Science - November 11, 2004

Help sought for upgrading Pakistani horticulture

Although Pakistan’s horticultural products have good market potential, the sector is still a long way from meeting export requirements. The Pakistan Horticulture Development and Export Board (PHDEB) has sought assistance from Wageningen UR to help upgrade the knowledge structure to improve the export of fruit and vegetables, and flowers.

‘The Sudden Death disease can kill mango trees in a week, but we have no idea what causes it. Nor do we know how it can affect certain mango trees in orchards, while others remain unaffected, and why it only occurs in Punjab. In fact, there is only one researcher studying the problem, and he is working under conditions that are far from ideal.’ According to Shamoon Sadiq, chief executive officer of the PHDEB, the Sudden Death disease is just one of the symptoms which shows that Pakistan horticulture still has a long way to go.

Sadiq visited Wageningen this week to discuss a new master plan that has been devised to give the Pakistani horticultural sector a boost. This plan was drawn up by Jan Fongers, account manager for Asia at the North-South Centre of Wageningen UR. ‘To enhance our exports we need products that comply with the international quality rules of the World Trade Organisation. But to be honest, we don’t have these products yet. We lack the three Vs: there is no volume, we don’t have the right varieties, and in terms of value, the quality of the products is not high enough to command a good price,’ states Sadiq. Important crops are mango, kinnow (the Pakistan version of mandarin), dates, onion and potato.

The country’s current annual horticulture exports are stagnating at just under 100 million euros, but he believes these can increase to 450 million euros in the next three to five years. The sector has huge potential and could become the second largest foreign exchange earner after textiles if properly exploited, claims Sadiq. ‘It would require vast improvements in growing, pest management, harvest and post-harvest techniques. Now there is virtually no research. The institutes are there, but in name only; there is no link to practice. We really have to start from zero’.

Fongers recently visited Pakistan to draw up a roadmap for improving the horticultural knowledge infrastructure. The draft master plan Fongers presented to the PHDEB consists of 25 action plans. ‘Institutional and capacity building, training and strategic research are the fundamental long-term elements, and one of the pillars is a close relation between Wageningen and the Central University of Islamabad for training PhD students,’ explains Fongers. The Pakistan ministry of higher education has already given the green light to close cooperation between the two partners.
Both Fongers and Sadiq are hopeful it will be possible to get the necessary funds, if the export board decides to go ahead with the master plan. Sadiq: ‘We are not a rich country, so we will also need external funding. The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have shown interest in our plans to enhance the horticulture sector.’

Besides these long-term goals the project will also need more short-term successes to keep up spirits, admits Sadiq. ‘The Farmer Field School approach has been very successful in reducing pesticide use in cotton growing. It would be very interesting to expand this principle to fruits and vegetables.’ Experts from Wageningen are also very welcome to help identify the cause of the Sudden Death disease in mango. ‘It’s a mystery, and that must be very intriguing from the scientific point of view.’ / GvM