Global Trends posted on November 19, 2019, The Dilemma of English-Medium Instruction in International Higher Education written by Philip G. Altbach, Research Professor and Founding Director, and Hans de Wit, Professor and Director at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College. This article gives us an instead glance at the worldwide debate that is emerging about the role of English and languages in general in higher education. The issue in the MENA region has been de facto settled sometime back, despite resurging questions as to the position of the local language utilisation in the universities. Hence the featured picture above.
WENR would like to congratulate our partners at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) for its upcoming 100th issue of International Higher Education. Enjoy this advance look into the issue with Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit’s article on the increasing global dominance of English-language instruction.
By the mid-twentieth century, English had become the global language of science and scholarship. With the rise of the internet and globalization in the latter years of the century and in the new millennium, this domination has only increased. The top 50 scientific journals are published in English, as are the vast majority of internationally circulated scholarly articles.
The advent of mass student mobility (more than five million students now study outside of their home countries, the majority of whom choose countries where English is spoken) has also increased the attraction of English. An increasingly mobile professoriate, including thousands of postdocs, gravitate to English-speaking universities. In non-English-speaking countries such as Ethiopia, academic programs and even entire universities use English as a language of instruction, or even as the only language of instruction. In Africa, Rwanda moved from French to English as a country and in higher education; and Algeria’s minister of education recently announced a shift from French to English in higher education.
Indeed, most countries now have English-medium universities, branch campuses that use English, or complete graduate programs in English. For example, one can obtain an English-medium Master of Business Administration from more than 30 universities in China. Universities in Russia are offering academic programs in English that target mainly Russian students, who seek such degrees to boost their prospects in local and international job markets. Chinese universities urge their faculty members to publish in prestigious English language journals and offer them handsome financial rewards for doing so—while, at the same time, publishing in Chinese journals yields few benefits. Indeed, the number of journals in English in China is growing exponentially. The same is true in South Africa and other countries. Without question, English will remain the key global scientific language and an important language of instruction for the foreseeable future. Even in these days of nationalism and populism, its role is likely to increase. Countries, institutions, and individuals are seeking to adapt to the impact of global English on academic life worldwide. Yet, at the same time, a worldwide debate is emerging about the role of English and of languages in general in higher education.
Questions Worth Asking
It is worth raising questions concerning the impact of the tide of English. In the broader sense, there is no use in rejecting it; just as globalization is an inexorable force, so is the role of English in higher education.
Language is more than just a means of communication; it is also an aspect of culture. The implications of using English as a key language for higher education in non-English-speaking countries may affect culture and ways of thinking. The French and the Italians, historically protective of their culture, have long resisted the use of English in higher education, but even they have recently yielded. There are now a growing number of English-medium courses in France and Italy, despite intense protests not only by nationalists and advocates of safeguarding their national cultural heritage, but also by academics.
Using English also has implications for research methodology, publication, and academic orientation. This is true for several reasons. The prestigious English-medium journals are edited almost exclusively by academics in English-speaking countries, and these editors rely in large part on reviewers also located in these countries. Even the most internationally minded editors will bring a bias toward the methodologies and academic orientations favored in English-speaking academe, as will most reviewers. Studies show that the journals and articles that are most cited are written in English, disadvantaging academics from non-English-speaking environments in several ways: The academics’ command of the English language will often be imperfect. More important, in general, they will be pressured to conform to the methodological strictures of mainstream English-dominated trends in their disciplines. This may be less consequential in the natural sciences where methodologies may be more universal, but it has considerable salience in the social sciences, where cultural and national realities shape scholarship. And researchers and scholars in all fields may be tempted to orient their research topics toward what will appeal to journal editors and publishers in the dominant English-medium markets.
Another implication, especially for the humanities and social sciences, is that the pressure to publish in English-medium international journals limits opportunities to contribute to the debate in local language media and to contradict fake news. Academics in the Netherlands have argued against this pressure. In International Higher Education No. 88, Winter 2017, Akiyoshi Yonezawa noted that “limited publication in English in these fields is becoming a serious obstacle to the further development of the humanities and social sciences in Japan,” and that “it is unlikely and undesirable that English as an academic language should continue to monopolize fields such as the humanities and social sciences, which are deeply rooted in multilinguistic and multicultural activities and values.”
A consequence of offering English-medium courses and programs in many non-English environments is the poor quality of the instruction offered by many faculty whose command of English may be only rudimentary, or whose ability to teach in the language is limited. This low-quality instruction, often combined with limited English comprehension on the part of many local and non-Anglophone international students, creates an environment where little actual learning is taking place. Additionally, knowledge of and access to current course texts and other materials in English may be limited. In short, offering high-quality programs in English is a complex undertaking that requires a high level of fluency on the part of both faculty and students.
A little-noticed consequence of the rise of global English in universities is the deteriorating status of learning other languages by students in English-speaking countries. Enrollments in “foreign language” courses and programs throughout the English-speaking world have declined, with many students (and faculty) feeling that they can communicate anywhere in the world in English. This trend has also led to declines in courses on world cultures and world civilizations, thus reducing in-depth knowledge of cultures among native English-speaking students. An additional concern is the increasing sophistication of machine translation of academic materials of all kinds, further reducing the perceived need to learn languages other than English.
There is also a consideration about the role of colonial languages in the developing world, particularly in Africa. Local languages are used in public primary and secondary education but, with some exceptions, are not the language of instruction in higher education. The risks of such policies are high and can result in or exacerbate elitism in higher education access, lower quality education and research, lack of alignment with local needs, and the dominance of Western paradigms.
The Debate in the Netherlands
Resistance to the use of English as a language of instruction in the developed world is increasing. In Italy and the Netherlands, academics have gone to court to stop universities from adding more English-taught programs to their course offerings. Arguments vary, from concerns about maintaining the national culture and the quality of education, to claiming that internationalization is a source of revenue that is promoted at the expense of good education for local students. These last two arguments are dominating the current debate in the Netherlands, where there is a general feeling that the spread of English as a language of instruction, with its lack of a strategic approach, has gone too far and become a liability.
The following are among the questions that have been raised:
Why should subject areas such as Dutch literature, history, or law be taught in English?
Are disciplines like psychology taught in English in order to attract international students and compensate for a decline in interest among local students?
Should the substantial contribution that international students make to institutional budgets and to the local and national economy count more than investing in quality education for local students?
Why should local students have to compete with international students for limited student housing?
How does one counteract the declining interest of local students in Dutch language and literature?
The Dutch minister of education, culture, and science along with institutional leaders is caught between the pressure to compete internationally and the imperative of responding to these arguments—as well as those of nationalists in parliament. Finding a compromise is not easy. Other countries, like Denmark and Germany, are having similar debates.
There are no easy solutions to what some are calling “English imperialism.” It is a fundamental reality today that English is the dominant language of science and scholarship, and increasingly of communication, both formal and informal, among students and academics globally. Understanding all the implications of selecting the language of instruction of a program or of an entire institution, including the costs and benefits of that decision, is crucial, and decision makers bear a heavy responsibility.
But, like women elsewhere, they lag when it comes to careers in these fields. As recent research shows, bridging this gap matters not just for women, but for the future of us all. So, how come Arab women are thriving in science and math education? The New York Times tells this story.
Here’s a strange paradox: In the Middle East, where many countries face stark gender inequality, women earn more science and math degrees per capita than their counterparts in the United States and Europe. In fact, up to 57 percent of all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates in Arab countries are women, according to Unesco.
On the other hand, take Qatar, a small country with a population of just 2.8 million. The country’s first university, Qatar University, opened its doors only in 1973, with separate faculties for men and women. But by 2012, there were almost twice as many female students enrolled in the university as there were males.
Bolstered by the country’s fervor for higher education, more women are attending Qatar’s private universities — and more are pursuing traditionally male-dominated career paths, including engineering and science. Qatar Foundation’s 3,000-acre Education City campus, home to eleven K-12 schools and nine leading universities — including branches of Georgetown, Cornell and Texas A&M — standing alongside a science and technology park, global innovation forums, a modern art museum, start-up incubators and more.
Many of these Qatari campuses are already drawing much greater percentages of women in their programs than similar ones in the U.S. At Texas A&M University at Qatar, women account for 51.6 percent of all undergraduate engineers — more than double the U.S. national average of 23.4 percent.“For people who have never been to the Middle East, they may well think women here are somehow oppressed, covered up and kept at a different level,” says Lama Al-Oreibi, reservoir engineer at Shell and former student at Texas A&M University in Qatar. “But engineering and science are professions that are looked upon highly in this part of the world. And I was encouraged by my family to pursue this path.”
In contrast to stubborn stereotypes elsewhere, adds Mashael Al-Sabah, a cybersecurity scientist at Qatar Computing Research Institute inside Education City, Qatari people don’t generally perceive men to be better at science and math.
“THE WOMEN IN ENGINEERING AND SCIENCE HERE OUTNUMBER MEN AND, OFTEN, THEY PERFORM BETTER.”
Up to 57%
of all STEM graduates in Arab countries are women.
This sentiment is echoed by Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist and associate professor at Hashemite University, who is currently writing a paper about this subject, slated for publication later this year. “[Middle Eastern] women’s attraction to STEM studies is something that runs much deeper than the region’s modern history,” she says. “A theme in Islamic culture is that you are respected for your mind. Therefore, if you go into science, this is something respectful, because it celebrates your mind — and this was the same for boys and girls.”
THE WOMEN CHALLENGING STEM’S STATUS QUO IN QATAR
From current students to alumni, here are the stories of some women of Education City who have broken through stereotypes in Qatar to pursue their dreams in STEM.
For 14-year-old Al Shamari, technology “is the solution to everything.” “Take astrophysics, for example. If we have a way to control it, we have a way of sustaining life on Earth without having to go back to traditional ways.”
Now a student at Qatar Academy for Science and Technology, she says she enrolled because the only other STEM school for her age group in Qatar is an all-boy school. “Here, everyone puts gender aside because that doesn’t matter in education. We all know how to work together,” she says. And for the future? “I want to go to MIT. There was a girl who graduated from MIT who figured out the algorithm for the black hole picture. It’s like a 900,000-line algorithm to figure out where to put the pieces, and I’m really impressed by her.”
“I LOVE SCIENCE AND ESPECIALLY ASTROPHYSICS. PEOPLE ALWAYS LOOK TO THE GROUND FOR SOLUTIONS. WHY DON’T WE LOOK UP?”
As a part of her course, Abdalla, a student at Texas A&M University in Qatar, is currently making an innovative type of low-fuel vehicle — from scratch. But even for a pioneering engineer like her, gender expectations have been hard to escape. “We were taking the car from the garage to the lab,” she says, “and this guy shouted at my [male] friend, saying he should help me carry it!”
The 22-year-old, who is studying mechanical engineering, says she likes that engineering opens up many different areas of work. “I feel that there will always be a need for scientists and engineers. As an engineer, you feel like you’ve got some skills that other people may not have — and I like that.” After graduation, Abdalla is set to start a Ph.D. in Virginia, in the U.S.
“ONE OF THE THINGS I REALLY LIKE ABOUT GOING INTO ENGINEERING IS THAT YOU CAN ACTUALLY GO INTO SO MANY OTHER AREAS. I LIKE THAT IT TRAINS YOUR MIND IN A CERTAIN WAY AND I FEEL THERE WILL ALWAYS BE A NEED FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS.”
Al-Oreibi was among the first groups of students to attend Texas A&M University in Qatar. “I wanted to stay in Qatar for university, and Texas A&M was opening here at the time,” she says. “It’s still a male-dominated industry, but in my class there were six girls and five guys, so we had a pretty good head start.”
Now a reservoir engineer at Shell, Al-Oreibi says she’s excited to be a part of the transition toward sustainability in oil and gas. “We have more awareness around our carbon footprint, something that wasn’t as strongly driven when I first joined the industry,” she says. “I’m very proud to be contributing to the global energy supply and doing so in a safe, environmentally friendly manner.”
“WITH SCIENCE, FOR ME, THE SKY’S THE LIMIT. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING WITH IT, AND YOU CAN HAVE AN IMPACT. AT THE END OF THE DAY, I’D LIKE TO THINK THAT WHAT I DO ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS HAS A POSITIVE IMPACT ON MY SOCIETY AND THE HUMAN RACE.”
But for Veronica Bermudez, senior research director for energy at Education City’s Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute, the real issue comes after university, when these highly educated women enter the job force — or rather, don’t. In fact, although Qatar’s female labor-force participation ranks higher than the world average, the proportion of Qatari women in the work force still lags slightly behind that in developed countries. “In the renewable energy sector, for example, the growth expectations in terms of jobs are going to triple in the next 10, 20 years,” says Bermudez. “We really need to engage more females in STEM to be able to address that challenge.”
Despite regional differences in female participation in STEM education, getting more women into science and math jobs remains a challenge across the world. High female participation in STEM education doesn’t necessarily translate into employment. Across OECD countries, 71 percent of male graduates in STEM subjects work as professionals in STEM fields, compared with only 43 percent of female graduates, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
For Arab women in particular, a number of barriers block them from finding employment in their respective STEM fields: Unesco’s “Science Report: Towards 2030” points to everything from low awareness about what a career in STEM entails to a lack of female role models and a family bias against working in mixed-gender environments. A dearth of suitable positions can hold women back, too. “We simply don’t have a market like Silicon Valley,” says Sana Odeh, clinical professor of computer science at New York University in Abu Dhabi, who’s working on a study on Middle Eastern women’s participation in STEM. “There aren’t thousands of jobs that are opened up by these large companies.”
Then, of course, there are the more universal issues, which for Dajani are every bit as important. “The workplace as we know it today was created around 100, 150 years ago by men, for men,” she says.
“THE FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE IS BIOLOGICAL, EVOLUTIONARY — WOMEN HAVE BABIES AND NEED TO NURSE THEM. AND THE MODERN WORKPLACE DOESN’T FIT THIS.”
of the total student body at Texas A&M University in Qatar are women.
Anna Paolini, director of Unesco’s regional office in Doha, agrees. “We see willingness and interest from women to continue working, but once they get married many don’t go back to work, and that’s a loss for the system and for countries as small as Qatar.”
This “loss” that Paolini points to takes a toll on the bottom line, too. A growing body of evidence shows that more diverse organizations enjoy greater creativity, stronger governance, better problem-solving skills — and increased profitability. What’s more, an International Monetary Fund report from this year states that the growth gains from adding more women to the labor force are larger than previously thought — closing the gender gap could increase GDP by an average of 35 percent for much of the developing world.
And nowhere is diversity so valuable as in scientific study itself, according to Andrei Cimpion, associate professor of psychology at New York University, who has conducted studies on gender stereotypes in STEM. “The reality of what scientists do is that they work in teams. They work for socially important goals that help humanity,” he says.
“SCIENCE CAN ACCOMMODATE — AND NEEDS — THESE DIFFERENCES. SCIENCE DOES NOT EXCLUDE NOR DOES IT PREVENT SUCCESS BASED ON PERSONALITY CHARACTERISTICS.”
of female STEM graduates in OECD countries work in STEM fields, vs. 71% of male graduates.
However, for Bermudez, the costs of a lack of diversity in STEM could be even greater than that. “Men and women see things from a different point of view,” she says. “And if we keep this male dominance in STEM, we are skipping 50 percent of human resources around the world. With a diverse group, you have more opportunities to find the right way to solve problems.”
The Middle East is plagued with some of the highest unemployment rates among the up-and-coming generation. One reason behind this could be that most education systems in the region do not link what students learn with the knowledge they actually need in the future.
However, it seems that’s about to change thanks to the efforts of individuals and organizations who are tirelessly working to bridge the gap between learning and earning. This specific issue is at the center of the region’s third annual “No Lost Generation Tech Summit,” which is set to be held in Jordan’s capital Amman on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The two-day event is primarily organized by UNICEF’s regional office for the MENA region and NetHope – an NGO “eager to make a difference in this world through technological innovation.” It is also “supported by the steering committee for youth from the region, and representatives from the International Labor Organization, the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, the Norwegian Refugee Council, UNESCO, UNHCR and World Vision.”
The summit focuses on presenting tech-enabled solutions attemped to link learning and earning among youth from vulnerable communities across the region.
The event’s packed agenda is “almost entirely developed and managed by young people who have all pioneered ways to bridge the gap between young people’s schooling and employment.” (These juniors were selected by involved committees after applying for various roles.)
Speaking to StepFeed, a few of these bright young participants told us more about the ambitious initiative and what it means for youth across the Arab world.
“What makes this summit special is its impact on youth”
Balqees Shahin Al Turk, a 22-year-old Jordanian, has been participating in youth engagement programs and events with UNICEF and other NGOs since 2016. When she learned about this year’s Tech Summit, she immediately applied for a leading role.
“What makes this summit special is its impact on youth, since youth engagement is very high pre, during and post-summit,” Shahin explained.
There are 75 youngsters from across the MENA region working on this summit, she says. The fact that people her age are organizing such an event and have their voices heard among adults is a boost of self-confidence and energy to work harder.
“The rate of unemployment in the MENA region is about 30% although most of the MENA populations is composed of youth,” which Shahin finds disappointing. A main problem, according to her, is the gap between what young people learn and what real work environment requires.
“Young people are graduating with no clue on how to implement what they have learned so its quite important to work on minimizing this gap first by figuring out that there is a problem and second by talking about it and trying to find solutions for this and that’s what the summit is about,” she explained.
“I think the impact on adolescents and youth after the NLG Tech Summit will be wonderful”
For Syrian teens – and those a bit older – it’s not easy to cope with all that’s been lost. “This summit is very important for me as a young person because I have lost a lot of important things like education and my country Syria because of the war,” Saber Al-Khateeb, a 22-year-old Syrian and one of the representatives of youth at the NLG Tech Summit, said.
The summit will bring together “youth, private sector companies, development and humanitarian experts, academic institutions and donors to leverage technology and cross-sector collaboration to connect learning to earning for young people in the region, particularly those affected by the crises in Syria and Iraq,” he explained.
Al-Khateeb remains hopeful when it comes to learning-to-earning solutions, as he believes proper implementation will lead to a decrease in unemployment rates.
NLG’s young participants are here to inspire future generations
Speaking to StepFeed, 24-year-old Palestinian Shahenaz Monia, another young participant in the summit, said the gap between learning and earning should be reduced before unemployment rates skyrocket.
“Never underestimate the power of any opportunities to get more experience,” as these, in her belief, will allow anyone to enhance and hone their skills.
The two-day event will be packed with people from different backgrounds, and with divergent experiences and success stories, which should be interesting and educational to young people.
“Passing through a hard and long way doesn’t mean you are wrong,” Monia said. “If you believe in something work hard to make it true. It’s okay to feel nervous, it only means you are stretching out of your comfort zone,” she continued.
Students from less advantaged backgrounds are grossly underrepresented in Britain’s top universities. This underrepresentation of certain groups is particularly pronounced in highly competitive courses such as medicine. In England, for example, 80% of medical students come from just 20% of the country’s secondary schools. This leads to a profession dominated by certain demographic groups. So, should Universities lower entry grades for disadvantaged Students?
This has left the NHS heavily reliant on the recruitment of overseas doctors to fill such posts. But such staff are frequently recruited from low and middle income countries that can ill afford to lose their own homegrown doctors.
It has been highlighted by Julian Simpson, who has written on and researched the subject, that this “shortage” of doctors willing to work in certain areas stems, fundamentally, from a “lack of alignment between the aims and needs of the NHS and the social and professional aspirations of doctors trained in British medical schools”.
Recent research shows that, once in university, students from England’s most poorly performing secondary schools generally do as well academically as their peers from England’s highest performing schools. Even if they achieved somewhat lower A-level grades. Similar findings from higher education in general have been reported.
This lends evidence to a fact that seems intuitive. That is, the grades a pupil achieves at A-level (or equivalent) are, on average, at least partly dependent on the school they attend. So, in order to make university admissions fairer, should students who attend schools where pupils generally leave with lower grades, be offered places based on reduced A-level achievement – known as “grade discounting”?
Some universities – such as Birmingham, Southampton and King’s College London – have already trialled such A-Level “grade discounting” for medical school place offers for applicants from less advantaged backgrounds. The early evidence from such schemes is that the differences in academic outcomes between students entering with reduced A-level requirements and mainstream entrants are minimal, at most.
At present, it is unclear whether any meaningful differences would exist between qualified doctors who entered medical school via conventional policies or those who had gained admittance via such schemes. After all, people just want to be treated by safe, competent and compassionate practitioners.
Like for like?
But rolling out such an approach on a university wide scale, wouldn’t be a straightforward matter. For a start, there is the issue of how to effectively “contextualise” A-level (or equivalent) achievements. In this way, clear information about how to compare secondary schools would have to be available to university selectors – and such information currently is not always easy to come by. Likewise, for overseas applicants, making comparisons between institutions would be difficult, if not impossible.
Then there is the issue that some pupils from less advantaged backgrounds may not even consider applying for more prestigious or competitive courses at university. So such A-level grade discounting would have to be part of a package of measures to increase universities’ outreach among schools and the dissemination of information to teachers and careers advisers.
Such policies would also be clearly vulnerable to “gaming” from well-resourced families. It is easy to imagine, for example, how some advantaged pupils may be independently schooled until the last couple of years of their education, and for them then to be moved to state schools to take advantage of such admissions policies.
In the US, “affirmative action” policies have been used to encourage ethnic diversity within some universities. Such policies have been weighed and tested through the court system. The resulting verdicts make it clear that such approaches to widening participation cannot rest solely on the issue of “moral equality”. Rather, the case has to be made based on the educational advantages of a more diverse population of students.
The most recent US Supreme Court verdict also stressed that any “positive discrimination” in favour of underrepresented groups should also be proportionate and regularly reviewed. This implies that “grade discounting”, involving modest reductions in the A-level requirement for entry to certain courses for certain disadvantaged applicants, if applied with clear objectives and regularly reviewed, is likely to withstand legal challenge, at least in the US.
So while grade discounting is unlikely to cure all the lack of diversity on the most competitive university courses, it may well play a useful role as part of a package of measures designed to widen access to certain professions in the UK.
Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media posted this article written by Sindhu Hariharan about Egypt’s young entrepreneurs moving into new food production systems thus impacting the food security concerns of not only the country but even the region if this particular initiative were to be nurtured and spread around.
Entrepreneurship is often considered to be a means to personal wealth creation, but then again, every once in a while, you also come across business propositions that have the potential to be considered national assets.
Consider Egypt as an example. While it has been historically hailed as the “gift of the Nile,” the country is today facing a severe water crisis, even as it tackles a rising population. According to a Guardian analysis back in 2015, Egypt is said to be “below the United Nations’ (UN) water poverty threshold,” with the UN predicting that by 2025, the country may approach a state of “absolute water crisis.” Now, if all this is too drastic and negative for you to handle, here’s a ray of hope. With a strong conviction that Egypt is in dire need of modern forms of agriculture that help in water conservation, food security, and production of clean healthy food, entrepreneur Faris Farrag decided to ease the pressure on the country’s already stressed natural resources by setting up his enterprise, Bustan Aquaponics.
In simple terms, aquaponics is a farming methodology combining the systems of producing aquatic creatures (aquaculture), and plants without soil (hydroponics). In aquaponics, plants are fed the aquatic animals’ waste, and in turn, the plants clean the water that goes back to the fish. Additionally, microbial organisms also provide nutrition for the plants- effectively ensuring a sustainable, quality and healthy crop production. While it may sound like an experimental concept, its potential in terms of commercial use cannot be understated. “It is my strong belief that there is massive potential for the expansion of aquaponics, both regionally and in other locations that have issues with food security and water,” Farrag says. “Many island nations (Puerto Rico as a good example) have a natural need for these types of systems as one of many different approaches to reduce their dependence on imported food without doing significant damage to the very finite resource of clean water.”
Having launched officially in 2014 (although it had already been operating since late 2011 as a pilot), Bustan, which currently only serves Egypt market, is exploring various avenues of partnerships and private equity funding for expansion into other export markets. Farrag claims that Bustan is today the largest bayleaf salad producer in Egypt, and the company’s farm, which is located just outside Cairo, grows a number of other products on a seasonal basis- basil during the summer, kale, and other leafy greens during the cooler winter months, herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and mint, among other kinds of produce.
With sales channels that are both B2B and B2C in nature, Bustan counts many of the top gourmet restaurants and supermarkets in the country as customers, owing to its reputation in the market. “Our major customer groups are high quality restaurants and supermarkets, while also expanding in the home fruit and vegetable package delivery business, through a partnership with another high-quality producer,” says Farrag. While Cairo brings in most of the revenue for Bustan, the company’s products, which are pesticide free and grown using 90% less water than traditional farming practices, are also available in Alexandria, Hurghada, and the North Coast of Egypt through their retail partners.
As an MBA from UK’s Warwick University, having worked in investment banking, private banking, and having also been involved in two architecture and design start-ups, Farrag’s entrepreneurial move to Bustan was largely fuelled by a strong passion to feed Egypt’s growing population sustainably. Besides being an area that’s quite alien to his background, Bustan is also part of a highly capital intensive and niche industry, which is often not the easiest starting point for an entrepreneur. Farrag agrees with this notion, and lists a few key hurdles that he had to cross (and still faces) in running the venture. “Some of the key challenges we face are very tight financial management, cost control, logistics management, employee training and retention, and staying current with new technologies that can help reduce costs and/or increase productivity,” he says. But it’s not just his business’ scale that keeps Farrag awake at night.
The agri-entrepreneur is also keen to take the concept of a healthier, qualitative, and more sustainable food production (which is how he believes food consumption everywhere should be) to a wider audience. For this purpose, Bustan also started providing aquaponic farming consulting services throughout the Middle East. “We specialize in desert farming solutions to help build environmentally sustainable communities and work closely with non-profit organizations and culinary institutions to strengthen our local food movement. We have also made a significant push into the sustainable urban development market with a new partnership that is currently in the works,” says Farrag.
Today, there is quite a bit of action that MENA’s agricultural sector is seeing with both the government and entrepreneurs working towards identifying new systems to impact the food security concerns of the region. While it would be a tough ask for the region to produce majority of its food needs due to the environment and resource constraints, backing innovation in agriculture is one way to help mitigate vulnerability to a large extent. However, the difference between the entrepreneurial action in this sector relative to others, is clearly the lack of buzz around it, and consequently, this affects the investor interest that it attracts compared to tech counterparts. But Farrag isn’t bogged down with this less-glamorous state of agri-innovation. “The tech-focused interest of investors is inevitable, whether regionally or globally,” he says. “Many of these investors are looking for the next big thing at the expense of taking a longer-term view of the benefits that agriculture investments provide, both financially and socially. Eventually, our time will come. Having said that, there has been a significant increase in interest in our sector although usually in traditional agricultural investment.”
Of course, the entrepreneur has come to this opinion after quite a bit of experience of his own. While currently self-funded -both through an initial investment and thereafter through retained earnings- Bustan has been on the lookout for external investment, he says. Speaking about how fundraising has been treating him, he says, “Often investors are very interested in the idea of aquaponics, but [they] have a limited understanding of the complexity and need for intimate knowledge of the design, build, and operate parts of the business. These are our core competencies that puts us ahead of many other startups, as we have been in the business for some time now, and are constantly updating our designs and operating know-how.”
A scene from the Bustan Aquaponics farm. Source: Bustan Aquaponics.
As for specific responses from investors he’s pitched to, Farrag says they vary from “deep interest, to a fear of the unknown. We constantly stress that at this stage we are innovative but not experimental as we have operated the business for some time now, and built a significant brand that is trusted and demanded by our clients.” And Farrag is right when he says that there are just few direct competitors to Bustan’s offerings, as the growth of aquaponics, with the current state of things, tends to be centered around local markets rather than exports.
At this point, I ask him if his almost impulsive decision to start Bustan has served him well. “Though one can say that all startups are challenging regardless of geographic location, some of the particular challenges we have faced in Egypt have been [in] finding competent and professional staff, and a very unstable market,” he replies, adding that the company has managed to convert these challenges to opportunities over the years. Having a small and efficient team has been a great advantage to Bustan, he says. “Our team is relatively small in view of our production. We are a total of 15-18 employees across all aspects of the business. The strength of a small team is our ability to move and react quickly to changing market conditions.” With a wealth of professional experience on his side, I reckon his words of advice for the region’s aspiring entrepreneurs may be a useful one to emulate: “Believe, and be passionate about what you are doing, don’t take no for an answer, and work harder than you’ve ever worked before.”
Originally posted on Where in the world is Riccardo?: A panoramic photograph of “Algiers the White” (Alger la Blanche) with the city’s glistening buildings rising from the sea, viewed from the overlook at Victory Park, home of the towering Martyr’s Memorial, a dominant landmark constructed in 1982 to mark the 20th anniversary of Algeria’s independence…
Originally posted on Walk Memory Lane: Couscous (North Africa) In the North African nations of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, people understand couscous better than most. The dish originated here, and in 2020, UNESCO recognized not only the dish itself, but also the knowledge associated with how couscous is produced. Couscous is a cereal, thus…
Originally posted on Bean's Books and Beyond: Apparently this was a top seller throughout Covid, but I didn’t read it then or in high school or college. Glad I finally got to it and glad Project Lit book club At SJHS chose it for its first book this year. Here’s my review on Insta:…
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