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25.08.2020 Egypt

Egypt's blossoming trade in fragrant jasmine flowers

By Bassem Aboualabass
Sweet scented jasmine flowers farmed in Egypt's Nile Delta are pressed and the oil extracted for perfumes.  By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP)
LISTEN AUG 25, 2020
Sweet scented jasmine flowers farmed in Egypt's Nile Delta are pressed and the oil extracted for perfumes. By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP)

At midnight, Eman Mehanna switches on her headlamp and begins her day's work picking jasmine flowers, as their powerful fragrance wafts far across the fields in Egypt's fertile Nile Delta.

Egypt's Gharbiya region is the heartland of its jasmine harvest. The aromatic oils extracted for perfumes from here make up over half the global supply, according to international trade figures.

"We have been picking jasmine since we were children," Mehanna said, gathering blossoms by hand in the village of Shubra Beloula, around 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of the capital Cairo.

The white petals, plucked from densely-packed rows of chest-high green bushes of "royal jasmine" -- Jasminum grandiflorum -- burst out of her wicker basket.

During the harvest season from June until November, picking begins around midnight and finishes a few hours after dawn each day.

Picking jasmine flowers by hand is tough work but the harvest provides a key income for thousands of people in Egypt.  By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP) Picking jasmine flowers by hand is tough work but the harvest provides a key income for thousands of people in Egypt. By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP)

It is a tough job, but a hard-working picker can harvest as much as five kilogrammes (11 pounds) of petals a day.

While it is cooler to work after dark, the key reason harvesting is done at night is because it is only then that the flowers fully open.

"You really need to concentrate on looking for the blossoming flowers," Mehanna said. "We leave the closed ones for the following day."

After dawn, she swaps her headlight for a hat to shade her from the burning sun.

Petals to paste

Egypt and India dominate the production of jasmine extract for perfumes, making up around 95 percent of supply, according to the International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades (IFEAT).

Jasmine trade is estimated to pull in some $6.5 million annually for Egypt, providing income to around 50,000 people, IFEAT says.

In Egypt, more than 90 percent of jasmine fields are in Gharbiya governorate, fed by the rich minerals and waters of the Nile, shortly before the river reaches the Mediterranean Sea.

While as much as 20 tonnes of jasmine petals are harvested daily during the season in Egypt, the vast quantities are reduced to a few tonnes of paste each year, from which oil is then extracted.  By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP) While as much as 20 tonnes of jasmine petals are harvested daily during the season in Egypt, the vast quantities are reduced to a few tonnes of paste each year, from which oil is then extracted. By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP)

Farming is concentrated in the neighbouring districts of Qutur -- where the village of Shubra Beloula is located -- and Basyoun, otherwise famous as the birthplace of Egyptian and Liverpool football star Mohamed Salah.

On either side of a dusty road are lush green fields dotted with gleaming white flowers.

Early in the morning, the pickers unload their baskets into crates, which are then stacked high onto pickup trucks and taken for processing.

The Fakhry essential oils factory handles around 70 percent of the region's floral production.

One of the first steps is to compress and grind the delicate blossoms down.

From that paste, the precious scented oils can be extracted by distillation.

"This was the first essential oils factory established in Egypt," factory floor manager Badr Atef told AFP, as he supervised the weighing and handing over of petal-packed crates.

Tough work

The scent of flowers is intense.

According to Atef, factory owner Ahmed Fakhry was inspired to farm jasmine when, as a young student in the 1960s, he visited the town of Grasse, the birthplace of French perfumes, on the Cote d'Azur.

Returning to Egypt, Fakhry introduced his new perfume knowledge and set up commercial jasmine farming and processing.

Hand-picked jasmine flowers are packed into crates and taken to a factory for processing -- first pressed into a paste, before the oils are eventually extracted.  By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP) Hand-picked jasmine flowers are packed into crates and taken to a factory for processing -- first pressed into a paste, before the oils are eventually extracted. By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP)

"Now 20 tonnes of jasmine flowers are picked daily" in Egypt, Atef said, estimating that some 400 hectares (1,000 acres) of the scented plant are farmed in the Gharbiya region.

From all those flowers, some five tonnes of dense jasmine paste is finally produced each year.

Egyptian farmers have long complained that the low production costs of their big rival India drive their prices down.

But the economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic has been harder still, with demand dropping sharply, farmers said.

Picking flowers is back-breaking work.

Oil from Egypt's jasmine flowers is extracted and then exported across the world for use in perfumes, making up more than half of global supply.  By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP) Oil from Egypt's jasmine flowers is extracted and then exported across the world for use in perfumes, making up more than half of global supply. By Mohamed el-Shahed (AFP)

"Stand in the sun for a couple of minutes, and you'll see how hard this job is," said 60-year-old picker Waafa, who refused to harvest flowers this year because prices were too low.

Even on a good year, some pickers earn little more than a couple of dollars a day for hours of work, income Waafa slammed as "measly".

"Everything is expensive nowadays," she said.

But others say that jasmine-picking season is a time they enjoy.

"The sweetness is when we're all together picking," said Mehanna. "We swap stories and have fun."

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