Oranges, oranges everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of oranges are being processed in this production site – 350 tonnes per day, fresh from the fields. Every single orange lands on a huge conveyor belt; is cleaned, waxed and scanned; and then automatically drops down onto another belt, where it is finally packed into a cardboard box.
Oranges in Nubaria: the miracle in the desert
Next stop: cool storage. Here, the oranges are waiting to be loaded into a 40-foot Hapag-Lloyd reefer container. And then the journey begins: From the middle of the desert of Nubaria, in Northern Egypt, the oranges will travel on board a Hapag-Lloyd vessel – either to Europe, New Zealand, Australia or China.
Magrabi Agriculture is one of the biggest exporters of oranges in North Africa. Roughly 20 years ago, the Cairo-based company took the initiative to reclaim 4,000 hectares of desert land using modern irrigation techniques, marking the birth of industrial export-oriented agriculture in Egypt.
Nobody knows more about oranges than Mohamed Abboud, the Technical Director of the brand Mafa. He walks with us through the production area and stops at one of the conveyor belts, where he picks up and displays two random oranges. “Look at these oranges: they have a great color, good waxing, a perfect surface, the smell is great, and it is also attractive to the eye,” he says.
What a career: Goodyear, Alfa Romeo, Nestlé, McDonalds – and finally oranges
Abboud studied in the US and became a university teacher in Berkeley/California. He was bored after a few years. “I started to run my own businesses in Egypt - I owned a construction company, then sold Goodyear tires, later sold Lancias, Alfa Romeos and Fiats. Finally I decided to represented Nestlé, then went into medicines and finally started a very successful McDonald's franchise business. After decades being an entrepreneur I decided: it´s enough - now I want to play with my grandkids.” After a year the owner of Magrabi asked Abboud to join the business world again - and twenty years later – here he is: the ruler of the Egyptian Orange Kingdom – with a high focus on the quality of his products.
Why Abboud likes the yesterdays
Abboud knows that high quality can never be taken for granted. “The challenges in the agricultural industry are endless,” he explains. “It’s not only weather, watering issues or port congestions; it’s also potential pests. You can’t control every pest that shows up. A new pest will come up the next year, and you won’t know what to do with it.” Egypt itself, he continues, can present some unexpected challenges. “Laws change, customs rules change, taxes change – nothing stays the same,” he says with a laugh. “Every morning, I wake up and say to myself: ‘I just hope everything is like yesterday.’” In the laboratory close by his experts are regularly checking the quality of the crop. Today the analysis shows: perfect mixture of acidity and sweetness – Abboud is satisfied.
China´s appetite for oranges doesn't stop
In 2019, Magrabi exported 100,000 tonnes of fruit – most of it citrus, grapes, strawberries and dates – to 55 countries around the world. Europe is one of the biggest, most quality-driven and most mature markets in the world. “The quality required there is definitely the highest in the world,” Abboud says. “And the innovation cycle is fast, as Europe requires high-quality packaging.” But it will surprise no one to hear that the biggest growth is still in China. “This is the world’s most booming market at the moment,” Abboud continues. “The volume needed is enormous, and it keeps growing tremendously and at a very high speed. And we expect to continue enjoying incredible growth.” However, some of this growth may come from much closer to home. “Yes, Africa looks poor, but there is a huge potential,” he says. “It might take some time, but I expect a significant pickup in volumes in the medium term.”
Magrabi has about 5,000 people working on its 15 farms in Egypt. “The citrus season starts in early December, ends in late May, and is followed by the grape season,” Abboud explains. “This season is incredibly short, and the logistics are very challenging. You need highly trained and experienced staff to run the show, as grapes are very sensitive. Delays can sometimes cause huge damage to the quality of the product. This is why our staff needs to be trained thoroughly and why we try to keep turnover very low.”
No risk – no fun
Long-term planning is also key, as growing the fruits takes a long time. And there are risks. “You make huge investments when planting, and you won’t see any return for five to six years,” Abboud says. “And you need to have a sensitivity for trends and to ask yourself: ‘What is the trend going to be like in 2025?’” He knows the risks from experience. “Years ago, there was a grape type with a mango flavor, and demand for it picked up tremendously for a while,” he recounts. “But then the demand suddenly dried up. If you had heavily invested in this type, you might have lost millions.”
Magrabi ships thousands of reefer containers per year. The biggest logistical challenge for the company is the availability of reefers for its various different locations. “This is absolutely vital for us,” he stresses. “We are lost if we don’t have enough containers right when we need them, as our cold storages will run full within days.” Another important prerequisite for high-quality transportation is the reliability of the cold chain. “We are not really worried about the constant temperature on board the ship, as the shipping lines usually take good care of that,” he explains. “It’s more the interim periods in ports that we always worry about – especially in countries like Australia, China and Vietnam, where we’ve had some very bad experiences.”
When it comes to reefer transportation, Abboud knows he can count on Hapag-Lloyd. Magrabi has been working with Hapag-Lloyd for a while.
Lots of opportunities for Hapag-Lloyd in Egypt
Each year thousands of reefer containers full of fresh produce are shipped from Egypt to various countries around the world. And the numbers are growing year by year. This means also a huge growth potential for Hapag-Lloyd.
Chris Schmid - Hapag-Lloyd Managing Director Area Egypt
Our walk through the vast production site ends at the loading dock, where the last 40-foot reefer container of the day is being loaded. Destination: Rotterdam. Carrier: Hapag-Lloyd.