How ‘climate-smart’ crops could prove a lifeline for vulnerable smallholders on the Nile Delta

June 15, 2022

We explored which would be the best climate smart crops to grow in the future to ensure sustainable agricultural practices.

UNDP Photo/Engy Abdel Wahab

The Nile Delta has always played a crucial role in Egypt’s economy, accounting today for more than half of the county’s economic activity in agriculture, industry and fisheries and contributing some 20 percent to national GDP. However, the low-lying Delta is also extremely vulnerable to rising sea-levels and other consequences of climate change.

Our Accelerator Lab team set out to explore what can be done to help the small farming communities in the Delta facing the loss of their livelihoods due to sea-level rise and the salination of the soil.

We started our journey by collaborating with the Desert Research Centre, which is a public research-centre working together with UNDP Global Environmental “Small Grants Programme”, on “climate smart” crops.

The experts organized for us four ethnographic visits to the area, from which we were informed of two main challenges facing farmers: soil salinity and the use of sewage water as the main source of irrigation for 60% of farmland. These and other factors lead to reducing crop yields that threaten the livelihoods of smallholders. This is why the Centre is focused on developing new types of ‘climate smart’ crops.

Then we complemented our sensing phase by holding a series of interviews with agribusinesses and NGOs working on agricultural development to gain a better understanding of the challenges involved.

All of our interviewees highlighted the difficult situation facing smallholders in the Delta region. Farmers are often trapped in long-term debt cycles, for example, because they buy all their agricultural inputs on credit and don’t have much choice over the price, they sell their products for, nor whom they sell to.

Another vulnerability for farmers stems from the fact there are many market players between farmers and end-consumers, with farmers being the most vulnerable and lowest paid actors within long and complex value chains.

We also learned from our interviewees that current contract farming models are not the best and that cooperatives and farmers’ unions have only enjoyed limited success in empowering farmers to gain greater market access and a greater role in decision-making.

Based on the data we had collected, we then conducted a behavioural analysis of the key bodies involved in agriculture in the Delta, a socio-economic analysis of local farming communities, and a behavioural analysis of the value chain market players for opportunistic crops.

Behavioural Analysis of Key Bodies

We analysed the behaviour of the key bodies affecting farmers in the Delta, including agricultural cooperatives, local arbiters, water management institutions and farmers’ unions, with the objective of understanding their format and scope, being a strong tool to enhance market entry and empower decision making capacities for small farmers.

What we found from this analysis was that none of these key bodies currently play any role in the marketing of crops or in resolving conflicts arising from farming contracts. Instead, the main internal conflicts handled by these bodies stem from issues concerning water scarcity, especially among farmers. The support these bodies provide to farmers is further limited due to their lack of resources, including understaffing.

Socio-Economic Analysis of Delta Communities

We also conducted a series of focus groups and surveys with vulnerable communities in the Delta. In doing so, our aim was to gain a better understanding of their incomes model, levels of education, their main sources of information and their current understanding of the impacts of climate change on crops and livestock.

We identified two prevalent models of income: 1) day-to-day income in the form of revenues from livestock, poultry, or dairy products; and 2) seasonal income from agriculture. Farmers tend to save this seasonal income for paying off their agricultural debts or – if possible – for major expenditures like marriages or buying a new house or new livestock.


We found that there are less and less graduates in the Delta who are interested in pursuing higher education or careers in agriculture. Farming is widely considered by young people as hard work for low pay.

Awareness of climate change impact

Farmers are aware of the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods. Heat waves, strong winds and soil salinity were identified as the three main factors adversely affecting their crops and livestock, often resulting in loss of quantity and quality, as well as the emergence of new crop diseases.

Communications and sources of information

Regarding communications, 51% of the people in the communities we surveyed said that the most effective communications channel for them was ‘word of mouth, while 44% get most information from television. Social media came last on the list of sources of information.

Behavioural Analysis of Value Chain Market Players

The final step in our exploration journey was to understand the market of the most opportunistic crop as well as that of the most opportunistic animal product, by conducting interviews with their value chains actors.

We identified them by identifying the amount of revenue farmers make from them, the amount of costs, number labour entailed and their levels of water consumption, as well as their current and predicted climate change resilience We also looked at predicted future demand for different types of crops and animal products.

Wheat was identified as the most opportunistic crop, while dairy products were identified as the most opportunistic animal product.


Wheat-growing farmers are currently obliged to deliver their output to state-owned mills, which then distribute 70% to the public sector for bread and pasta, while the remaining 30% of wheat goes to the private sector. Essentially there is a downstream government monopoly on wheat.

The niche markets for pasta and bakeries use durum wheat, which cannot be grown in the Delta. These markets import 80% of durum wheat from abroad while getting 20% from farmers in Upper Egypt, i.e. from the south of the country.

Dairy products

Seasonal factors have a strong impact on the value chain for dairy products in Egypt, with all actors in this chain reporting a 30% reduction in the quality and quantity of these products in summer compared to winter, with a corresponding reduction in prices and revenues. This seasonal loss is due primarily to the absence of any green feed crops grown in the summer months - unlike the availability of clover in winter.

The low quality of dairy products and the inability of smallholders to afford pasteurization units constitute major barriers to farmers in accessing supermarkets, hotels, and restaurants.

Smart crops of the future

Finally, we explored which would be the best climate smart crops to grow in the future to ensure sustainable agricultural practices.

The Desert Research Centre has recommended a range of climate smart crops based on their climate-resilient characteristics. We selected from these the crops most resistant to heat, wind, and salinity. Our selection criteria further included considerations about the amount of water needed for different crops and the marketing opportunities of these products. In addition, we identified which crops had the most value chain opportunities.

Pearl millet and panicum

Pearl millet is a ‘climate smart’ resilient summer crop currently grown mostly in African countries and in India as a flour substitute. Growing this crop could generate almost twice the income that farmers get from wheat. The market for pearl millet has further potential on account of being a gluten-free product.

Panicum is a climate smart feed crop that could solve the problem of the lack of cattle fodder crops in the Delta, especially in summer, potentially increasing farmers’ day-day incomes by 50%. Panicum, or panic grass, is a year-long crop with yields sufficiently high to meet the demand for fodder, as well as creating a surplus for contract farming opportunities.

Having identified these two climate-smart crops, we then conducted 60 interviews with actors in the value chains for wheat and dairy products to explore possibilities for the market entry of panicum and pearl millet.

Those most interested in the potential for contracts with panicum-growing farmers included the owners of cattle farms, silage traders, and concentrated feed factories. Those most interested in buying from pearl millet-growing farmers, meanwhile, included large private sector companies in the niche sectors for pasta and bakeries, with many start-ups keen to enter this market being interested in using pearl millet instead of wheat in their products.

Compared to more commonly known cereals, millet consumes little water and can be grown without irrigation even in drought conditions.

Millet can help contribute to tackling several major challenges at once, including the need for adaptation to climate change, the poverty of smallholder and marginalized farmers in dry zones, as well as contributing to nutrition and health needs.

As such, these crops can help some of the toughest areas achieve the sustainable development goals.