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Growing for a greener future: sustainable agriculture brews in Pakistan

Despite a diverse range of produce grows in our country, the agriculture industry is hampered by a host of challenges

By Nabil Tahir |
Design: Mohsin Alam
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PUBLISHED April 09, 2023

The agriculture sector in Pakistan remains the backbone of the country's economy, with the majority of the population directly or indirectly dependent on it. Agriculture contributes around 24 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs half of the country's labour force. The agriculture sector plays a critical role in providing sustenance to both rural and urban populations.

Pakistan produces a diverse range of agricultural products, including rice, wheat, cotton, fruits, and vegetables, which are exported to various countries worldwide, providing a significant source of foreign exchange earnings. However, the sector faces numerous challenges, including water scarcity, climate change, soil degradation, lack of research and development, poor supply chain management, and a shortage of financing.

Despite these challenges, sustainable agricultural business enterprises have emerged as promising solutions, promoting social, economic, and environmental sustainability. With the agriculture sector's significance to Pakistan's economy and the challenges it faces, it is essential to explore the role of sustainable agriculture in addressing these challenges and promoting the sector's growth.

Sustainable agriculture is a method of farming that aims to produce food and other agricultural products while minimising the negative impact on the environment, improving the economic viability of farming, and enhancing social equity. In Pakistan, sustainable agriculture business enterprises have started to gain traction, offering innovative solutions to the country's agricultural challenges.

Although this is a national issue and needs attention by government, some private companies are stepping into this grossly ignored sector to solve the most critical problems. One such company is the Pakistan-based conglomerate Descon, which has broadened its scope to include sustainable agri business ventures that address Pakistan's prevailing food security concerns. With expertise in engineering, power, and chemical sectors, Descon has embarked on investing in ventures to promote innovation and advancements in the agriculture sector.

The company has been taking various steps to improve the quality of agriculture and help farmers try new methods and technology for increased yields and better crop nutrition. Following that, the company has already invested in a few existing export-oriented companies and aims to be a significant player in the agri sector over the next ten years.

In March 2022, Descon acquired shareholding in two agribusinesses: Vital Agri Nutrients, a research and development-driven company engaged in the production of speciality fertilisers, micronutrients, and soil amendments, and Vital Green, a company primarily engaged in contract farming and facilitating access to quality inputs, credit, extension services, and related advisory services.

Descon Vice Chairman Faisal Dawood believes that the agriculture sector is an industry with untapped potential for growth and innovation, especially when it comes to increasing productivity and promoting exports. "Although once a thriving agricultural nation, Pakistan's farming industry has struggled in recent years due to a lack of innovation and focus. However, Descon is determined to catalyse the change with strategic interventions in this vertical, from farming to the consumer," Dawood told The Express Tribune.

Innovative solutions

Vital Agri Nutrients (VAN) plays an essential role by providing high-quality and innovative solutions to farmers to help increase productivity, improve crop yields, and enhance the economic viability of the sector. VAN has been providing bespoke solutions to farmers facing problems like infertile soil, water management and crop tracking.

One of the critical ways VAN benefits Pakistan's agri sector is by promoting balanced fertilisation techniques. This involves providing crops with the right amount of nutrients at the right proportions and time. Farmers can improve yields, reduce input costs, and minimise environmental impacts by using this approach.

In promoting sustainable agriculture practices in Pakistan, VAN plays a critical role. The company’s commitment to developing and promoting eco-friendly nutrients is unwavering. One of the ways it does that is by formulating fertilizers that are not only effective but also enhance soil health, increase water-use efficiency, and limit soil losses.

Beyond that, VAN's dedication to providing education and training to farmers on the latest sustainable agriculture practices is worth applauding. The company's agronomists work closely with farmers to help them achieve optimal crop production, reduce input costs, and minimize the adverse environmental impact of farming practices.

Through these efforts, VAN is significantly contributing to the country's sustainable agriculture movement, and it is encouraging to see a company taking such an active role in building a greener future.

Organic solutions

Organic solutions play an important role in promoting sustainable agriculture in Pakistan. Using organic fertilisers, pesticides, and other inputs can help reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, promote soil health, and improve the quality of agricultural products.

One of the key benefits of organic solutions is that they are less harmful to the environment than conventional chemical inputs. Organic fertilisers, for example, are made from natural sources such as compost and manure and do not contain the harmful chemicals found in synthetic fertilisers. This means they are less likely to contribute to soil and water pollution, which can have serious health and environmental consequences.

Despite these benefits, organic solutions in Pakistani agriculture are underused. Many farmers need advanced knowledge and resources to adopt organic practices as they hesitate to switch from the conventional inputs they are familiar with. To overcome the challenge, there needs to be more infrastructure and support for organic agriculture in Pakistan, including access to markets and certification services.

To this effect Vital Green (VG) contributes significantly to Pakistan's agri sector by promoting sustainable practices and providing farmers with high-quality organic fertiliser solutions. The products are designed to improve soil health, increase crop yields, and reduce environmental impacts while helping farmers minimise input costs.

Vital Green is also dedicated to providing farmers with education and training on the latest organic farming techniques.

Financial support for farmers

Providing financing to farmers is crucial for the growth and development of the country's agriculture sector. However, despite the sector's importance, many farmers in Pakistan face financial constraints that limit their ability to invest in their farms and adopt new technologies and practices. Banks and other financial institutions are also hesitant in extending loans to an unorganised sector where they perceive recovery as a challenge, and hence solutions they offer are viewed by farmers as unworkable.

To tackle this and allow the farmers to invest in their land, try to experiment and expand, and introduce modern techniques, VG has partnered with various fintechs to provide financing to farmers who are part of their value chain. Access to financing can help farmers purchase inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides and invest in equipment, technology and infrastructure that can improve productivity and minimize post-harvest losses.

Agriculture research farms

Establishing research farms can also be crucial for developing agriculture in Pakistan. These are experimental facilities designed to study and test new agricultural practices, techniques, and technologies.

Although Pakistan needs extensive research facilities, currently, Descon is the only company that has set up a 100-acre facility called Descon Research Farms near Kasur to experiment with innovative techniques and best practices. Descon has transformed the farm into a testing ground for all their proposed interventions, aiming to experiment with innovative farming techniques on various crops as part of their mission to transform the agricultural landscape. The initial results from targeted interventions on rice production at the research farm were promising, with higher yields and improved nutritional value.

"The main objective is to encourage nationwide research. The company is a non-profit organisation to conduct top-quality research and provides it free of charge to all. The focus is improving seeds, nutrients, soil, and farming practices. While Descon may undoubtedly benefit from this, the research is intended for use by everyone," says Dawood.

The company has already engaged with over 10,000 farmers, aiming to decrease input costs and develop tailor-made fertilisers. However, Faisal emphasised that much research and scientific methodology are required to understand the field and propose solutions.

"We plan to establish smaller research farms throughout the country, to have research stations in every location where VAN has outlets. This would enable VAN to showcase the effectiveness of its products in that particular area. Ultimately, we aim to make these farms available for anyone interested in testing interventions or using the land for experimentation. The first research station is scheduled to be established in Sindh by the third quarter of this year, and we will continue to expand until all VAN stores are covered," Dawood added.

The company acknowledges that Pakistan needs more R&D in agriculture as lack of focus and support has led to loss of cultivable area over the years and low crop yields. Additionally, very few new seed varieties have been introduced in the country, fuelling the need to significantly improve crop yields. However, Descon has earmarked PKR 30 million for research, raised from different sources, and has invested one billion rupees in the ongoing projects, catering to export ventures of Himalayan Pink Salt and Himalayan Honey and a dehydration project.

At the same time, the company has encountered various hurdles when it comes to buying machinery and other necessary equipment and is facing issues due to the current economic situation in the country.

In addition to developing the sector's long-term sustainability, agriculture research farms can provide valuable training opportunities for farmers and agri students. These farms can offer hands-on training in sustainable agri practices and provide access to the latest research and practical knowledge in the field. This training can help develop a new generation of knowledgeable skilled farmers and researchers who can drive innovation and sustainable development in agriculture.

Ensuring quality

The agricultural sector in the country boasts a diverse range of products, many of which are exported globally. However, to maintain sustainability and ensure the sector's continued growth, it is crucial to uphold the necessary safety and quality standards for exported products. This is particularly relevant given the escalating concerns among consumers and regulators worldwide about food safety, quality, and environmental impact

In addition to complying with regulatory requirements, Pakistani exporters must satisfy their customers' safety and quality expectations, which may necessitate implementing voluntary safety and quality standards, such as those developed by internationally recognized organizations like ISO or GlobalGAP. By adhering to these standards, Pakistani exporters can ensure the sustainability and continued success of the agriculture sector in the international market

To achieve this goal, Descon has invested in a dehydration plant at the Quaid-e-Azam Industrial Park in Sheikhupura, which will allow it to dehydrate different fruits and vegetables for export. With 70 percent share in this project, Descon aims to target B2B customers locally and overseas. The absence of major competitors in this line offers a productive opportunity to address Pakistan’s food security concerns. “Unlike the constantly changing population size, the country’s land area is not growing. We need to decrease wastage of perishable items and bolster storage and supply chain”, commented Dawood.

Descon’s focus on dehydration and exporting products is driven by the need to reduce post-harvest losses and provide much-needed foreign exchange to Pakistan. The company management believes that there is significant potential in the global market for their agriculture products and are thus committed to developing the necessary infrastructure and expertise to take advantage of these opportunities.

The company has invested in Himalayan Wellness Co, which is focused on exporting Himalayan Pink Salt and Himalayan Honey. With a sourcing network from all over the country, Descon ensures traceability of the products by maintaining strong connection with its suppliers and beekeepers, giving rise to the Himalayan Wellness brand that Descon is promoting. Already export oriented, the brand has an established market in Singapore and Hongkong and will now be steadily expanding its product portfolio based on the rich resources of the Himalayan mountain folds for more markets.

However, there are significant challenges to exporting agricultural products, particularly from developing countries like Pakistan. One major challenge is branding and marketing the products effectively in international markets. Dawood has acknowledged that Pakistan has not done a good job of branding local products like Himalayan Pink Salt in international markets, and this is something that Descon is already focusing on through its ventures.

Sustainable future

Descon is optimistic about the future of the agriculture sector in Pakistan and the opportunities for export growth. The company's investments in R&D, specialised fertilisers, and micronutrients, as well as infrastructure like the dehydration plant demonstrate its commitment to this sector. It is actively seeking collaboration with glocal and local partners that can provide innovative and affordable solutions as it believes in the untapped potential of the agriculture frontier. Overall, Descon's ambitious roadmap for export markets reflects the company's vision of becoming a leading player in the agriculture sector in Pakistan and beyond.

“We are in it for the long haul. We are focused, committed and ready to take on the inevitable challenges before we can scale up these initiatives to a point where their true potential can be unlocked and a significant impact can be made,” concluded Faisal Dawood.