. From the moment we flew in, until the moment I left a week later, the sheer size of their population and city is one of the things I’ll most remember.
Sunday, January 15: Day 1
Mental thoughts today started out like:
Positive: “Well, jet lag isn’t as bad as I thought.” Negative: “Darn it. My outlet adapter doesn’t work.”
No fear, international adapter plug-in woes were easily solved, and we were on our way for our first busy day in Cairo.
We set off early in the morning for WorldFish, a nonprofit research and innovation organization that increases aquaculture penetration in low and middle-income countries like Egypt. That very day, WorldFish was completing the 49th Aquaculture Training Program at their Egypt-based center. This training program is funded by the Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program, along with the United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) through a Soy Excellence Center endeavor.
So what is a Soy Excellence Center, and why WorldFish?
A Soy Excellence Center (SEC) is a soy-protein innovation hub established by USSEC in growing soy-fed markets around the globe. The Egypt SEC was established in 2019. It was a natural home for USSEC and ISA checkoff fund investment since Egypt is the third largest soybean export market for U.S. soybeans, and the MENA region shows 16 percent growth and climbing.
At WorldFish in particular, they host SEC training classes where Egyptian farmers and protein industry professionals learn more about efficient production methods and the role of soy plays in driving improvements through their entire value chain. As protein professionals see productivity increases through soy-fed rations, they can grow more protein at lower costs, thus supporting positive development needed in-country to feed more Egyptians a safe and affordable protein source.
The class at WorldFish was excited to get to meet Illinois soybean farmers who are growing their key protein feed ingredient. To watch their enthusiasm, you’d think they were shaking hands with celebrities! Illinois farmers were also excited to experience WorldFish’s success with soy-fed tilapia aquaculture ponds, and the opportunity to taste the fantastic product.
A full day at WorldFish taught us that:
- Aquaculture is vital for supplying safe fish for Egyptian consumers.
- Aquaculture provides 65 percent of Egypt’s fish for consumption and helps affordably meet the protein needs of their growing population
- In Egypt, Nile Tilapia are 75 percent of the total fish farmed. Tilapia production provides one dish per week for every Egyptian.
Monday, January 16: Day 2
Mondays are for the birds – and in this case, it was poultry! In one of the more anticipated tour days of the mission, the ISA team set out early to go to the global headquarters of Wadi Holdings. There, we were personally escorted for the day by Wadi’s CEO and Group President, Tony Freiji.
Wadi Group, launched in 1984 as a small-scale poultry operation, is now a force to be reckoned with in the poultry and food space. They operate in 12 subsidiaries with more than ten different household name food brands.
Their core business today remains large scale poultry production, primarily in the form of industry-standard chick production that go forth to fulfill broiler chicken productions across the country. In fact, Wadi Group supplies more than 40 percent of Egypt’s chicken genetics.
Raising chickens requires feeding quality soybean meal sourced from the United States. They own 50 percent of a joint venture with ADM Medsofts. At their Alexandria, Egypt port facility, they are able to bring U.S. soybeans into port, unload, truck and deliver soybean meal to their customers around the country.
The ISA trade delegation were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour at both a Wadi Group poultry operation, and at the Alexandria port. Illinois farmers were able to lay their hands on U.S. soybeans getting ready to go directly into Egyptian production. It was strangely comforting to see our own product in this place, so far from home.
We ended that evening breaking bread together around Tony Freiji’s table and enjoyed learning more about Wadi Group’s beginnings, and incredibly bright future.
Tuesday, January 17: Day 3
Illinois farmers participated in several roundtable-style discussions while in country, providing a platform to learn more about current industry dynamics impacting Egyptian agriculture, and hear from officials in both poultry and aquaculture associations that benefit from USSEC’s Soy Excellence Center and ISA’s checkoff investments.
While optimism remains high for the future of soy within Egypt, there are some substantial economic concerns happening that can’t be ignored.
What we learned was this:
- Egypt is currently in the middle of an economic crisis with rising inflation, now over 21 percent, and an Egyptian pound with falling value.
- Egypt, a leader in wheat imports globally, are feeling the effects of the Ukrainian conflict. Without access to this important ingredient, food and beverage costs are steadily increasing and daily food allowances for Egyptian budgets are feeling the strain.
- The country’s debt crisis is impacting the flow of U.S. grain shipments into the country.
It was particularly interesting hearing from Elizabeth Mello, Senior Agricultural Attaché, U.S. Embassy Cairo. Ms. Mello confirmed that economic strain is happening and placing stress on the agriculture sector. She also confirmed the importance of soybean imports to the success of their industries, and how they remain committed to ensuring that supporting efficient soybean shipments remain a priority.
In the afternoon, we were invited to meet with Egypt’s Lakes and Fish Resources Protection and Development Agency. Dr. Salah Mesalhy, Chairman, talked to us about their agency’s early support of in-pond raceway systems (IPRS) that make aquaculture production more sustainable. As the fish are grown in an IPRS system, solid waste is removed and water quality is conserved for reuse. The IPRS system was developed in the United States at Auburn University, and is now being used in countries around the globe for aquaculture production.
This IPRS system was implemented at WorldFish in Egypt, and USSEC and ISA’s soybean checkoff investments help provide the soy feed for their tilapia production.
Just like in the U.S., Egyptian consumers are also demanding more sustainably-grown ag products, and IPRS production systems are a great selling point for modern day aquaculture in which much of the country’s fish consumption depends on.
Wednesday, January 18: Day 4
Fueled by fresh-squeezed fruit juice and Egyptian breakfast-fare, we took our group to Cairo University to greet the SEC’s 36th poultry program training class. This day in particular was their graduation from the USSEC and Illinois Soybean Association checkoff program funded initiative. ISA Chairman, Steve Pitstick, and ISA board member and USSEC SEC Vice-Chairman, Mark Read, were honored with the opportunity to hand the Egypt SEC graduates their certificates.
Illinois farmers attending the trade mission remarked that out of all of the stops, Cairo University is where we came face-to-face with the next generation of Egyptian agriculture professionals who will move their industry forward, and who will continue to demand quality U.S. soy.
That evening, we had an industry dinner with university faculty back at the hotel. They reiterated the important role the SEC plays in preparing their next generation of professionals, and how much it means to see Illinois soybean farmers making an investment into growing the Egyptian market. In every conversation we’ve had this week, our Egyptian customers have underlined their desire to keep growing and continuing our work together.
Thursday, January 19: Day 5
On our last full day of Egyptian trade mission business, we traveled to Skretting Egypt, a global leader in the aquaculture feed business. Mr. Ayman Amin Rostom, General Manager, personally escorted us around the facility, teaching us about the different species and different soy rations they are feeding around the globe.
In 2021, Skretting produced enough aqua feed to support more than 21 million seafood meals everyday globally. They are also known for their world class quality products. Their Egypt facility is also involved with research, innovation and quality control to ensure they are making the highest-quality feed possible. As part of the quality conversation, Skretting reiterated the fact that high-quality soybean meal from the United States is a foundational part of their business.
What’s next for ISA and Skretting? We talked about our combined goal of seeing aquaculture flourish in the Egyptian, and other African markets. Also, not only in growing tilapia demand, but in growing aquaculture fed shrimp efforts too, in which Skretting has feed solutions for.
Spending the day with Mr. Rostom allowed for Illinois soybean farmers to solidify a strong customer-buyer relationship, and one we hope to continue fostering for years to come.
As we wrapped up a whirlwind week, there’s a few things that really ring true about our growing trade relationship with Egypt:
- Illinois soy has already made a lasting impression on the lives of protein-consuming Egyptians. Through investments already made, demand for soy-fed protein products like fish and chicken are being met. And the demand is only growing stronger.
- Opportunity abounds. At nearly every meeting, we were having discussions about what’s next. Is it soy-fed shrimp production? Increasing IPRS sustainable aquaculture production systems? Supporting better access to meal? It was a week well spent with our #3 customer looking ahead to what’s next.
- Growing global demand doesn’t come without a fair share of challenges. While Egypt is currently navigating an economic crisis, ISA remains watchful for opportunities to assist our Egyptian customers by maintaining consistent access to our soybeans, and continuing to get our product to them efficiently and economically.
Illinois soybean farmers hope to see Egypt remain a major market for U.S. soy well into the future. Over the last five years, soybean exports to Egypt have increased by nearly 78 percent, and that’s momentum we can only hope to grow.
Thursday, January 19: Homeward
On the long flight home, I thought about all of the new people we’d met, the places we’d seen, the food we ate, and all that I’d learned that week. I was exhausted, ready to be home with my family, and I couldn’t wait to dive into an extra-large cheese pizza. But mostly I felt a sense of profound pride to represent Illinois farmers who are – in Egypt’s eyes- the true heroes of modern-day society.
We are truly changing lives. One acre at a time.