Egyptian province shows fish farming better lure than migration

New roads and residential apartments are being constructed and investment is flowing into the province and many residents look to a brighter future.
Sunday 21/10/2018
Workers check fish collected from the farm in Kafr  el-Sheikh.      (Ahmed Megahid)
Staying home. Workers check fish collected from the farm in Kafr el-Sheikh. (Ahmed Megahid)

KAFR EL-SHEIKH - Life is changing for Samir Hamdi, a former fisherman in his early 30s from the northernmost Egyptian province of Kafr el-Sheikh, on the Mediterranean.

A few months ago, Hamdi’s overriding desire was to leave Egypt for Europe, like thousands of others from the province over the past few years. He agreed to pay a human trafficker $2,500 to get him to Italy.

“Whatever I earned from fishing was far from enough to feed my wife and my son,” Hamdi said. “I searched for another job but I could not find one.”

Before attempting the perilous journey across the sea, however, Hamdi learnt that a gigantic fish farm had opened in Kafr el-Sheikh and it had job vacancies. He got a job for $211 a month, which far exceeded what he earned fishing.

The salary and stability connected with the job changed Hamdi’s life, just as the fish farm had done for thousands of others in Kafr el-Sheikh who are putting their emigration dreams on hold.

Kafr el-Sheikh is a relatively small province, along the western branch of the Nile and bordering the Mediterranean. With a population of 3 million, Kafr el-Sheikh’s young people often sought better opportunities in big cities. However, with job prospects in many urban areas drying up, people increasingly looked to Europe.

With open shores to the Mediterranean, Kafr el-Sheikh also received thousands of illegal migrants from other parts of Egypt who would spend a day or two in the city before sailing for Europe. Some of the migrant boats reached the European coast but many others sank or were stopped by the Egyptian Navy.

This is all, however, ending and development is the new buzzword in the province.

The Berket Ghalioun fish farm, inaugurated last year, stretches over thousands of hectares of land. It produces 60,000 tonnes of fish a year and employed 8,000 people during its first phase.

“A similar number of people will be employed when the second and third phases of the farm are launched in a few years’ time,” said Hamdy Badeen, the head of the national Fish Resources Development Authority. “Each of these people has a home, a family and people to feed.”

Kafr el-Sheikh’s proximity to the sea has made it a hotspot for illegal emigration. The province has fertile farmland and most of its residents work in farming. It also boasts a huge natural lake, Burullus, where thousands of fishermen trawl for fish.

However, the loss of farmland to urbanisation, the degradation in soil quality and pollution in the lake caused major job losses and poverty, fuelling the illegal emigration problem.

Nevertheless, national projects in the province are giving hope to the residents. The Egyptian government said there has not been a single case of illegal immigration in Kafr el-Sheikh since March 2017.

“These projects are having their effects on people’s attitudes,” said Naela Gabr, chairwoman of the government-affiliated National Coordinating Committee for Combating Illegal Migration. “They are giving people hope and reversing the illegal immigration trend.”

The Kafr el-Sheikh story is part of a national attempt to turn places of net emigration into labour magnets. For the first time in decades, the Egyptian government has looked to promote development in provinces away from Cairo, including the southern provinces and the Nile Delta region.

This policy is starting to pay off. Tens of thousands of workers are returning to their original provinces, towns and villages from Cairo, Alexandria and tourist cities on the Red Sea.

The fish farm was one of several mega projects implemented in Kafr el-Sheikh. An electricity plant was also established in the province, offering thousands of jobs during its construction phase and hundreds of permanent jobs.

New roads and residential apartments are being constructed and investment is flowing into the province and many residents, including Hamdi, look to a brighter future.

Hamdi plans to enroll his son in a state-run school near his village and hopes to be promoted, which means more income.

“Life is improving, although this is taking time,” Hamdi said, “but I am sure that things will be better tomorrow, if not for me, for my son.”