Ramadan: Making ends meet

Endless queues in supermarkets, billboards covered with ads for upcoming soap operas, sellers of fawanees — traditional lanterns — on every corner, and Cairo’s already unbearable traffic getting worse: no one could mistake the onset of Ramadan which begins on Monday.

Demand for food rises, along with prices, during Ramadan when, throughout the month, families gather to break their fast following Maghreb (sunset) prayers.

A survey by Visa Egypt on spending in the Holy Month found that 54 per cent of Egyptians spend more during Ramadan than in any other month. Half of the 502 families surveyed said their spending increased by more than LE1,000, with 83 per cent of respondents citing food as the major expense.

This year, though, more people than ever are worried about their ability to meet the additional costs.

“I’m dreading the start of Ramadan this year,” said Fatma Hassan, a 70-year-old resident of Zeitoun neighbourhood.

“My married daughter and son and their families are used to having iftar with me several times each Ramadan. On average I need LE500 each time. It’s become unaffordable now the price of meat and chicken has increased by 30 per cent.”

 Hassan’s fears are echoed in households across Egypt. Inflation jumped to 10.3 per cent in April, compared to nine per cent a month earlier, as the impact of March’s devaluation of the pound started to feed through. Foodstuffs, which account for 40 per cent of the basket according to which the inflation rate is calculated, increased by 12.7 per cent compared with 12.1 per cent the previous month.

But if the crowds at cashiers in the supermarkets are anything to go by, demand remains high.

“I queued for three and a half hours to pay for discounted Ramadan stuff at a nearby grocery on Friday,” said Ahmed, a 28-year driver who lives in Mattariya.

Madiha Al-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, says the limited impact of price increases on demand reflects the pervasiveness of the consumerism that began with the open-door policies of the mid-1970s.

“It is not just a Ramadan thing. It became a lifestyle among some social strata. People spend now in a totally irrational way, even when celebrating their children’s birthdays.”

The government is attempting to ease the financial burden on families by offering discounted food. As part of its Ahlan Ramadan (Welcome Ramadan) campaign, organised in coordination with the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, the Holding Company for Food Industries and some private sector retailers, exhibitions are being held at which food is being sold at a discount. In the first two days of Ahlan Ramadan’s Nasr City exhibition sales topped LE10 million.

The initiative allows ration cardholders to buy Ramadan bags costing between LE27 and LE112, depending on contents, from 5,000 outlets affiliated to the Ministry of Supply. Items sold in outlets are on average 20 per cent cheaper than in private retailers, said Minister of Supply Khaled Hanafi.

The ministry has also organised mobile shops in heavily populated areas to sell subsidised food items during Ramadan. As well as items like meat, poultry, rice and cooking oil, discounted goods include imported yameesh (nuts, dried fruits and qamar al-din — sheets of dried apricot extract).

“It does not make much sense for a country facing economic difficulties and a ballooning trade deficit to spend more money on food during a month that is supposed to be dedicated to fasting, or to import expensive items like yameesh,” said Alia Al-Mahdi, a professor of economics at Cairo University.

Al-Mahdi recalls that in the mid-1960s Egyptian households used to celebrate Ramadan with locally produced qamar al-din, nuts and raisins. “Imported yameesh is something we can definitely survive without
,” she said, arguing that the government should ban the import of these unnecessary items.

Earlier this year restrictions were placed on letters of credit for items like yameesh, lowering the import bill from LE100 million last year to LE40 million.

When calculating the overall costs of Ramadan the decline in productivity during the Holy Month must be factored in. Although there are no official statistics, Al-Mahdi claims that productivity falls by as much as a third as a result of shorter working hours and the change in eating habits, inflicting another burden on an economy already suffering from low production.

Visa Egypt’s survey found that charitable donations ranked second to food in families’ increased expenditure during Ramadan. One of the most common forms of charity is the distribution of Ramadan bags packed with groceries to poor families.

Shahira Ahmed gathers money each year from her friends and family to prepare these bags which are distributed in Cairo and in some upper Egyptian governorates.

“This year is different,” she said. “This time last year I already had enough money to fill 300 bags. I don’t have money for half that number this year.”

The problem is twofold — people are donating less money and the items in each bag are more expensive.

According to Ahmed, poor families in Upper Egypt, where prices are higher, are the hardest hit.

“There is a difference of LE20 in the cost of the same items between Cairo and some Upper Egyptian governorates,” she said.

Assiut has the highest rates of poverty in Egypt at 60 per cent, followed by Qena at 58 per cent and Sohag at 55 while in Cairo the rate is 18 per cent, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).

And what of all the billboards for soap operas that have sprouted across the city? Advertisers usually spend 30 per cent of their annual budget during Ramadan, when most of the year’s premium television content is scheduled.

Yehia Zakaria, manager of the Audio and Visual Department at Al-Ahram Advertisement Agency, expects a decline in spending on ads this year compared to last Ramadan as advertisers have been hit by the economic slowdown.

Demand for television ads went up in the years after the revolution as the number of channels increased and viewer numbers went up. In 2015 there was a 20 per cent jump in spending on ads over Ramadan, said Zakaria.

“We saw high spending, especially in the real estate and banking sectors. Advertisements for charities also grew to the extent they occupied 25 per cent of TV slots,” he said. “At the start of this year, however, we began to feel the pinch of the foreign currency crunch. The first quarter saw a 35 per cent fall in spending on advertisements.”

The foreign currency crisis has had at least one positive effect: on the manufacturing of traditional fawanees. The market had long been flooded with cheap Chinese imports that had all but replaced the glass and metal products of local fawanees-makers. But two years ago the Chinese imports were banned.

Now traditional fawanees are back on display, as well as newer variations made of wood and colourful khayameya cloth. Prices vary according to size and the materials used.

“The cheapest I could find for my granddaughter was LE25. It is expensive given my budget but I promised to get her a colourful one if she fasted this year,” said Safiya, a cleaning lady in her mid-50s.

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