May 9, 2011

Swat’s fruits of labour

The Malakand division promises a good yield of fruits and vegetables if a little attention is paid to the area

By Tahir Ali Khan

Swat produces vegetables and fruits of good quality but farmers in the area have not benefited from good quality of the produce for lack of finances, expertise, and marketing techniques. According to the available data, the area accounts for 34 percent of plums, 95 percent of walnuts, and 82 percent of provincial apple yield. It also accounts for 64 and over 50 percent of the provincial production of vegetables and fruit respectively.

Agriculture and horticulture in the area suffer from problems such as low per-acre yield, outdated farming techniques, non-availability and costliness of inputs, etc, to name a few. Years of militancy and last year’s floods have almost destroyed entirely destroyed crop pattern and produce. To improve the situation, it requires short, medium, and long-term strategies.

Among other things, farmers must be provided expert advice and financial support to develop the quality of indigenous fruit and vegetable variety. They also need to be helped in finding out new markets for their products by developing liaison between them and local and/multinational companies.

Improved quality, standard packaging, value addition and good marketing are prerequisites for increasing the incomes of farmers and attracting more and more people to farming which is threatened by the expanding real estate business.

The problem of law and order bars multinational and national companies to invest in new research and development initiatives, resulting in huge gaps and losses in the sector. All these issues need to be addressed. Farmers are usually too ignorant and poor to adopt new technologies but once their utility is established, they run after it the next year themselves.

Apples from Swat are being exported these days. This was made possible by a project which motivated apple-growers and marketers to shift to attractive paper-packaging instead of wooden ones. When farmers are introduced to a technology, they usually adopt these to their advantage.

The provincial reconstruction, rehabilitation and settlement authority (PaRRSA), the body responsible for reconstruction and rehabilitation in Malakand division, is undertaking various initiatives to improve horticulture production and marketing linkages between farmers and local and foreign buyers. These are likely to benefit them if pursued diligently in future.

When asked how PaRRSA is addressing the issues, Shakil Qadir Khan, director general of Provincial Disaster Management Authority and PaRRSA, tells The News on Sunday (TNS) they want to improve expertise and marketing and hoped that the problem of shortage of finances would be solved by tackling these issues, “We have talked to a Pakistan-based multinational company which is importing potatoes from the US for its potato by-products. We asked them to try the Kalam potatoes and they, after testing them, have okayed it,” he says, adding, “Last year, the company made potatoes purchase agreements of 350 tons with Swat farmers. It also provided necessary guidance and support to further improve the quality of production. Unfortunately, due to devastating floods and losses to potato crop and roads, the company could lift only 35 tons of the crop and that also through helicopters. The company will be able to save huge money spent on import of potato while the farmers would get handsome returns for their crop.”

According to the official, “Another $12m package for agriculture is to be launched soon in the area, we have asked various companies if they would like to buy Swat apples, peaches, and apricots. If they agree, they are welcome. If they say it is not according to their standard, then we would request them to come and help the local farmers as to how the gap between the quality of fruit needed and produced locally can be bridged.”

Norway has also expressed its desire to purchase local food products but, for that, the local fruit will need ISO certification. Citing another project, Khan says Swat produced approximately 60 tons of trout fish from its 22 farms, which was mostly consumed locally, but floods destroyed most of these farms.

PaRRSA is not only giving financial assistance to repair these farms and start the business under a USAID project of $1.2mn, it is also contacting big food-chain restaurants both in and outside the country to improve marketing.

The trout fish quickly decomposes when taken out from cool water. Luckily, there is a small injection, which when injected, prevents the fish from decomposing for two days. Now the fish can be transported to farthest areas, even abroad without fear of decomposition and loss of money. Once the efficacy and worth of these injections is proved there would be many fish farms in Swat the next year, hopes the official.

Who would give money for the injections and its related services? PaRRSA would arrange for these injections and provide the information and technical and financial support to fish farmers. Later, they would come to know where to get the technology from and how to use it.

Under the Italian funded Rs800m early recovery of agriculture and livelihood program (ERALP), different inputs and grant have been provided to farmers, according to PaRRSA officials. Thirty three percent funds of another $21m foreign-funded project are also being spent for free provision of inputs and rehabilitation of water channels.

The per acre yield (PAY) of maize in Swat has reached up to 70 maunds (3500kg) against the national average of 57 maunds (2859kg) under the ERALP. In Kabal, where maize production was not allowed by authorities for security reasons, pea and pulses seeds were provided.

Under ERALP, following the model of Akhuwwat Bank Punjab, 25 persons were trained, guided and given Rs30000 to start poultry businesses. The cycle has been completed twice and the third phase would also start soon wherein the money returned by the previous borrowers would be distributed in other 25 persons. The process is being carried out on a small scale for shortage of resources.

Besides, the approval of the USAID-funded Khushhal Kale project of $10mn will also help revive the agriculture sector. Another post flood livelihood recovery project of $1.1mn will support 15,000 households in the honey and some other sectors, according to PaRRSA officials. The institution has also prepared over 20 concept papers in other economic growth areas for Malakand.

“We have prioritised our objectives. Things are slowly but definitely moving in the right direction. We are hopeful that in the next two to three years, these measures would bear substantial gains to farmers in the impoverished region. You will see that several national and multinational companies are directly purchasing fruit and vegetable from the region to the enormous advantages of farmers. The federal and provincial governments as well as the international community are making efforts to revive agriculture and other sectors in the region. However the process will continue for a long time to come,” Khan argues. The agriculture sector has suffered losses of Rs57.4bn, mostly in the Malakand division.

Agriculture and horticulture are means of livelihood for inhabitants of the region but they have not been given enough attention and resources thus far. International donors have pledged Rs15.2bn for the province-wide work-plans of Rs34bn, but there have been no commitments for livestock, irrigation, forestry, governance, energy and mineral sectors.

The area is beset with acute internal and external problems that need to be addressed. Security budget, joblessness and poverty are on the rise. The issues of illiteracy and communication problems are also more acute than anywhere else. It requires huge funds but the international donors usually prefer in-kind support than giving budgetary support.

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