Using the power of the sun to dry fruit has resulted in a dramatic increase in the value of apricots for growers in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, boosting the incomes of poor families and inspiring a new generation of agribusiness entrepreneurs.
An area of outstanding natural beauty, Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region is also endowed with fruit orchards that have sustained the local economy for generations. The power of the sun is now being harnessed in an ADB-funded project that introduced solar drier plants to dry the fruit. The new technology led to a three-fold increase in the value of dried apricots, boosting the incomes of poor families and inspiring a new generation of agribusiness entrepreneurs.
Drying fruit the old way
Over 80 percent of people in mountainous Gilgit-Baltistan eke out a living cultivating small terraced fields. The tiny plots of land nestled between the hills and the short growing season mean most people have to rely on fruit trees to make a living. The pristine mountain environment, and fertile soil lead to highly nutritious and tasty fruits including apples, peach, cherries, almonds, walnut and apricot etc. Farmers in Gilgit-Baltistan produce over 100,000 metric tons of fresh apricots per year.
To allow continued sales after the harvest, traditionally fruit from the region is dried to preserve it. Different techniques are used including spreading the fruit out on rooftops, rocks and on exposed ground. But these traditional methods mean a high percentage goes to waste due to contamination, bad weather or consumption by birds or animals. Low market prices reflect the poor quality of the fruit. Growers knew they could get better prices if they could get support to modernize the fruit drying process.
Turning agriculture into agribusiness
The Agribusiness Support Fund (ASF) is a not-for-profit company established by Pakistan’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture in 2006, under the broader ADB-supported Agribusiness Development and Diversification Project.
The ASF is helping to diversify and develop the agribusiness sector across Pakistan. In Gilgit-Baltistan, ASF partnered with Agha Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) to help small-scale farmers to add value to their products. The two organizations now work with 650 farmers on improving apricot processing, mainly by providing training and grant support to set up apricot solar drying tunnels.
The drying plants are mostly built with local stone and mud bricks, with AKRSP helping the farmer design the facility's wooden panels, glass windows, trays and ventilation system. These two-story plants are built mainly on rooftops and inside walled fruit orchards with the upper drying floor facing the sun like a greenhouse, and the ground floor used for storage and packaging.
“What we have done under the apricot project is to improve the look, increase the shelf-life, reduce losses and improve access to the market. As a result, high quality apricots from local farmers are now being sold in markets as far as Japan, Germany, UK, and USA.”
- Jaffar Ali, AKRSP’s Enterprise Development Officer in Baltistan
The results have been startling. “The improvement we saw in quality, look and feel of dried apricot when we started using the facility in 2010 was amazing. It sharply increased demand for dried apricot in the market,” said farmer Naseema Kosar, pointing to the solar drying facility made of mud bricks on the roof of her house in Shigar Valley, in the Skardu district of Gilgit-Baltistan. She started building the solar drier plant in 2009 with an ASF grant of around $1,300 for materials.
“What we have done under the apricot project is to improve the look, increase the shelf-life, reduce losses and improve access to the market. As a result, high quality apricots from local farmers are now being sold in markets as far as Japan, Germany, UK, and USA,” said Jaffar Ali, AKRSP’s Enterprise Development Officer in Baltistan.
Khadim Hussain, 34, lives with his extended family in a village called Saling opposite the picturesque regional town of Khaplu. In 2009 he and his 65-year-old father haji Mushtaq built the village’s first solar fruit dryer which proved a huge success. He had soon increased productivity and began selling his premium apricots to Kuwait and United Arab Emirates.
“Thanks to the training provided by AKRSP we started producing apricot candy and apricot jams which became very popular especially among tourists visiting our village,” Khadim said. The increase in income from apricot sales also encouraged his brothers to get involved in the family business instead of seasonal manual labor. A restaurant, fish farm, a campsite and an antiques shop have now been added to their business.
Fruits of labor
The project has had other positive impacts, especially for women. “The new way of drying apricots has allowed me to dedicate more time to other work including looking after my two children. We use to worry a lot about cattle and birds eating the apricots that I put out for drying. We also battled with rain and windstorms, that is no more,” Naseema said.
Naseema added that the project is really helping women. She leads an all-female community-based farmers’ group that provides technical and managerial assistance to improve lives of poor village women through enterprise development and micro-finance.
Some successful agribusiness entrepreneurs in Gilgit-Baltistan are building on their achievements in order to add even more value to the fruit they produce. A number are investing in new machinery to improve grading and packaging techniques, while others are starting small marketing companies to develop branding and link up with wholesalers across Pakistan and the Middle East. A small production innovation has certainly borne fruit for many farmers in this mountainous corner of Pakistan.Stay up to date Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest issues, news, events, jobs and data in your e-mail inbox.