- Life Style
Menar Meebed’s company, Minnie’s Dried Fruits and Vegetables, arose out of little more than an attempt to find healthy snacks for her grandchildren.
“My grandchildren used to eat a lot of junk, and I’m not a junk food person, so I wanted to offer them something nutritious, and dried fruits in Egypt is limited to the typical variety of Ramadan food, so I started to dry apples and bananas at home,” Meebed said.
What began as snack time in Meebed’s kitchen has grown to become a thriving business utilizing solar drying technology and local produce, and empowering women in rural areas of Egypt.
“I thought to myself, ‘Let’s take this a step further.’ I was looking to do something that I liked that would also be a project to help an area in Dahshur, where I have land,” said Meebed.
Started in 2010, Minnie’s now produces low- to no-pesticide, all-natural dried fruit from a farm in Dahshur. Almost all of the fruit is locally grown and seasonal.
Egypt is no stranger to dried foods: Ramadan is known for its dried dates, apricots and figs, while women in rural areas often dry molokheya and okra to have on hand out of season.
When Meebed approached women in the area surrounding her land about working to make dried fruit, she received a tepid response.
“I had asked before if they wanted to learn a skill — crocheting, basket-weaving or macrame — but nothing had interested them,” she said, adding that when she approached them about drying fruit, only one woman agreed to help.
In preparation, Meebed traveled to India and Germany to learn about solar drying on a larger scale. The system, developed in Germany, involves covered drying racks and air ducts that convey heated air from the solar panel collector through the covered tunnel. The process significantly cuts the drying time and helps preserve almost all of the fruit’s nutrients, Meebed said.
“Because the product is covered and not simply laid out on the ground in the sun, they aren’t exposed to the elements or affected by insects,” she said.
Traditionally, Meebed said, fruits and vegetables are laid out on mats on the ground and take three or four days to dry. With the solar tunnel, it typically takes 24 hours.
“The way we dry our products is green. We don’t rely on pesticides whatsoever, and the waste from our work is composted, so that in itself is important for Egypt,” said Meebed.
The project dries about 300 kilograms of fresh fruits and vegetables a week. Depending on what’s in season, Minnie’s offers apples, kiwis, cherries, mangoes and banana slices, as well as tomatoes, eggplants and other vegetables.
“There is also an education component to the project, where women who work with me are taught about health and how to prepare food hygienically and store it properly when it’s done,” she added.
The produce is sourced from Meebed’s land and surrounding farms, where she can oversee the growing and harvesting.
“Because we don’t use pesticides and preservatives, or coloring, it leads to healthy food products from plants grown in Egypt,” she said. “And we’re helping the economy in our own small way.”
The products are sold online. While they are sold almost exclusively in Egypt, with some distribution in Dubai, Meebed hopes to eventually take Minnie’s international. She said she’s already been contacted by people abroad asking to purchase her products.
But first she wants to see her orange slices and mango treats sold in Egyptian schools.
“Kiosks sell mostly junk food. I’d really like to penetrate the school market so children have access to a healthy snack and an alternative to the junk they are always buying.”
Education, Meebed said, is key.
“Dried fruit is a product that’s really only known by people who’ve traveled abroad, Egyptians know about dried apricots, but it’s time to expand their knowledge,” she said.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.