Wood Trees and Industries: A Surprising Opportunity for Egypt
by Tarek Erfan Shafey
Wood Trees for Egypt
Egypt’s wood industry has faced hurdles in the past decade, but still has high potential, backed by a surprisingly wide and versatile range of wood trees and wood substitute products cultivable in Egypt or imported from Africa. Wood uses in Egypt include for home and office furniture, doors, floorings, boats, ships, industry and construction, and the wood industry is the largest in Africa and the Arab countries. In 2019, products for the domestic market were worth USD 1 Billion and exports USD 440 Million, while imports have risen sharply in recent years to USD 1.6 Billion for wood and USD 330 Million for furniture. Though facing stiff competition from Turkey, China and Vietnam, with the right cultivation and business strategies Egypt can achieve a turnaround and be quite successful domestically and internationally.
Begun in the 1880s by the expatriate Italian community in the strategically located northeastern port city of Dumyat, Egypt’s wood industries for many decades enjoyed a reputation for small workshops producing sturdy, durable and high-quality albeit costly, expertly hand-carved furniture with classic designs. The industry continues to haughtily cling to its traditions while international competitors are increasingly modern, nimble, cost-efficient and attuned to modern market trends. For decades Egypt imported top-quality Finnish and Russian pine wood for its products, was and still is largely oblivious to diverse, excellent and very suitable wood trees cultivated in Egypt and wood imported from Africa. Wood product imports, especially from Turkey and China, are rising, and Egypt’s wood industry struggles to export successfully. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Pound’s sharp devaluation in 2016 has made wood imports far more expensive. Importers have resorted to lesser quality pine and oak woods, from countries such as Sweden and Bosnia, which has negatively impacted quality, reputation and market share. Nevertheless, industry reform and success remain perfectly achievable.
We start by examining Egypt’s climate and soils to determine the most suitable wood trees. Summer is hot, humid and rainless in the north, hotter and drier in the center and south, and milder in the Sinai Peninsula plateau and mountains, while winter is mild except in the mountains, and rainy in the north. Further south it is warmer and drier, but more prone to night frosts and sporadic flash floods. Soil is silty and very fertile in the Nile Delta and Valley, and light and either loamy or sandy outside them. The most productive, versatile and cost-efficient wood source is Calcutta bamboo, which is the only type that suits Egypt as it tolerates severe dry heat, frosts and salinity, and is water-efficient.
Bamboo is cultivable in light soils around the Nile Delta and Valley, on the north coast, the northern part of the Western Desert, and in the northern Sinai plains. Giant plants grow by 30cm per day, the wood is excellent in quality, versatile for all uses except boat and shipbuilding and at only 15–20% of the cost of medium-quality wood trees, while bamboo pulp is excellent for paper, which perfectly suits the publishing industry. That in turn is important for Egypt, being the most populous and culturally leading Arab country with a vibrant and prolific cultural output. Giant bamboo reeds are cut, sun-dried to strengthen them, and painted to prevent rotting, pest damage and fire. Bamboo is common and extensively used in eastern and southern Asia, and Egypt needs Asian expertise (preferably Chinese or Indian) to utilize this resource optimally. Other fine sources of good, economic wood for domestic uses are date palm tree fronds, rice husks, wood and sugarcane waste, and wood from existing mango, olive, carob, tamarind, plum, almond and Phoenician juniper trees, with planting to replace the trees used at the end of their productive, fruit-bearing lives.
It is a myth that Egypt’s climate does not support high-quality wood trees. The solution is to grow 12 water-efficient wood trees from countries with similarly hot, dry climates and a rainy season that supports such trees, and to irrigate efficiently. Nearly all those trees have indeed been researched, tested and found cultivable in Egypt. In northern Egypt wood trees would need to tolerate the rising salinity. Spanish mahogany (a fine, export wood-providing tree), Italian cypress, and Syrian poplar (a remarkably hardy desert tree) all do so, with the woods excellent for furniture, doors and construction. Israel has also bred hardy, heat, drought, frost and salt-tolerant and water-efficient avocado trees yielding fine fruits and furniture wood. Further south, trees tolerant of severe heat and aridity, and frosts, are needed.
In central Egypt alone, Mexican pecan wood is great for floorings and, and great potential exists to grow wood trees in the center and south, outside cities, in the six main floodwater valleys east of the Nile, the four Western Desert oases and other areas with groundwater, via modern, water-efficient drip irrigation by safe and doubly treated wastewater. This would also safely help eliminate the polluting wastewater. Senegalese khaya and Australian casuarina trees suit that region’s harsh climate, with excellent wood for furniture, as do Australian eucalyptus and acacia trees, with their equally fine wood for construction. Egypt would also need to genetically engineer more heat-hardy and water-efficient varieties.
Lastly, we explore Egypt’s best wood options for exports. In the cooler areas of Sinai, three fine trees are cultivable: Iranian pistachio and Chinese paulownia on the central plateau, and Afghan pine from northern Iraq in on the southern mountains. All three tolerate cold winters and hot summers, and are water-efficient. Pistachio wood is strikingly beautiful, and suits profitable exports of luxury furniture and musical instruments, in addition to exporting the pistachios. Paulownia is the world’s fastest-growing tree, lives 100 years, is cut for its wood except the trunk every 5 years, and rapidly regrows in warm weather, while in cool weather it stops growing and does not need water.
The wood is superb: beautiful, light, strong, and perfect for floorings, doors, boats and ships. Paulownia leaves are excellent as animal fodder, while the beautiful and fragrant purple flowers yield top-quality honey. Afghan pine tree wood is superb for construction and industry, and the trees also yield pine nuts and honey. Spanish mahogany and Senegalese khaya (African mahogany) woods are top-quality, and khaya trees are also needed all over Egypt for shade, air purification and cooling, and their leaves as animal fodder. Finally, rather than import costly pine and oak wood from Europe which then needs to be expensively dried and painted, Egypt can import naturally dry, colorful, strong, beautiful and less costly wood from Africa. Gabonese woods are the standouts, especially their ebony, which is the world’s finest.
In addition to overlooking very promising wood trees, most of Egypt’s wood industry has failed to adapt to modern times. Production is either by larger firms, which tend to be more efficient, automated and export-oriented, or more likely by small workshops in Dumyat, with traditional, inefficient methods. Costs tend to be very high, and the traditional designs have not kept up with the modern demand for lighter, simpler and less costly home and office furniture and wood products. They also lack the Computer-aided Design (CAD) and Computer-aided Manufacturing (CAM) used by Turkish, Chinese and Vietnamese firms. Both technologies greatly streamline the design and production processes and lower their costs, thereby resulting in modern, evolving and innovative designs and large-scale, fast, flexible and efficient production. The Ministry of Industry needs to spearhead the revitalization of Egypt’s wood industries, with support from and close coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture, which would direct and regulate the wood tree cultivation.
A start would be to know target markets well and tailor wood growing, importing and production to them. For the domestic market, simpler and more affordable wood products are needed. Bamboo and wood substitute products are excellent for that and would easily beat out foreign imports. For the luxury home market segment, domestically grown finer woods such as Senegalese khaya, Spanish mahogany and avocado trees are highly recommended, and their cost efficiencies would make them a winning bet, as would the three, Sinai- grown and diverse-use, luxury-use woods.
The same logic applies to exports. Egypt’s main markets are currently Europe and both the oil-importing and exporting Arab countries. There is also upside potential there and in the African and US markets. The right products are needed for diverse countries according to their average income levels. Both Turkey and China are outperforming Egypt, but with good reforms and cost efficiencies Egypt can regain and expand its market share. Wood industries are energy and water-efficient. Egypt’s wood industries labor force is large, skilled and lower in costs than Turkey and China, and a favorable geographic location, stronger trade relations and lower transportation costs favor Egypt in exporting to Arab and African countries over Turkey, China and Vietnam, and over the latter two in exporting to the European and US markets.
The Ministry of Industry needs to induce small and inefficient wood workshops to consolidate into larger firms that can achieve larger-scale and more efficient production, more modern designs, export, compete with imports, and use CAD and CAM. A good step taken is the upcoming new Furniture City in New Dumyat, which will host larger, more efficient and automated firms, wood feeder industries, design and manufacturing education (managers, engineers and workers), with Italian expertise. Dumyat is excellently located: on the eastern Nile River branch-Mediterranean Sea confluence, and near the Suez Canal, which is the world’s busiest shipping route. This allows easy accessibility with lower costs to international markets. Another new Furniture City is needed in Tahta city in southern Egypt, which is the industry’s hub serving central and southern Egypt while lastly, smaller workshops can specialize in customized high-end wood products, especially for orders from Europe and from the rich oil-exporting Arab countries which lack their own wood industries.
Other reforms can be of great help. Wood product makers need to be informed and updated of the changed and evolving tastes of customers in Egypt and internationally, and to design and produce accordingly. A plan is also needed to produce wood industry machinery, tools and production components in Egypt, as imports are now very costly and producers are cutting corners on quality standards, which harms quality and sales. Attention is needed to the quality of the wood product components and finished products, and to meeting international standards and quality control regulations. International quality certifications should be sought, and competition within Egypt encouraged, for firms to attain and benefit from such certifications. Export licensing and strict pre-export quality inspections also need to be mandated, and reforms are needed for ease of doing business and a transparent business and legal environment.
Finally, more export efforts are needed. Marketing by participating in furniture expos and shows should be top-notch, as should networking with importers in international markets and efforts to facilitate trade relations and cut and remove import duties and barriers. The growing and highly promising African market needs special attention. Close cooperation with international logistics firms is needed, so as to transport imported African wood and exported wood products. African woods are well-known to customers there, especially the highly prized ebony, and products made of those woods, manufactured and priced competitively, and transported efficiently would be highly successful in Africa, especially to industrial and upmarket customers. Lastly, the transfer of both goods and money, and air, railway and shipping links with Africa have all been neglected for decades and need to be facilitated. Ultimately, Egypt can and needs to undertake all the reforms explored above to become an Arab, African and international wood industry powerhouse, and stands to earn USD 3 Billion and gainfully employ 700,000 more of its labor force by doing so.