Low rainfall results in poor yields - and sunflower's poor reputation among farmers in northwestern Kazakhstan. But the picture may be changing, thanks in part to efforts by FAO and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to strengthen the sunflower oil sector through a series of hybrid trials, coupled with farmer training, in the Aktobe and Uralsk regions of northwestern Kazakhstan, areas not traditionally known for sunflower production.
From 2005 to 2007, the EBRD provided loans totalling US$26 million to Turkuaz Edible Oil Industries, a subsidiary of Savola Group, to develop its vegetable oil production business in Aktobe.
At the time, there were only 5 000 hectares under sunflower in the region, not enough to meet the needs of Savola's increased processing capacity. The Savola Group initiated various programmes, including the financing of agricultural equipment and seeds, to encourage farmers to grow sunflower instead of the dominant cereal crops.
In 2007, FAO and the EBRD, with funding from the Government of Japan, agreed to provide technical assistance to help farmers in the region increase production and processing of sunflower seed using more efficient techniques. FAO's Investment Centre - which has been cooperating with the EBRD's Agribusiness team for more than 12 years - was in charge of delivering the assistance.
Demonstration trials that were carried out in 2008 provided farmers with first-hand evidence of how different sunflower seed hybrids perform under different soil and climate conditions.
For the training, FAO brought in experts from AGROPOL/CETIOM, a French interprofessional association with over 50 years' experience in helping French farmers improve their oilseed production. Topics covered included planting, fertilization, weed control and harvesting.
Looking on the bright side
"Average sunflower yields in the Aktobe region are quite low," says FAO's Dmitry Prikhodko. "But the demonstration trials showed that yields could be doubled if farmers used the new sunflower seed hybrids."
Prikhodko expects farmers who have benefited from the training to increase the area under sunflower and improve their production efficiency.
Sunflower production in Kazakhstan increased significantly in 2008 in response to high oilseed prices. According to official statistics, total area planted with sunflower seed expanded from 365 000 hectares in 2007 to 570 000 in 2008, accounting for about 60 percent of the area under oilseeds.
As sunflower becomes a profitable alternative crop to cereals, production area is expanding outside Kazakhstan's major producing areas. In Aktobe, sunflower area has increased from 5 000 hectares to nearly 24 000 over the past four years, and farmers in neighbouring regions are also showing interest. The competitive prices offered for locally produced sunflower seed have added to the crop's appeal.
An integrated approach
"Projects like this show that FAO and the EBRD's farm-to-fork approach, by engaging a range of actors from both the private and public sectors, strengthens local food chains and can make a huge difference to farmers," says the EBRD's Tomas Bravenec.
"The cooperation with FAO and the EBRD is very useful for us," says Savola's Adil Kurmanay. "We can buy equipment and we can buy seeds, but we cannot buy good experience and good specialists, who allow us to achieve good results."