It has been quite a few years since Gomaa, a pasta maker at an inexpensive local market in Giza, has seen so much attention. Having entered the business over 25 years ago, Gomaa was anticipating having to close the store where he makes small quantities of pasta on request at prices that are much cheaper than the pasta packages sold in grocery stores.
However, over the past five years Gomaa has managed to regain some of his clients who had earlier abandoned his strictly hand-made pasta. The increase in prices that came with the first wave of devaluation in the autumn of 2016, which sent the exchange rate of the US dollar against the Egyptian pound soaring from a little over LE8 to well over LE15, introduced what he calls “inevitable belt-tightening”.
“When people have money, they look for better alternatives, and when the situation becomes a bit more difficult, they are forced to economise. This always means less-expensive options,” Gomaa said.
The pasta bags of around 200 g that Gomaa makes and sells for around LE5 are certainly much more economical than the least-expensive brand of any locally made pasta package of around the same weight.
This year has been difficult for many people, with the soaring prices of wheat that came as a result of inflation, hitting eight per cent in January, now going higher as a result of the war in Ukraine. Egypt is one of the world’s largest wheat importers, and another devaluation of the pound has hit the exchange rate, taking it from LE15 to over LE18 to the dollar.
Gomaa has already been seeing his clients suffering, and he knew that he would have to come up with an idea to avoid increases in the prices of his packages. As a result, he changed the recipe of his pasta. “It is not strictly only wheat anymore. Now I mix the wheat with starch,” he said. Then, he opted for less expensive bags. “They don’t look as nice, but they are certainly less expensive,” he said.
Despite these helpful schemes, Fatemah, a housewife who lives with her retired husband and two unemployed sons, said she had hesitated before picking up two small packs of pasta for LE5 each. “Everything has become a lot more expensive, and our budget is getting tighter and tighter,” she said.
Fatemah said she had been “cutting things here and there to make sure that there is enough money for food, medicine, and rent.”
Meat, chicken, fish, dairy products, and fruit have all become less and less present in her kitchen, except on certain occasions. “Ramadan is one of the most important occasions of the year for us. It is the one month of the year when we all sit to eat together. We love Ramadan as the holiest month of the year, and we like to make special meals for at least the first day and on Fridays,” she said.
To make sure that she observes a generous Iftar meal on these five days at least during the holy Muslim month, Fatemah has been sticking to a tight budget during the six weeks ahead of 2 April, the first day of Ramadan this year.
“We are used to living on a tight budget and are accustomed to giving up things. This year, it has been really tough because we have already cut out so much already,” she said.
Fatemah has cut out salad for six weeks. She allowed two oranges every three days for the entire family. Tea was served for breakfast without milk except on Fridays. Eggs were eliminated from their single weekly appearance at Friday breakfasts. This way, she has been able to make sure that her family has a “decent Iftar” on the first day of Ramadan.
Speaking after last week’s devaluation of the pound, Fatemah was still certain that she would be able to buy a whole chicken, enough rice and vegetables, and even konafa and kattayef for the first Ramadan Iftar and that she would be able to serve her family a good Sohour meal on the evening before made up of yoghurt, fuul (fava beans), white cheese, dates and oranges.
She would switch to either fuul and eggplants or pasta and eggplants for the remainder of the week before it was Friday again, she said. Unlike some relatives and neighbours, Fatemah does not like to buy food on instalments. “We eat what we can buy,” she said.
Among economically challenged families, it is not uncustomary to buy groceries now and pay later. Al-notah (a notebook) is something that many grocers keep for clients who get their basic shopping and then pay when they get their pay cheques.
In a market on the outskirts of Cairo, Etman, who runs a small grocery store, said that he had started selling foods according to al-notah for the first time in his over 30 years in business.
When he took over the business from his father in the 1990s, the practice of delayed payment was almost out of fashion. “There would be an occasional client who would need some extra items for a special occasion, or who would be short on money for an emergency. We would give him his shopping, and he would pay later,” he said.
This year, Etman has been approached by several clients to consider the re-introduction of al-notah, however. He thought it was inevitable for him to accommodate such requests. “I wish to keep the business going. I am worried that some clients may not be able to pay, but it was a repeated request,” Etman said.
However, it is not only about delayed payment. It also includes payment on installments. “Most of my clients are people on a fixed monthly income. Their income has not increased, but prices have been increasing very fast. If they want to keep buying certain things, they will need to pay in installments,” he explained.
Most of Etman’s clients, as civil servants, have cut down on many items, and as a result he has stopped stocking them except in small quantities in specific seasons, Ramadan being the most important.