Potatoes don’t grow on trees

FAO supports a Palestinian farmer and food hero to enhance food security in his Gaza community

Without proper equipment to store their crops, Mohammad and other farmers in northern Gaza often had to sell at low market prices, meaning losses in income and adverse effects on food security. ©FAO/Mohammed Nehro Al-Thalathini


Three years ago, 34-year-old Palestinian farmer Mohammad Jaffar Edris Khudair never guessed he would be pivotal to his community’s food security. He had been working in the same farming operation in the city of Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip for two decades and had little hope for expanding his business.

Mohammad had left school in 2002 to join his father on the farm in order to help cover their family’s expenses. Although he managed to make a modest living producing potatoes and carrots for himself, his wife, his three children and his parents, business autonomy was a pipe dream.

A crucial issue for Mohammad, like all the farmers in this area, was that he lacked equipment to store and preserve his crops, forcing him and the other local farmers to rush to sell their produce to traders before it spoiled. Consequently, the local market was flooded with supply in the weeks after the harvest, and Mohammad and the others would have to accept drastically reduced prices for their crops.

Without storage, they were powerless to modulate crop sales throughout the year. From August to November, when the remaining harvest of staple crops like potatoes dwindled, their prices shot up, rendering many residents unable to afford these staples, heightening their risk of food insecurity. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, almost 1.5 million people in Gaza, or about 60 percent of households, experience moderate to severe food insecurity.

Addressing the logistical issues hampering productivity and food security, FAO’s Multi-donor Agribusiness Programme (MAP) came to the Gaza Strip to boost farmers’ businesses and cooperatives, build their farms’ productive capacities and facilitate their market access. Under MAP, FAO is providing investment support to rural entrepreneurs whose businesses demonstrate a strong potential for social inclusiveness, environmental sustainability and profitability, with the ultimate aim of helping them achieve reliable revenues. The programme is being implemented in partnership with the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, with more than USD 30 million in funding from Denmark, the European Union, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain.

In 2018, Mohammad decided to apply to the programme and was selected following a competitive, merit-based process. He became one of almost 400 beneficiaries in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to receive investment support through MAP.

Having formulated an investment project that was accepted under FAO’s Multi-donor Agribusiness Programme (MAP), Mohammad could purchase vital equipment such as a cooling unit, a forklift, storage containers and a steel shelter to extend the shelf life of his produce, helping to steady the prices for produce and strengthen his community’s year-round food security. ©FAO/Mohammed Nehro Al-Thalathini

In 2020, FAO provided Mohammad with funding to buy a preservation and storage system for his crops. This included a 720-cubic-meter cooling unit, a forklift and vegetable-storage containers, all housed in a 310-square-meter steel shelter. "I used to only cultivate 20 dunums of potato,” Mohammad describe. “Now I am cultivating 100 dunams with no fear of selling it at a lower price because I can store it and sell it based on market needs and prices.”

Since receiving MAP support, Mohammad says he has tripled his annual revenue.

He has also expanded his operation, planting new crops including 40 dunams of strawberries. Greater profits mean that he is now able to buy better agricultural inputs, like seeds and fertilizers, in cash rather than accruing long-term debts.

His business ambitions are moving in lockstep with his commitment to paying FAO’s support forward to his community. For example, he leverages his ability to store supplies of staple crops for longer periods to offset scarcities between harvests and keep prices at bay.

“When there is a shortage in supply, there is an increase in the price and people can’t buy the expensive crops, so we supply potatoes when there is a shortage,” Mohammad says. This keeps potatoes at a more affordable price.

As his operation has grown, Mohammad has also been able to provide much-needed employment opportunities amid a local economy where unemployment exceeds 40 percent. “There are four people working full-time throughout the year. There are also as many as 50 seasonal workers during planting and harvesting.”

With this support to expand his business, Mohammad has been able to provide much-needed employment opportunities. The local unemployment rate exceeds 40 percent. ©FAO/Mohammed Nehro Al-Thalathini

With FAO’s investment support, Mohammad says he feels a renewed sense of personal commitment in his business. "I get up early to go to the farm to monitor the employees and farmers, check the storage refrigerator and provide the necessary instructions and advice to the farm workers,” he says.

His dedication has remained steadfast despite the military escalations in Gaza. “We [take] the risk of travelling to the farm to irrigate the crops despite the risk of being bombarded and hit by shells,” he says.

Looking forward, he dreams of further expanding his business by purchasing solar panels to reduce electricity costs and a vehicle to transport the crops to markets himself. He says one day he hopes it will be easier to export goods and import inputs more freely to and from Gaza, making the local situation more conducive to those like him who make their living by farming.

MAP falls under FAO’s broader efforts to increase the competitiveness of the agrifood value chains in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by enhancing producers’ access to inputs, infrastructure and technology.

Behind all of our food, there is always someone who produced, planted, harvested, fished or transported it. In the run up to World Food Day on October 16, we take the opportunity to thank these #FoodHeroes who, no matter the circumstances, continue to provide food for their communities and beyond - leaving no one behind.

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