Egyptian EVOO Pioneer Sets Gold Standard

Wadi Food has led the way for Egyptian olive oil producers. In spite of the difficulties of producing high-quality oil in the country's Western Desert.
Photos courtesy of Wadi Food.
Jun. 17, 2020
Daniel Dawson

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Egypt is going to become a major pro­ducer of olive oil in the future,” Khalil Nasrallah, the vice pres­i­dent for busi­ness excel­lence at Wadi Food, told Olive Oil Times. Right now we are well-known for our table olives, but soon we will be for our olive oil too. That will change.”

The Giza-based com­pany was the first extra vir­gin olive oil pro­ducer in Egypt and, over the past quar­ter-cen­tury, has arguably become the most suc­cess­ful olive oil brand in the country.

We did some research and we saw Egypt was a very low pro­ducer and con­sumer of olive oil. We thought that this could be an oppor­tu­nity for us, so we planted some oil olive vari­eties along with our table olive vari­eties.- Khalil Nasrallah , vice pres­i­dent for busi­ness excel­lence, Wadi Food

We were the first to put olive oil on the shelves and the first to sell it to restau­rants and hotels,” Nasrallah said. People know us and they know the stan­dards that we work with are trust­wor­thy, so they don’t mind pay­ing a lit­tle extra.”

At the 2020 edi­tion of the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition, Wadi Food won three Gold Awards. The com­pany is the only Egyptian brand to be awarded at the world’s most pres­ti­gious olive oil qual­ity competition.

See Also: Producer Profiles

This unprece­dented suc­cess for an Egyptian pro­ducer on the inter­na­tional stage was not exactly planned. The company’s inter­est in pro­duc­ing olive oil only came about as they tried to solve a prob­lem related to their main busi­ness: poultry.

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We started pro­duc­ing olive oil in 1994,” Nasrallah said. We are orig­i­nally poul­try pro­duc­ers, rais­ing baby chick­ens to sell to poul­try farmers.”

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Khalil Nasrallah

However, the only place where it is pos­si­ble to raise poul­try in Egypt is in one of the country’s mas­sive deserts. This is the only part of Egypt where it is pos­si­ble to buy suf­fi­cient land to set up the farms.

By Egyptian law, you have to plant the area between poul­try farms [roughly 2,000 feet] or you can­not own the land, so we looked into dif­fer­ent crops that would grow well in the dry ter­rain and would not attract birds [which spread the dis­ease to the chicks],” he said. Planting olive trees turned out to be the best choice.”

At the time, we did some research and we saw Egypt was a very low pro­ducer and con­sumer of olive oil,” Nasrallah added. The con­sump­tion of olive oil was insignif­i­cant. We thought that this could be an oppor­tu­nity for us, so we planted some oil olive vari­eties along with our table olive varieties.”

By 1994, Egyptian pro­duc­ers were har­vest­ing, at most, 1,000 tons of olive oil each year, accord­ing to data from the International Olive Council.

Fast for­ward 25 years, to 2019, and Egyptian pro­duc­ers har­vested 27,500 tons of olive oil, mak­ing the North African coun­try the ninth-largest pro­ducer in the world. Of that total, Wadi Food was respon­si­ble for about 800 tons, more than two per­cent of the coun­try’s total production.

In spite of the good show­ing at the 2020 NYIOOC, Nasrallah said that the 2019 har­vest was full of obsta­cles for the com­pany, which pro­duces up to 1,300 tons of olive oil in a good year. These com­pounded the annual chal­lenges of pro­duc­ing olive oil in Egypt’s expan­sive Western Desert.

For some vari­eties it was an off year, but we had a heat wave in the flow­er­ing sea­son and that impacted some vari­eties more than oth­ers,” Nasrallah said. The olive vari­eties that set fruit before the heat­wave were fine, but the ones that were still bloom­ing were affected.”

Normally, Wadi Food’s 4,200 acres of olive groves have flow­ered before the hot weather comes to Egypt’s Western Desert, but cli­mate change has made the coun­try’s weather increas­ingly unpredictable.

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Growing olives in the deserts presents challenges for producers, but endows the resulting oils with unique organoleptic qualities.

In 2019, Egypt expe­ri­enced a longer and colder win­ter than nor­mal, which delayed the bloom­ing sea­son. Nasrallah par­tially attrib­utes this to the dif­fi­cul­ties that Wadi Food ran into in April.

We always want a cold win­ter since that starts ver­nal­iza­tion and flow­er­ing,” he said. However, when the cold win­ter stays too long then the flow­er­ing sea­son is delayed and begins when we already have hot weather.

If there is a heat­wave dur­ing the flow­er­ing, you can lose a lot of the crop and there is noth­ing to be done about it,” Nasrallah added. You can water as much as pos­si­ble, but if tem­per­a­tures stay at 40 or 45°C (105 to 115°F) for three of four days, you can­not do much about the flowers.”

Away from the cli­mate, Wadi Food and Egypt’s other olive oil pro­duc­ers, faced var­i­ous eco­nomic issues in 2019 caused both by the country’s ongo­ing reces­sion and depressed inter­na­tional olive oil prices.

Of the var­i­ous expenses faced by the com­pany, the three biggest are the cost of irri­ga­tion, fer­til­iz­ers and labor.

These three costs are affected by the poli­cies that we have in this coun­try,” Nasrallah said. If irri­ga­tion is cost­ing us a lit­tle more because elec­tric­ity is more expen­sive, then we are pay­ing more for our water and our costs increase rapidly.”

Since we are in the mid­dle of the desert, the soil is very poor and we have to use fer­til­izer, either com­post or chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers,” he added. The cost of fer­til­izer is also affected by fuel prices.”

However, the cost of hir­ing labor­ers to har­vest the olives start­ing in mid-October had the largest eco­nomic impact on Wadi Food in 2019.

During the har­vest period, Egypt was going through a very dif­fi­cult finan­cial cri­sis – we still are – which caused a cash prob­lem,” Nasrallah said. We could not pay our labor­ers reg­u­larly, so we could not have as many peo­ple har­vest at the right time as we would’ve liked to.”

Eventually we did har­vest every­thing, but when the quan­ti­ties were at the best time to har­vest and the qual­ity was at the best point, it was dif­fi­cult for us to man­age,” he added.

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Controlling every step of the production process helped Wadi Food win three Gold Awards at the 2020 NYIOOC.

Low olive oil prices also led Nasrallah and Wadi Food to divert a larger por­tion of their crop to table olive pro­duc­tion, as the price for table olives was far higher.

Despite these sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges, the qual­ity of Wadi Food’s extra vir­gin olive oils was as high as ever, some­thing that Nasrallah attrib­utes to the ever-increas­ing cohe­sion of the team as well as the company’s com­plete con­trol of the pro­duc­tion process.

We have full con­trol of the value chain, so we are plant­ing, treat­ing, har­vest­ing, pro­cess­ing, stor­ing and mix­ing, doing every­thing it takes to make good olive oil,” Nasrallah said. Since we are in con­trol of the whole value chain, we are able to get the best fruits, process them prop­erly, keep the tem­per­a­tures in check and make sure every­thing is done in the best pos­si­ble way to get the best qual­ity olive oil.”

As a team, we are becom­ing quite capa­ble of under­stand­ing what is needed to pro­duce high-qual­ity olive oil,” he added. On top of that, once we have the oils ready, we have a com­mit­tee that knows what good olive oil tastes like and what oils should be sent to the com­pe­ti­tion. I think we have become quite a good team work­ing together.”

While Nasrallah does not think these awards will have much impact on the brand’s per­for­mance in the domes­tic mar­ket, he said that they may serve as inspi­ra­tion for other Egyptian pro­duc­ers and bring more recog­ni­tion to the country’s olive oil sector.

I am sure other com­peti­tors see these wins and plan on enter­ing the com­pe­ti­tions soon,” Nasrallah said. There are cer­tainly other pro­duc­ers here that can win awards as well.”


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