05 March 2017
Khadija Alzadjali
Muscat: Private companies are thriving in the Omani agriculture industry as traditional farmers face difficulty in receiving government support.

Even as young Omanis are being encouraged to take part in the industry, social stigma may be culprit behind preventing economic growth. 

“If you are not an employee with the government, then you are nothing. Farmers are looked down upon; this is our culture and the people’s way of thinking. That is why nobody wants to take an interest,” Mustafa Al Riyami, head of Coordination and Follow up at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, said.

“There is a lack of motivation in this country and a fear of success. People do not fear failure, but success,” he added.

Al Riyami narrated to the Times of Oman the experience he had while approaching the government regarding a new project. “We found a way to produce oil from dates, which can be used for cars. The whole project was rejected. They have the same mindset as

the people.”

Yahya Al Amri, one of the founders of the Farmers Committee in Jabel Akdhar, comes from a family of farmers. Al Amri’s father was a farmer, while he considers himself a simple villager. “I cannot speak on behalf of all farmers, but the biggest issue we face is the lack of water. One of the solutions is to have wells, which are owned by the government, but they are not big enough to support farms, just for personal and home use.

“This has recently become a bigger issue, but I remember my father struggling back in the 1980s,” Al Amri said.

Government support is much needed for traditional farmers to thrive. According to Al Amri, almost 90 per cent of all the produce grown in Jabel Akdhar is organic and free of pesticides, but without government approval to label the produce as such, they cannot market the produce as organic.

“There are many factors that prevent traditional farmers from prospering. There isn’t enough land to build greenhouses, and even if we did, there are seasons when produce sell. For example, pomegranate trees can grow up to seven metres tall. If we were to build a green house, we would build it at a height to accommodate the ideal tree size, which is four metres tall. In a way, we would have to limit its growth in the green house. Most of the land here is used for traditional farming, and even if we would use new techniques, we still won’t have enough water.”

Dr. Dawood Al Wahaibi, the chief executive officer of Five Oceans, and one of Tanfeedh’s manufacturing lab participants, believes that an attitude change in both farmers and young adults is what the agriculture sector needs to truly thrive. 

“The difficulty in farmers adopting new methods of farming could stem from financing and its associated costs, including other complications, such as the ease of employment in the past. These days, another issue with farming has surfaced, such as finding good farming locations and the long waiting lists for land.”

“Young Omanis, the agriculture industry, and SMEs (small and medium enterprises) must be in a position to perform and produce quality crops suitable for the average household, as well as supply for the massive influx of tourists,” Al Wahaibi added.

According to him, a three month waiting period for production to reach peak is neither economical nor sustainable.

“Green houses are the biggest farm investments in the country. From one tomato plant you can yield a few kilograms over a period, but in a greenhouse you can yield tonnes of tomatoes throughout the year. Compared with open field farming, greenhouses are a far better investment for this country. These are some of the problems that have delayed the growth in the economy,” he stated.

A study conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries found that production jumped by 12 times when using greenhouses and water productivity also doubled. The number of greenhouses in the Sultanate surged from 782 to 2,491 between 2001 and 2003. It further increased to 4,740 in 2010; reflecting a 40 per cent accumulated annual growth rate.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’ Al Riyami noted that the number of greenhouses since 2010 have more than likely doubled, due to their structure making up for the lack of water.

Companies have now started to spring out of the agriculture industry through hydroponic and Aquaponic farming, which require no soil and less water. Farms, such as Al-Arfan Farms, Mazaya Argo and even companies like Urban Oasis Garden Systems, a personal home-gardening Aquaponic company, have taken the initiative to invest in such a fruitful sector.

Ryan Blakesley, executive director of Urban Oasis, has been conducting research in Oman since 2013 and finally started his Aquaponic business just a few months ago. He explained that Aquaponics is the process of growing fish and plants together, to the benefit of both. Making full use of the by-products of growing fish allows nutrients and organic fertiliser to be freely provided naturally for the plants. This replicates the processes found in nature and provides a fresh, organic alternative to traditional gardening.

“We were first drawn to Oman because of the big government initiatives aimed at increasing Aquaculture, or the large-scale growing of fish on a farm. But when we arrived, we noticed that though the government was working hard to develop this industry, there were no opportunities for the average person to enjoy these technologies themselves.”

“Knowing that Omanis are known around the Gulf for their love and preservation of nature, we thought that providing a product that allows them to bring nature into the comfort of their home would be a great benefit and joy to them.”

“Oman has an incredible diversity in its environment that provides opportunities for a number of different agricultural approaches, from the private market to the commercial market. Our hope is to show the potential of the private market to stir up interest in people’s hearts for agriculture and the great benefits it can bring into every home in Oman,” Blakesley said.

Dr. Omar Al Jabri, assistant dean for Training and Community Services at the Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) College of Agriculture and Marine Sciences, believes that everything stems from produce. Just as humans need food to live, so does the entire business spectrum.

“Agriculture is like a chain, a domino effect. Without agriculture there would be no produce. Without produce there would be no need for logistics and so on. We can compete with the rest of the world in produce. We just have to focus on the produce, not the method, but the product itself. We need to emphasise on the economic and strategic approach behind food security,” Al-Jabri stated.

According to Thampy Thomas, director general manager of Muscat Horizons, the second largest Aquaponics farm in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) area will be in Oman.

“The farm has been in operation for about four months now. Although we have witnessed a good yield, it is not enough to supply to the major supermarkets and hotels. We will be expanding the farm by three times its original size, which will then make us the second largest Aquaponics farm in the entire GCC region (after Abu Dhabi),” Thomas revealed.

Oman witnessed its highest rate of agriculture production in nearly two decades in 2014, producing around 1,514 tonnes, according to the 2015 Statistical Year Book by National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI). In 1995, only 1,121 tonnes were produced and 1,289 tonnes four years after.

Dr. Rashid Al Yahyai, SQU’s dean at the College of Agricultural and Marine Sciences, and a member of the State Council, believes the data directly reflects the mindset of the people. He believes that people are not aware of the employment opportunities, as an employer and not just an employee. 

“When people think of agriculture, they think of the old method of farming like tilling the soil when in fact there’s technical farming. It is like the process of mass manufacturing, but with produce for the product. There is huge potential for the youth to get involved,” Al Yahyai said.

In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) ranked Oman in the ninth spot among the top 10 date producers of the world. The first on the list was Egypt and Iran came second.

According to Al Yahyai, even Omani companies who produce date oriented food use imported dates because locally produced fruit lacks the required processing consistency.

Palm trees

“So many companies and industries depend on date palm trees (Nakhla), but nobody is taking an interest in them. It is only when the Nakhla becomes economic, only then will people care about the Nakhla. So how do we do that?”

“Tourism was only around 2.3 per cent of this country’s revenue five years ago. Today, we have all these hotels and resorts based on this small percentage with very limited employees that did not exceed four thousand Omanis in 2015. Compare that to about a quarter of a million individuals involved in agriculture in Oman.”

“Opportunities and potential in the food sector are abundant, however, we must start cultivating the minds before the land and growing crops should be part of the mindset of young people from school onwards so that they can participate in it,” Al Yahyai concluded.

© Times of Oman 2017