Strawberry plants: Born in the US, raised in Gilgit-Baltistan

Karachi: Contrary to what you may have started believing the story is not about militancy or insurgency. It is about something red though.

Pakistanis will get a taste of Californian strawberries and that too in the luxury of their own backyard as a local company has invested in importing plants from the US.

The aim, however, does not end here and goes higher as the company, which is growing these strawberries in the fields of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), also intends to export the high-value fruit to regional markets.

The development is in contrast to the tradition of Pakistan exporting raw material only to see value-addition by foreign countries before importing the product.

The Pakistani-American businessman, however, has taken the initiative to import strawberry plants, along with other fruits, to make some money and help small farmers in the province at the same time.

He imported the Californian strawberry varieties including Seascape and Tribute and planted them in the picturesque valley in Naltar. With over a 25% share, the US is the top producer of strawberries in the world. The share of California is over 80% in the figure.

The plan seemed simple — import, plant, grow, distribute and export. However, the businessman was soon to learn that the path was not as juicy as he thought.

“I know I may not get the best results this year, but I know high-value fruit crops like strawberry can gradually 1be a good source of earning for both growers and me,” Farm House Export Business Development Director Zulfiqar N Momin told The Express Tribune.

Momin imported over 60,000 strawberry plants (at 16 US cents or Rs16 per plant) in April this year, costing around Rs1 million. Since it was the first experiment of planting strawberries at such a high altitude – though the weather is perfect – around 10,000-15,000 plants failed to grow due to the inexperience of local farmers.

Despite the challenges, the plant importer and growers expect to supply the first crop of Californian strawberries in local markets in the first week of July. The retail price of these strawberries at local stores would be between Rs700-800 per kg – about four times as that of strawberries produced in Pakistan. However, the imported Californian strawberries cost over Rs2,000 per kg, according to Momin.

“The important part of growing these strawberries in G-B is that there is no regional country that grows or can grow them owing to weather constraints. And hence, Pakistan can export these to high-value markets like the UAE and other countries,” added Momin, who has already successfully exported G-B cherry to UAE in the last two years.

According to Momin, the landed cost of these strawberries in UAE is $5.5 per kg and its retail price is $8-9 per kg, which is far above the price of traditional fruits (mango and kinnow) that Pakistan exports to the Emirates. This year, the expected output of these strawberry plants may remain between 15,000-35,000 kg, he informed, adding that it depended upon weather conditions.

But this is not enough — the ambitious fruit exporter has something more profitable in mind.

“I am now working on plantation of blueberries and blackberries. Apart from the extraordinary prospects in export markets, one can also sell these fruits locally where the retail price is already touching Rs7,000 per kg,” he said.

Momin believes that since Pakistan has a large number of farmers who have small lands, especially in G-B, it is very important for the country to move on to high-value fruits. This would help farmers increase their income.

“It’s time for Pakistani fruit exporters to move to high value fruit exports if they want to earn more and increase the overall fruit exports of the country,” he stressed.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 23rd, 2014.

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