Sun, Oct 07, 2012 - Page 14 News List

How wheat market’s most powerful man keeps Egyptians fed

Subsidized bread has been a load-bearing pillar of Egyptian society since the 1950s, and it is trader Nomani Nasr Nomani who ensures that it never crumbles

By Shaimaa Fayed  /  Reuters, CAIRO

A worker holds imported wheat grain from a Korea Silo Co silo in Incheon, South Korea, on Aug. 29. South Korea is Asia’s second-biggest grain importer.

Photo: BLOOMBERG

Nomani Nasr Nomani is arguably the most powerful figure on the global wheat market; he is also the man who ensured Egypt’s revolution for freedom didn’t turn into “a revolution of hunger.”

A short walk from Tahrir Square, the cauldron of last year’s uprising, Nomani works in a run-down Cairo building as chief grains buyer for Egypt, the world’s biggest importer of wheat.

Beyond a tarnished plaque reading General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC) and up a scruffy staircase, the unassuming 58-year-old sits in his office, watching grains prices flashing over his trading screen.

However out-of-date GASC’s Cairo headquarters look, when Nomani announces a tender to import wheat or declares he has made a purchase, the impact is felt across the globe: prices can swing on futures markets in Chicago, Paris or Sydney.

For Nomani, the test of his skill is not how far futures shift, but whether he keeps 83 million Egyptians fed. After all, the uprising which toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was as much about poverty as political reform, and began with chants of “Bread, freedom, social justice!”

Aware that any disruption to subsidized bread supplies could provoke unrest, he describes his role without understatement as ensuring “the revolution for freedom would not turn into a revolution of hunger.”

Once the granary of the Roman Empire, Egypt can no longer feed its modern population which is mostly crammed into the fertile Nile valley and delta, hemmed in by huge expanses of arid land.

Egypt therefore has to buy abroad about half the 18.8 million tonnes of wheat it consumes a year. The US Department of Agriculture estimates it will import 9 million tonnes in this and next year, ahead of Brazil on 7 million tonnes.

To the relief of many traders, there is no sign for now that Nomani, a civil servant at GASC for almost all his career, will be moved from his post.

No Egyptian leader, including new Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, can afford to disrupt the nation’s bakeries. These churn out the subsidized saucer-sized flat loaves selling for just 5 piastres (less than US$0.01), a staple for many Egyptian families struggling to make ends meet.

Mursi has, like rulers before him, promised to keep bread subsidies for all even though he is reviewing ways to target fuel and other price support to the most needy.

Nomani — who has served under Mubarak, the military and now Mursi — stresses his role as a veteran civil servant.

“GASC is responsible for food security in the country,” he said. “Therefore I have no political affiliation to a particular faction ... My affiliation is to Egypt.”

Even when tear gas canisters and rubber bullets flew through the streets around the GASC headquarters, Nomani and his team maintained wheat stocks.

Each Egyptian tender, under which GASC invites offers from traders to supply wheat, has an effect far beyond the country’s borders. On Sept. 6, Chicago wheat futures jumped more than 2 percent after GASC bought almost half a million tonnes.

The government spends more than US$5.5 billion a year on food subsidies, which also cover items such as rice, oil and sugar. Despite the heavy cost, food subsidies have been a pillar of Egyptian economic policy since former Egyptian socialist president Gamal Abdel Nasser began them in the 1950s.

Yet subsidized supplies were not disrupted even during the most tumultuous days during and after last year’s uprising. Traders say that is in large part thanks to Nomani.

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