Anger over food prices helped contribute to the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak. Through the story of one migrant family, we explore how displaced farmers, angry about agricultural policies that favor “crony capitalists,” now struggle to put food on the table. This story is the beginning of a new series: “Food for 9 Billion,” a year-long project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Homelands Productions, PBS NewsHour and American Public Media’s Marketplace.


Video: At a market in Cairo, Qotb Saber and his wife choose items in vegetable bins.

Reporter Sandy Tolan: This little market in an upscale Cairo neighborhood caters to the servant class with simple, low-end produce; it’s what Qotb and Sabah Orany Saber can afford.

Sabah: We used to eat off of our land. But here and now, everything is expensive.

Reporter: Since 2007, global food shortages have created huge price spikes. The cost of tomatoes, cooking oil and lentils skyrocketed and helped fuel the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. 

Sabah: The revolution started because of the price increase. In the old days, nothing like this happened. Whether it was meat, chicken or vegetables, food was not this expensive. 

Video: At Qotb’s home, he and his family eat breakfast.

Reporter: Qotb works at this villa as a night watchman and chauffeur. His family lives in the front room. They’re not going hungry. But like the 40 percent of Egyptians who live on $2 a day or less, the family struggles to put food on the table. They spend about $25 a week on food; that’s more than half the family income.

Qotb: We are unable to save money, so until God makes it easier, we are just taking it step by step.

Reporter: Qotb didn’t take part in the revolution – he didn’t have time. The closest he got to Tahrir Square was when he dropped off his boss there – she’s a journalist for Al Jazeera. He hopes the new government will help him educate his children, since the family has no savings.

Philip Rizk: In Egypt, this price crisis has not come down for the common family; the prices of food are a daily crisis.

Reporter: During the revolution, Egyptian filmmaker and activist Philip Rizk spent every day at Tahrir Square.

Rizk: Most people can’t even afford protesting anymore because they’re not formally employed, which means you have to scrounge for work day in and day out.

Video: Sun shines on a canal, then crossfades with cars and choked Egyptian traffic.

Reporter: For millennia, it wasn’t like that. The fertile silt of the Nile made Egypt a nation of farmers, producing daily bread for all the people. The nation had a secure food supply created at home. Now, with 85 million people, Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat. Much of it comes from the U.S. and Russia. Government support for small farms dwindled under the Mubarak regime, and with strong encouragement from USAID, a major shift took place. A new policy arrived: growing high-value cash crops for export.

Video: An expanse of desert and farms are shown.

Tarek Tawfik: We were the first company to go and farm potatoes in the middle of the desert, out of nowhere. People thought that we were lunatics. 

Video: Dust shot

Reporter: In the late 1980s, when Mubarak enticed Egyptian capitalists with incentives to green up desert lands, entrepreneur Tarek Tawfik was among the first to answer the call.

Tawfik: I went to look at the land where the factory would be built, and it was just pure desert. Actually, it was depressing. I said, “For heaven’s sake, this is where I’m going to be working.”

Reporter: Tawfik is part of a new class of MBA managers bringing foreign investment – a lot of it from the Gulf ¬– to Egypt’s new export ag sector. 

Tawfik: In no time, there was this factory built up, farms set up. Three or four other factories mushroomed out of this factory.

Video: Inside Americana farms, factory floor

Reporter: Today, the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria is lined with factory farms to produce luxury produce for the European table. 

Video: Frozen strawberries

Reporter: Like these strawberries at Americana farms. Factories like this take fruits and vegetables and add value. Produce is delivered from the nearby farms, graded by size and inspected to meet international quality standards, then passed through industrial-sized freezers to extend shelf life before they’re sealed into plastic bags for shipment abroad.

Plant manager: This is a big opportunity for us to export things, a product to Europe or the United States. 

Reporter: But it wasn’t patriotism that got so many investors to build farm factories out in the desert. It was cheap land, cheap water and cheap power, all financed through cheap credit to those with the right connections. Economist Magda Kandil says there’s a name for this practice.

Magda Kandil: Crony capitalism. Basically, you have an entrepreneur who is well-connected to people with high authority, and through this connection, they are able to seize a lot of benefits in the form of land allocation, access to cheap credit. So you end up milking a lot of benefits for yourself.

Reporter: And small farmers? Many ended up here, in Cairo. Well over a million left the farm over the last 20 years, in part because of laws that increased rents to family farmers by as much as 700 percent. Small farmers flooded the cities, looking for menial work.

Video: Qotb washes a car. 

Reporter: Qotb, the Cairo chauffeur and security guard, was one of them. 

Qotb: Life was getting harder on me and my father, income was getting limited, so I came to Cairo. I left so much behind; I left my heritage and land of origin. But in the end, that’s life.

Video: Qotb gets on a microbus.

Reporter: When he can, Qotb travels back to his family home in Al-Fayoum to bring some cash to his father, who still works the parched land.

Video: Qotb arrives and walks the land with his father.

Qotb: I wish I could be with my father on the farmland. But we are a big family, and the land could not support all of us.

Reporter: Qotb’s father was given these 2 acres in the early 1950s, under a land reform program of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was a cherished gift for a poor family. But under Mubarak, families here say, water was steadily diverted toward crony projects. And now, Qotb’s father gets only a slow trickle once a week.

Video: Qotb and his father walk the parched land; his father tosses the dry soil in the air.

Qotb’s father: The land is dry!

Reporter: In fact, the government stole the water from the people, say local farmers – including this neighbor of Qotb, Hussein, who took me on his scooter to show how the water was diverted from the main canal Chinatown-style, to help a rich man’s desert bloom. 

Hussein: This is our main source of water that what used to cultivate all our old land from before. 

Reporter: It was here, Hussein says, at this irrigation diversion gate, that farmers fought with local police over which direction the water would flow. At one point, he says, gun battles broke out.

Hussein: Look here, right here in front of you. It was given to the cronies, to the families, to the well-connected people. This is why there was a revolution.

Reporter: Hussein tells us a story over tea: When Mubarak fell, he was on his way to Tahrir Square, part of this team of local farmers fighting the corruption they say was forcing them from their land.

Hussein says 80 percent of his generation has already left the land. They no longer enjoy meals from food grown at home. Landless peasants increasingly depend on imports. Some see it as a national security issue.

Mamdou Hamza: You cannot guarantee the price of the international market; you cannot guarantee the ability that one day, every person will keep his wheat to himself. It could happen.

Reporter: Mamdou Hamza was one of Mubarak’s strongest critics. He’s a well-connected civil engineer with his hands in many national projects. He watched over many young people during the dramatic days last February at Tahrir Square. He says for a stable Egypt, new leaders need to focus on growing more food at home. Otherwise, he says, the country could be vulnerable to future price spikes.

Hamza: We must have at least 80 percent strategically produced in this country. Last year, Russia said, “I’m not going to export wheat.” People could use that strategically against us to push us to do things we should not, would not otherwise like to do.

Reporter: Hamza says this means more efficient use of irrigation, farmer cooperatives on larger plots, and preventing developers from gobbling up the 5 percent of Egypt’s land that is suitable for farming. Hamza quotes an old Egyptian proverb that speaks to the wisdom of growing your own food on your own land.

Hamza (in Arabic, then in English): If you don’t eat with your hand in the farm to produce your food, you will not be able to think with your own brain. Somebody will think for you. Who, who will feed you?

Reporter: As for Qotb and his wife, they no longer eat by their own hand. A laborer of the landless class, Qotb still dreams of going back to Al-Fayoum. 

Qotb: We could have worked together as one big family instead of being divided. I dream about it all the time, but I don’t have the money to support that dream or to go back home.

Reporter: Now, the family is part of an urban force demanding lower food prices and access to education as the price for peace under a new regime. 

Qotb: I hope the children will do great things. Maybe my daughter can be president. She’s getting her education, and I’ll support her all the way. Till my last breath.  

Reporter: Qotb says in two weeks, with his children in mind, he will vote in a free election for the first time.

Reporter: Sandy Tolan
Producer: Charlotte Buchen
Senior Producer: David Ritsher
Executive Producer: Sharon Tiller
Production Assistant: Mary Jirmanus
Camera: Charlotte Buchen
Editor: Charlotte Buchen
Local Fixer: Madiha Kassem
Additional field translation: Magdy Kassem

Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree and Children of the Stone, is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is a co-founder of Homelands Productions and writes frequently on the intersection of land, indigenous rights, energy and the environment.

Charlotte Buchen

Charlotte Buchen has shot and produced stories for outlets such as PBS FRONTLINE/World, PBS NewsHour, The New York Times and the Discovery Channel among others. She has a special interest in reporting from the Middle East and South Asia. Her documentary "All the Way Home" broadcast on PBS in 2009. Charlotte holds a BA in Political Science from Vassar College and a Masters degree from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.