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Hunza apricots: reaching great heights

Fruit laden tree with mountain behind (Moutain Fruits Company)
Fruit laden tree with mountain behind
Moutain Fruits Company

Remote and grown on precarious slopes, surrounded by high peaks - the chances of this tree crop reaching an export market a continent away may seem as remote as the mountain farms they come from. Yet the succulent, deep orange, dried apricots from the Hunza valley in northwest Pakistan have become highly respected by consumers many thousands of miles from the bazaars where they were traditionally traded. "The apricots are precious wealth for the people of this area", says Sher Ghazi, Director of Mountain Fruits Company (MFC), the thriving business which advises farmers on production and buys, grades and exports the fruits. "Production is 6-10,000 tonnes in the northern area. It's a huge amount." Unfortunately, due to seasonal gluts in production, most of the apricots - along with other tree crops such as apples, cherries, mulberries - is wasted. A significant proportion rots before it is consumed or marketed. However, the rising international popularity of dried fruits in the 1990's offered a new, and very lucrative, market to the tree croppers of Pakistan provided, that is, they could compete with much larger-scale apricot orchards of Turkey and the USA.

Apricots have long been an important crop in these valleys and an essential source of income. Growing between 1,800-3,200 metres above sea level, below peaks that reach 8,000 metres high, the orchards of apricots, intercropped with alfalfa and forest trees, are irrigated by spring water or glacial melt waters brought in by complex systems of canals over great distances to the carefully terraced slopes. Rich in minerals and vitamins, for many centuries the sun-dried fruit has been renowned regionally for its taste. The long-living Hunza people attribute their longevity and many health-giving properties to their apricots.

Adding value - and nothing more

Altitude, long summer days and soil type give these fruits their unique, intense flavour. Traditionally, farmers laid the apricots on rooftops or mats to dry in the mountain air. With the support of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) Adam Brett, an international fruit-drying specialist and trader with UK-based Tropical Wholefoods, was brought in to train MFC staff and the farmers in minimising microbiological contamination of the crop at every stage from farm to the MFC packhouse in the regional town of Gilgit. "I realise that farmers want to feel they are progressing and may wish to invest in electric driers," explains Brett, "but in these valleys power supply is intermittent and expensive."

As an effective alternative, Tropical Wholefoods (which imports dried banana, pineapple and mango from Uganda and Burkina Faso and dried mushrooms from India, Colombia and Zambia) has introduced advanced solar driers to farmers that, if well-managed, dry consistently to an international marketable standard, with greatly improved stability and food-safety compared with traditional drying techniques. "It is often assumed that contamination is most likely to occur on farm", says Brett, "when in fact microbiological tests showed apricots were most at risk during later handling in the inadequate packhouse." To reach the standards, and maintain consistency in quality and safety required by international buyers, it was evident that a new factory - with washable walls, sealable floors and safe storage- was required.

Sorting fresh apricots (Moutain Fruits Company)
Sorting fresh apricots
Moutain Fruits Company

In 2003 a purpose-built 1,000 square metre factory and warehouse was constructed. Now, it takes delivery of fruit from as many as 1,500 farmers who belong to over a hundred village men or women's organisations trained in procedures to produce the highest quality dried produce. Inside the factory, teams of professional staff - following internationally-recognised food safety protocols - sort, wash, dry, grade and pack the fruits for the long journey out of the valley to the Karakorum Highway for the six day journey to Islamabad and on to the seaport of Karachi.

Up the slope from poverty

Sales have steadily grown. "Now we sell 80 tonnes a year to Europe and we are exploring other markets too," says Ghazi. "But we do not neglect the local market. We never wanted to be totally reliant on the export market and we are trying to market more within Pakistan." Diversification into marketing other tree crops - dried mulberries, apples and pine nuts, almonds, walnuts and the sweet kernels of the apricots - is making better use of the factory and providing additional income to the growers.

Mountain farmers need all the income they can get. They live and farm in extremely harsh conditions. Summer temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius while in the bitter winters (often below minus ten degrees) heavy snowfalls can cut communities off for days at a time. MFC provides training to make increased production possible with farmers' limited resources - land, water and inputs. Farmers, like Salman Ali, for whom apricots provide up to 20 per cent of household income. He is glad of the success of MFC as it "holds the hand of the poor. If Mountain Fruits were not buying apricots directly from us then people from the bazaar would play with the prices and we would probably get half of what we get now."

Date published: September 2006

 

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