Thorns that do not pinch  

Farmers in Gilgit Baltistan benefit from the thorny sea buckthornshrub

Peer Muhammad

Fifty-six year old Shahid Akhter lives in Passu, a village near the China–Pakistan border in the Upper Indus Basin. The sea buckthorn plant gives him reason to be more optimistic about his future. The thorny shrub presents an opportunity for him and his family to enhance their livelihood options.

Passu Village, located in the Upper Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan, is ensconced between two renowned glaciers—Battura and Passu—and is encircled by the gushing waters of the Hunza River that eventually  low into the Indus River in Gilgit City. The village is vulnerable to water-induced calamities. Mostof its cultivable land has either been washed away by flash floods or eroded by the gushing river, dimming livelihood prospects for communities that have traditionally depended on subsistence mountain agriculture.

Utilizing a locally available resource

Most of the young from Passu and adjoining villages on both sides of the river—including Hussaini, Gulkin, and Gulmit—have outmigrated to cities in Pakistan or abroad  seeking of education and employment opportunities. Only elderly members remain in the villages, working what remains of the cultivable land.

Building the climate resilience and adaptive capacity of the remaining population, whose agro-pastoral livelihoods have been adversely affected by water-induced calamities, has hence become necessary.

Rather than give in to the miseries brought by the calamities, Akhter has resolved to continue collecting seabuckthorn plants that grow on his land and the land of other villagers to generate income. “It took me 20years to introduce seabuckthorn plants on my land and bring them to profitable use through value addition,”says Akhter. Last year, he sold about 1,000 kilograms (kg)of dried sea buckthorn berries at PKR200 per kg.

“This is a good source of income. It meets my household expenses and the educational costs of my two kids enrolled in universities,” he says.

Akhteris now focusing on to be an active value chain actor inexploring ways to commercialize seabuckthorn production to make a variety of seabuckthorn-based products such as syrups, beverages, jams, jellies, herbal teas, and antioxidant supplements and market them.

Seabuckthorn plants grow naturally along dry river banks and also in areas irrigated by glacial melt waters. In Pakistan, this plant species exists only in some areas of GilgitBaltistan, including Skardu, Hunza, and Ghizer districts.
Sea buckthorn has been a neglected shrub for quite long however with the passage of time, there has been some awareness about the potential of sea buckthornand people are taking interest in collecting its berries for various uses as well as commercial purposes.

“Previously, I used to collect berries from the lands of my fellow villagers for free, but now they also demand payments,” Akhter notes. He says that people now want to use the plants for commercial purposes at a large scale.

Developing a climate-resilient value chain

Akhter is also among those farmers who have received trainings on climate-resilient value chain development of sea buckthorn, focusing on harvesting, processing, packing, marketing, and enterprise development.  Organized by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in partnership withthe Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP)under the European Union-funded Himalica pilot project, these trainings have been very useful to him.He admitted that he is now in a much better position to scale up his activities in more professional and systematic ways as he has come to know about the value chain approach—how to make a variety of products from seabuckthorn, and connect them to markets and customers.

Shahid Akhtar Collecting Seabuk Thorn. Photo: Writer

Traditionally, sea buckthorn berries have been used for various purposes, including treating cholesterol, blood pressure, asthma, arthritis, gastrointestinal ulcers, gout, and skin rashes and preventing and controlling blood vessel diseases.  Besides, it is also used as a source of vitamins and antioxidants.

“It is an organic plant and its products are prepared without using any machinery to preserve its organic essence,”he adds.

Like Akhter, many other farmers in these area are joining the fold to commercialize this plant at both small and large scales.

Wazir Aman, a farmer from Gulkin Village, has spent almost a decade introducing seabuckthorn-based products to the markets. He says that he now receives orders from two types of customers – one who export and process berries and the one from domestic tourists, who are visiting to my place which I am promoting as ‘Sea buckthorn garden’these years.

In the past, lack of investment and technical assistance,in addition to lack of organizational support, werethe main constraintstoproduce and commercialize seabuckthorn at a large scale.  “Almost 95 % of sea buckthorn used to go to waste in the absence of awareness and processing facilities in the past,” he notes r.

Aman also admits that although he has spent two decades in the seabuckthorn business, interacting with customers and received training and exposure from organizations such as AKRSP and ICIMOD, he still has much to learn before he can expand his business under a new brand,keeping in mind the sensitivity of customers towards quality assurance. It is the reason that Wazir has also acquired a piece of land to prepare a garden and a production centre for sea buckthorn.

Commercializing sea buckthorn

Behram Baig, a representative of the Pak-Hunza Sea Buckthorn Enterprise, maintained that almost six tons of sea buckthorn products is sold from the Gojal region alone annually and that the demand is increasing every year.

“Sea buckthorn products have many benefits for consumers but modern techniques need to be used to commercialize and market at scale,” he said.

Baig said they were considering marketing their productsonline in the near future to extend their reach and also maximize sales.To promote the commercialization of sea buckthorn and enhance the livelihoods of mountain communities, ICIMOD through AKRSP,conducted a detailed study in four union councils of two districts in GilgitBaltistan for implementation of their Himalicapilot activities: Teru and Phander in Ghizer and Gojal one  and Gojal two  inHunzadistrict.

According to the survey findings,seabuckthorn, if commercialized, was found to hold the most potential as a contributor to enhancing the climate-resilience and per capita income of the local farmers. Sea buckthorn is an ideal choice also because of its multiple properties such as soil retention, water conservation, and health benefits.

Mindful of the potential of seabuckthorn, the government of GilgitBaltistan has also launched a project under its current development programme to engage more farmers, particularly, women, in seabuckthorn value-chain development.

Amjad Wali, a senior official at the Planning and Development Division in Gilgit Baltistan, said that farmers would be supported financially and technically for value chain development of sea buckthorn through the project. He also said that the government would support the farmers in expanding the reach of their products to major markets beyond Gilgit Baltistan.

Ghulam Ali, Livelihoods Specialist at ICIMOD, saidthat seabuckthorn, despite its huge potential, is a major under-utilized resource in mountainous areas of GilgitBaltistan.

Ali said that ICIMOD rightly selected seabuckthorn as one of the value chain sunder the Himalica pilot aimed at enhancing and diversifying income opportunities as well asinstitutional capacities to produce, process and to integrate into market systems to get maximum benefits from market opportunitiesat one hand and alsoto increase the adaptive capacities and approachestowards creating more resilience in a wake of Climate induced changes using the most valuable indigenous resources such as seabuckthorn.

He said that under the Himalica pilot,the farmers were given a number of trainings on best practices of pre and post-harvest management of sea buckthorn, micro enterprise development, vocational skills in processing of like jam, jellies and others products, and exposure visits to foster value additions and innovations. In additions, a sea buckthorn harvesting tool have been designed to facilitate easy harvesting as this is the most difficult activity due to which most of the berries go in waste. Under the project, sea buckthorn enterprise groups, networks,and associations have been formed, attracting investors, technology providers, and processors for the commercial production and sale of seabuckthorn products.

A lead private sector enterprise, North Natural Pakistan,is investing now to make the final finished good – Sea buckthorn oil from seeds and to make oil capsule. In this regard Ijaz Sharif, owner of North Natural Pakistan’s has already invested ina processing facility and transported the necessary machinery to Gakhoch, however waiting for the getting license drug regulatory authority. This facility is expected to aggregate the berry production and to initiate high quality local value addition processes.
Ali said that once the fundamentals are in place, the market system will click itselfin sale and marketing the products. However, there is need to leverage resources and partnerships among the donors, civil society, Government and private sector to create an further enabling environment in scaling up efforts.

“The Himalica pilot has been able to create an awareness about the fact that there are natural resources in mountains that can be tapped to enhance both resilience and income of the mountain communities.Sea buckthorn is one such mountain resource. ICIMOD will pursue similar initiatives in the future to improve, innovate, add value and bridge gaps so that the income and resilience of the people are enhanced in the context of a changing climate,”he maintained.

According to a survey conducted by ICIMOD and AKRSP, sea buckthorn has the potential to generate an annual revenue estimated at PKR 300 million (about USD 3 million) in Gilgit Baltistan. The revenuecan be further increased if the value addition is donelocally or regionally, giving the seabuckthorn enterpriseas a cottage industry status, the survey further says.

Benefiting mountain communities

Sea buckthorn is a multi-purpose natural resource found in mountainous parts of GilgitBaltistan and has significant potential to increase the income and livelihood opportunities of the local inhabitants, besides havingmultifold benefits in relation to herbal medication and environmental protection.ICIMOD and AKRSP have taken the right step to unlock the potential of seabuckthorn for the benefit of communities through the value chain approach.

The government should play a major role in bringing a maximum number of farmers, particularly marginalized groups, including women, into this so that they may beable to generate self-employment opportunities right at their doorsteps. Such an initiative would not only help address poverty inthese mountain communities but also help stem outmigration to urban pockets or abroad, to some extent. Additionally, it wouldalso help build the resilience of the communities to better manage risks posed by climate change and environmental degradation.

(This story has been published under the HIMALICA Fellowship Program awarded to Gilgit Times Online by ICIMOD after a competitive process).