Egyptian village finds vital lifeline in growing high-quality jasmine flowers

Few of those paying hundreds and maybe thousands of dollars for perfumes they use know that the flowers used to make them may have originated in Shubra Blula.
Sunday 03/11/2019
An Egyptian farmer empties a basket of jasmine in Shubra Blula. (Saeed Shahat)
Finest grandiflorum. An Egyptian farmer empties a basket of jasmine in Shubra Blula. (Saeed Shahat)

SHUBRA BLULA - A vast area of land with tens of thousands of jasmine plants stretches in front of Mohamed Abdel Salam. Sticking out of green leaves on which they bloomed, the flowers are a blessing for Abdel Salam and all other workers at the field.

Abdel Salam and his fellow residents of Shubra Blula, near Egypt’s Nile Delta, use their fingers to gently cut the jasmine flowers and put them in plastic buckets.

“We keep cutting the flowers for seven or eight hours every day,” said Abdel Salam, a father of two. “This is how we earn a living.”

Almost all other village residents earn their living the same way. Shubra Blula, a village of 10,000 people in Gharbia province, is the hub of jasmine cultivation in Egypt and its centre of fragrance making.

The village has gained international fame for growing the world’s finest jasmine grandiflorum and exporting the purest jasmine concrete and absolute. About 350 hectares of Shubra Blula’s farmland is cultivated with jasmine grandiflorum. About 7 tonnes of jasmine grandiflorum is produced annually, more than 80% of Egypt’s overall production.

Behind every jasmine flower grown, cut and processed are mesmerising stories of the village residents.

Abdel Salam and other villagers start at 1am every day, working for hours cutting flowers and filling plastic buckets with the blooms. They then head to collection points where they sell the jasmine produce of the day.

The collection points ship the harvest to processing factories that turn the flowers into concrete, a semi-solid mass obtained by solvent extraction of jasmine, and absolute, essential oil, for fragrance factories in France, the United Kingdom and Canada.

This is how Shubra Blula is making an international reputation. Few of those paying hundreds and maybe thousands of dollars for perfumes they use know that the flowers used to make them may have originated in Shubra Blula.

“The best jasmines are produced here thanks to the quality of the soil,” said Amr al-Sheikh, a jasmine farm owner from the village. “The jasmines are giving people work and income.”

Jasmine cultivation started in Shubra Blula in the 1960s when a village dignitary, who was studying in France, returned with jasmine seedlings. After growing jasmine on his family farm, the man established the village’s first jasmine plant, which continues to operate. It is one of two operating in the village and five in Egypt.

The factories do not go, however, beyond buying the jasmines from the collection points and turning them into either concrete or absolute. They do not possess the technology or knowledge for turning the absolute into fragrance, which is seen as a national loss.

“This does away with a national wealth that can be better exploited,” said Gamal Seyam, a professor of agricultural economics at Cairo University. “The factories can make much more money by turning the jasmines into perfumes.”

Egypt is gradually suspending export of raw materials and shifting to exporting manufactured goods to maximise profits, including in petrochemicals. The way, however, seems long before local plants turn the jasmines into perfumes and create their own international brands.

The jasmine plants earn much more money than Abdel Salam and other farmer or owners such as Sheikh do. The plants buy each kilogram of jasmine flowers from the farmers and the farm owners for 45 Egyptian pounds ($2.70).

Sheikh said he hires workers to collect the jasmines from his farm, which produces 10 kilograms of jasmine every day through the harvest season, which starts in June and ends in December.

Abdel Salam’s condition is even worse. He rents a section of a farm, which produces 1 kilogram of jasmines every day at most.

“All the profits go to the owners of the factories who decide the prices of the jasmines,” Abdel Salam said. “As for the farmers, they get nothing but the scent of the flowers they grow and cut.”

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