‘On your right is the Palace of General Sisi, on your left a building inspired on Indian architecture. It was build by the Belgium Baron Empain.’ Fayez our driver from the airport to the hotel makes a real effort to make us feel welcome in Cairo. The palace is now considered a haunted one, where the wife and daughter of the Baron tragically died. Probably another tragedy is the fact that the location of the palace, Heliopolis, is nowadays an immensely crowded urban sprawl, where the Egyptian military has a strong foothold, including the largest military training facility of Africa (Fayez informs us proudly that ‘Many other African countries sent their military to train here’) and also the a large military airbase. Nothing of the original ‘desert’ is left, except the dust.
The next day we pass the Indian palace again and in my mind I am discovering every corner of it – photos on the internet show an amazing staircase, but we speed past again, on our way to Spice Kingdom, which also has a slight fairy tale ring to it. It is however a real factory where spices grown by Egyptian farms are processed for the American and European market. When we step into the reception area the scent is overwhelming and reminds me immediately of the odd summer job I once had in a spice factory as well. I had to put together special carton ‘pyramid’ trays filled with different BBQ spices for a summer promotion in supermarkets. Unfortunately for me the ‘pyramids of spices’ began to fall apart after a couple of days as the carton was not strong enough. I could start all over again while improvising a reinforcement of the carton trays.
On invitation of the staff we visit the factory hall. The machines cover different steps of the processing process, from first sorting of the herbs to the magnet and sieves that should filter out metal and plastic residue, but I am most impressed with the piles and piles of spices and herbs in the hall next to it, neatly stacked in different types of bags on shelves and in ‘pyramids’. We meet the director of the company next and he proudly shares the company was started by his grandfather in 1919. This man already exported to the US, he found correspondence of his grandfather where he makes an offer and only months later receiving a letter that they do not agree. He needs to make a new offer and only 6 months later he receives a telegram that they agree to his new price. He then starts growing the herbs and would only deliver the shipment again months later. Business was ‘slow’ at the time. In our meeting there is no time for ‘slow’ business, the director clearly wants to get the project going, where his company will make an agreement with farmers in three specific cooperatives to take their produce off their hands for a more than reasonable market price. This will have advantages for both, the farmers get trained in sustainable farming techniques and have a guaranteed buyer and the company is ensured of both supplies and organically produced spices and herbs. And after months of waiting we finally have permission of the government of Egypt to start on the project where we support the farmers together with a local NGO and work together with the company on Corporate Social Responsibility. So from here on, let’s hope business will move much faster, and not tumble down like my first spice pyramids originally did.