Desert Organics

The thin strip of road to Al Safwa farm cuts through the rocky desert. It is dotted with signs to watch out for camels crossing, but little else breaks up this beige, barren landscape. “When you arrive at the farm, you don’t want to believe it,” says Olfa Guetata who has worked there for 3 years.

“First people don’t want to believe there are farms in Qatar, in the desert. Then they don’t want to believe the word ‘organic’. Me too, I didn’t want to believe.”

There are in fact, around 1,300 farms in this tiny peninsula, which juts out 160 kilometers from the east coast of Saudi Arabia and where rainfall averages just 100 millimeters a year. Half of them are commercial, but they struggle to produce crops, forcing Qatar to import over 90 percent of its food, although figure may have dropped slightly with a big push towards self-sufficiency after the 2017 blockade. The main obstacle is water. 99 percent of Qatar’s water comes from desalination and the little groundwater the country has, is fast diminishing.

So why, in this hostile environment, would anyone want to attempt organic farming?

Nasser al-Kuwari is knee-deep in crops when we meet him. He owns Al Safwa, which is Qatar’s only certified organic farm.

“I love being a farmer,” he says. “The farm is life and organic is the future of the world.”

Forty percent of Al Safwa farm is dedicated to growing seventeen different types of organic vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and zucchini flowers.

It is odd to see a Qatari in his crisp white thobe working the land, but al-Kuwari is something of a pioneer, a man with big ideas and – luckily – deep pockets.

This year, he wants the whole farm – all 660 acres of it – to be organic.

“It costs him,” Guetata laughs. “I cannot give you the investment figures because if I tell you, you’ll say it’s not real!”

“On the farm you don’t talk about investment,” says al-Kuwari. “One day we will see my money back, but I’m not doing this for the money. For me it is about health.”

Al-Kuwari’s dream began over a decade ago when he saw organic farms in Jordan. He decided to take Al Safwa, which has been in his family for 50 years, in a new direction. In 2013, he was paid a royal visit by Britain’s Prince Charles. “This was a lovely visit,” recalls al-Kuwari. “He pushed me to become organic. He told me I must go ahead.”

That same year, al-Kuwari’s farm achieved international accreditation by Germany’s International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements. It had been a long journey.

“You have to build everything from A-Z,” says Guetata, even the land.

Al-Kuwari began enriching the rocky sand with soil from Bangladesh and keeps it nutrient-richwith organic fertilisers, such as manure from cows on the farm and compost from old crops. He also rotates his crops and during the summer months when temperatures rise above 50 degrees Celsius, he rests his land.

Pests, he says, are not a big problem in the desert. If he uses an organic pesticide, which is approved if derived from natural sources, he does not harvest the produce for five days.

Then there is the issue of water. Al Safwa farm has 10 freshwater wells, but needs to use them carefully. It has a system of polytunnels and drip irrigation to minimise evaporation under the harsh sun. 20 millimeters is released to each plant every minute. The whole farm is watered in two hours.

Experts estimate Qatar’s groundwater supplies will dry up in the next few years. But al-Kuwari dismisses this concern with a flick of his hand.

He proclaims, somewhat cryptically, “There’s no problem for the water. I know some things in Qatar better than anyone from outside.”

For al-Kuwari a major challenge has been finding experienced labour. Out of his 60 workers from Egypt and Bangladesh, he’s had to train 20 to be organic farmers.

But his biggest obstacle has been the market. “It’s still not covering our costs for organic.” In the farmers’ market, a lack of interest means he sometimes has to sell his organic produce as non-organic at a lower price.

This is where Olfa Guetata comes in. A French-Tunisian expat with a background in the food and beverage industry, she is in charge of distributing 1,500 kilograms of organic produce that Al Safwa yields every day.

“The issue is ignorance,” she says. “People don’t know. In the market you don’t often find products from Qatar. And people don’t want to buy it because they don’t know the quality.”

But attitudes have been changing, especially since the blockade. Monoprix has long taken Al Safwa products, up to 200 kilograms a day during the growing season and, at half the price of imports from Europe, has declared them a success.

“So many customers are excited to see Qatari organic,” says Monoprix’s Head of Fresh Foods, Mohammed Ifthikar. “It is really surprising that Qatar has organic items. It’s been a really good, fantastic experience in terms of customer feedback.”

Now, Al Meera also stocks them.

Al Safwa also supplies a number of restaurants. Monica Sanchez is a chef at the W Hotel’s popular Italian restaurant La Spiga.

“The taste is incredible,” she says of their signature dish, eggplant parmigana. “We know where it is coming from. They pick the eggplant and after two hours it is in my kitchen. More fresh than this is impossible. For me it is like a gift every day.”

Qatar has a National Food Security Programme, which supports local famers. But its focus is on quantity over quality in order to reduce the country’s almost total reliance on food imports.

Al-Kuwari’s organic tomatoes take 90 days to grow – double that of non-organic tomatoes,  so few follow his lead, but it is a growing trend with four other organic farms now registered in the country.

“Qatar is behind the United States and Europe,” says Guetata. “But we have started.”

This article has been updated from when it was first published in Fruit & Veg World in 2015.

Laura Brennan

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