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

Sun, Oct 07, 2012 - Page 14

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However out-of-date GASC’s Cairo headquarters look, when Nomani announces a tender to import wheat or declares he has made a purchase, the impact is felt across the globe: prices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.

“He knows what he’s doing and I would say that the work done by GASC so far has been impressive. They know when to enter the market and they give themselves a lot of flexibility,” said a Cairo-based trader, who has known Nomani for over a decade.

Nomani, once a keen soccer player who now prefers reading and playing chess, has worked at GASC for more than 30 years. As vice chairman since 2009 he leads a dealing room where specialist staff cover every region from which Egypt buys wheat around the clock.

“They live according to the timings of the countries they cover. Some come very early, some later, some stay at night till the exchange in question closes,” he said.

GASC announces it is seeking wheat late at night in Egypt and decides about its purchases the following afternoon. Once Nomani has reviewed the bids GASC announces its purchases, making a burst of headlines on the terminals of Reuters and other news agencies.

Some people criticize this system, saying that Japan for example has a better model in holding tenders on a set day each week. Nomani defends GASC’s method, explaining that Japan buys smaller quantities than Egypt and seeks a different quality.

Some traders worry that the vastly experienced Nomani could be swept away in Egypt’s revolutionary fervor, although there is no imminent sign of that.

“I would hate to see him go or be replaced by someone who doesn’t have his background in dealing with the organization and what it involves,” another Cairo-based trader said said.

Nomani himself is sanguine, saying even if he were to go GASC’s work would not be disrupted.

“Even if change arrives to my own position, there are fixed files I would give to the next person, as well as all my experiences and all the market directions because Egypt is going through change,” he said.

However, Nomani seems well-suited to navigate difficult waters, with his inside knowledge of GASC accumulated since he joined in 1979 as the head of a research unit.

Nomani and his team at GASC have snapped up almost seven months’ wheat stocks for Egypt, buying more than 1 million tonnes last month alone, mostly from that region.

He seems unflappable even as global markets grapple with worries about exports from Black Sea nations suffering drought such as Ukraine and Russia, Egypt’s top supplier.

“A commodity like wheat transcends all political and ideological differences,” he said. “Dealings here are at the human level.”