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The fruits of fair labour

The Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan is probably one of the most remote mountain regions on earth. The river that gives it its name is fed by glacial water and irrigates the fertile gardens and plantations.
Photo: Mountain Fruits Pvt. Limited

According to various estimates, between 15,000 and 80,000 people live in the area where the three highest mountain ranges in the world – the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush – meet. For many of them, agriculture is their main source of income, with many small farms scattered throughout the hard-to-reach high mountain valleys. The Mountain Food Company (MFC), founded in 2004, aims to support and promote these businesses. It’s the first company in Pakistan to cultivate and process fruit and nuts and market them to Europe. Since 2017, WALA has been purchasing apricot seeds from MFC. Their oil has nourishing properties for the skin.

High mountains, great distances

The MFC works with small farms around Gilgit, the largest city in the Hunza Valley and capital of the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The Hunza Valley lies in the shadows of the highest mountains in the world. K2, at 8,611 metres, is just one of them. The district is part of the greater Kashmir region, which has been marked by violent conflicts between India, Pakistan and China for decades. 

The region is underdeveloped – and not only because of the political situation. The only overland route is the Karakoram Highway, opened in 1972, a nearly 1,300-kilometre highway connecting China and Pakistan that’s only accessible during the summer months. Incidentally, the term ‘highway’ is used loosely for this route. There’s no chance of driving at high speeds here. For example, the capital city, Islamabad, 500 kilometres away, can be reached in around 12 hours of bumpy, risky driving. In some places it gets quite high up: the highest point of the Karakoram Highway is the Khunjerab Pass at nearly 4,700 metres.

Below the imposing mountain massif, various fields are cultivated.
Photo: Mountain Fruits Pvt. Limited

Terrace farming and glacier water

Living conditions in the Hunza Valley are harsh and humble. Agriculture is carried out at an altitude of 1,300–2,500 metres, and the irrigation uses glacier water from the mountains. Wheat and various types of vegetables such as potatoes and corn grow on terraced fields. The area is particularly famous around the world for its fruit trees, especially apricots. Around 50 different varieties can be found in the Hunza Valley: big and small, white, yellow and red, bitter and sweet, and juicy and firm. 

The small farms grow mainly for their own use. In late summer, huge quantities of apricots dry out on the rooftops in the sun. However, a large part of the harvest is in danger of spoiling every year because market access from the remote Hunza Valley is difficult and there aren’t enough modes of transport; there is a lack of cold storage and warehouses; and there is little knowledge when it comes to preserving and processing the fruit. Harvests are also often sold through unfair brokers, so the value of the goods doesn’t even reach the small farms in the first place. 

Community is a priority in the barren region.
Photo: Mountain Fruits Pvt. Limited

Promote fairer commerce, add more value

This is where the MFC’s ideas come in. Company founder and CEO Sher Ghazi wants to help make better use of the produce and thereby increase revenue for the small farmers. “God has given us clean, naturally protected locations for growing organic food,” says Ghazi, “but unfortunately they are used as battlefields instead of farmable land.” 

The company founder wants to change this situation. This is why the company has been offering training in organic farming since 2004, sharing specialist knowledge in fruit cultivation and advising on professional fruit processing and drying. The MFC offers single-gender sessions for all its courses and training: out of a total of 65 groups, at least 10 are women-only groups. Around 1,600 small farms with an average of 10 trees now belong to the producer organisation that sells apricots to the MFC. All of these farms are certified according to the criteria of fair commerce, and every farm is also certified organic. 

Reason to laugh: The rich harvest yields and the commitment of MFC enable the women to earn their own income.
Photo: Mountain Fruits Pvt. Limited

Apricots are bringing power to women

In northern Pakistan, women are more visible in society than in the rest of the country. Nevertheless, they are still mainly responsible for housework or working in the fields. Very few have completed their education or even have a profession. The Mountain Fruit Company makes a difference here, too. During the peak season, up to 150 women find seasonal employment in processing and packaging fruit and nuts.

For many women, their job at MFC is a unique opportunity to work outside of the home and earn their own money. This is just as valuable as the fact that the Mountain Fruit Company pays its employees more than minimum wage. With the premiums generated by fairer commerce, the MFC supports preserving the village infrastructure. It also specifically supports projects that give women access to vocational schools and an education. 

More organic food, more life

We want to continue to support the Mountain Fruit Company in its important work in this challenging climate. For more organic farming and more equality. For more farmable land and fewer battlefields.