Olive Business Roots Young Farmers in Drying Rural Morocco

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Standing amid rows of healthy fava bean plants, El Badaoui Abdelatif explains how his team of young technicians has helped farmers in rural Sidi Badhaj, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, grow more olives - and earn more money - despite a drying climate.

By Megan Rowling

SIDI BADHAJ, Morocco, Nov 24  – Standing amid rows of healthy fava bean plants, El Badaoui Abdelatif explains how his team of young technicians has helped farmers in rural Sidi Badhaj, at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, grow more olives – and earn more money – despite a drying climate.

Pruning, the use of electronic equipment and more precise irrigation have increased yields from 20 kg (44 lb) per tree to 100 kg or more. And the quality of the oil from the olives has improved because farmers take them for pressing within 24 hours of harvest rather than storing them for a month or two, as in the past.

But a boost to the income of local farmers – 90 percent of whom have adopted the new techniques – isn’t the only benefit.

The work performed by Abdelatif’s team of seven men and three women, replicated in other municipalities of Al Haouz province, south of the city of Marrakesh, means fewer young people are migrating to urban areas in search of work.

“I thought about leaving for the city too,” said the 30-year-old. “But with all the training and equipment we have received, the situation is more stable for young people here, our quality of life is better, and I don’t think about going anymore.”

The services of his team – which advises on tree health, helps with the harvest, and lends out modern equipment such as battery-powered pruning shears and vibrating tree rakes to pick olives – are in high demand among local farmers, he added.

Khalid Batrah, 42, is one of the farmers participating in the project to develop agricultural value chains, backed by the Moroccan government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a U.N. agency that supports rural people.

Thanks to a drip irrigation system, which delivers water directly to the plants’ roots, Batrah has branched out into melon, pea and bean production on his 10-hectare (24.7-acre) olive farm, roughly tripling his revenues.

Putting in drip irrigation – with the support of a government subsidy – improved his harvests in only a year, he said. He now employs three permanent workers and as many as 100 people during the olive harvest.

He has recently applied to a commercial bank for credit to install solar panels to power a water pump.

All these efforts, taking place across some 9,600 farms in the province, are aimed at helping farmers in Morocco’s arid regions improve their olive, apple and mutton production, and cope better with climate change.

Models forecast a decrease in annual rainfall of between 15 and 52 percent in the North African country as temperatures rise this century, according to IFAD.

But Batrah believes his farm in Sidi Badhaj is suffering less than others from the decline in rainfall already being felt in the area.

“We now have a micro-climate here,” he said. “It is more gentle, thanks to the greenery we have created.”

Chakib Nemmaoui, IFAD’s Morocco programme officer, said the five-year value-chain project, which began in 2013, has enabled farmers to increase yields, commercialise their crops and access markets, while adapting to climate change.

“They have their own approach to adaptation, but we try to develop and improve the way they are doing it,” he said.

STOPPING EROSION

Higher up in the Atlas Mountains, another aim of the project is to protect the steep slopes from erosion, which deposits sediment in rivers, silting up the North African country’s reservoirs and shrinking water availability.

In the rural community of Amghras, nearly 1,000 metres (3,281 ft) above sea level, the gullies and ravines carved into the mountainside show how easily the red earth can be washed away.

But here some 435 hectares of previously bare slopes have been planted with olive trees to try and curb the problem.

The trees stabilise the soil, suck planet-warming carbon dioxide from the air and provide a cash crop for local people, according to IFAD technical expert Jacopo Monzini.

“Climate problems come from bad management of natural resources,” he said, noting that deforestation of mountain slopes worsens erosion. “So we are investing to re-establish key ecosystems.”

Ait Bella Omar, president of the Amghras civic forum, said local people used to survive only from rearing sheep and cattle before the mountain terraces were planted with olive trees. Now they have an extra source of income, he said – though profits took a hit last year when it was drier than usual.

“Thirty years ago, we had enough rain and it was more evenly distributed,” he said. “The soil had more vegetation cover and we didn’t have these ravines.”

Today, the olive trees help prevent rainwater running straight off the land into the river below, a key both to preventing erosion and preserving water in an area with no form of irrigation.

Tahra Ait Ben Azzou, a 60-year-old livestock keeper and local women’s co-operative member, said replanting the slopes and modernising olive-oil production had helped stem the exodus of young people looking for jobs in cities.

“Now they can stay behind and work on the land,” she said, as her three sons have done.

SCHOOL BOOKS

A little further along the mountain road, olives from the slopes of Amghras are crushed into a prize-winning oil, which has a fiery kick.

At the pristine processing plant of the Aguersouak co-operative, uniting 70 olive growers, a modern pressing machine, funded by IFAD, produces between 140 and 200 litres of oil per day.

The growers keep some for themselves, and sell the rest in Marrakesh, 70 kilometres to the north, and beyond.

The press, which they received in 2012 along with a laboratory and training, has helped the co-operative produce good-quality oil that has received certification and sells for a higher price, said its president. The by-products of the process are used for animal feed, fertiliser and fuel.

Local women also have their own olive pressing equipment, as well as a honey business and livestock.

“Our situation has improved a lot compared with a few years ago,” said Najia Ghouat of the 26-strong Zawia women’s co-operative. “We can be independent of our husbands, and we also contribute to household expenses.”

When Fatima Idhousseine’s 11-year-old daughter needs a school book, she can now ask her mother to buy it, said the co-operative member proudly.

“This co-operative has opened our eyes to a new world of possibilities for us and for our children,” Idhousseine said. She now hopes her daughter will go to university.

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