A Rootstock Nursery Turned into a Learning Factory

Agriculture in Samangan, one of Afghanistan’s Northern provinces, is mainly based on nut production – almonds and pistachio in particular, but also walnuts. Conditions are rough though; hot and dry summers make it very difficult for farmers to produce enough so they and their families can make a living. The nut trees usually do not produce high yields and cultivation methods farmers use are very simple.

But in Samangan’s provincial capital, Aybak, modern agriculture has arrived on an area the size of approximately twelve hectares: The Department of Agriculture and Livestock’s (DAIL) rootstock nursery. The area is divided into different parts according to the kind of rootstocks and its sizes. The rootstocks will be sold to farmers later on, so they can produce higher yields. However, this nursery is not just a place that grows rootstocks for future agricultural use: It’s a true learning factory.

Viktor, an development worker with the German government’s programme for sustainable economic development and employment creation (SEDEP), has been working with his Afghan partners from DAIL for more than a year. When he arrived, most of the nursery’s property was overgrown and plants were dying due to pests and a lack of water. For months, Viktor’s entire team has invested tremendous work in the nursery and their efforts have paid off. The nursery is in great condition now, but it was a learning process for all people involved.

Viktor points out: “I had the necessary educational background for the work in orchards, but had to learn a lot about cultivation in this specific environment. The willingness to continuously acquire new knowledge is very important in this context. This is why I’m pushing my colleagues to ask questions and to constantly reflect on what could be done to further improve their work. It’s a matter of curiosity – and the people at the rootstock nursery are curious.”

“Oh look at this!”- The conversation is interrupted – Viktor has spotted an insect on one of the little trees. Jawed, one of his colleagues, catches it. Together, they inspect the bug, both are very excited. They conclude that it’s a capnodis, an insect that is not good for the nursery, which means that they might have to get rid of it. Jawed explains: “This is how we learn here: By observing, analysing and also by experimenting. I have studied many insects now and I know which ones are good and which ones aren’t.”

Mohammad Ibrahim, the nursery’s manager from DAIL agrees that being able to distinguish the many different insects is essential. He is also very satisfied with what he has recently learned on irrigation:  “So far, our main problem was the lack of water. Most of the time, the plants were too dry which hampered their growth. From Mr Viktor, I learned different techniques on how to use water more efficiently.” Mohammad Ibrahim walks over to a little field that has lots of little trees on it. What’s special here are the circle-shaped piles of soil that surround the trees. Mr Ibrahim calls them doughnuts: “The doughnuts prevent the water from pouring away. It keeps the water closer to where it’s supposed to be, around the tree.”

Complementary to this method that keeps the water closer to the trees’ roots, is a new irrigation system that is currently being installed: drip irrigation. It saves water by allowing water to drip slowly, delivering water directly to the roots of the plants. The German government provided funding to install this drip irrigation at DAIL’s rootstock nursery. Viktor underlines: “If we use the water the way as done so far, we can water the plants only twice a year. It’s an incredible waste. Basically, you irrigate soil that doesn’t even need water. Drip irrigation makes it possible to use resources more efficiently which allows us to water the plants throughout the entire year.” Mohammad Ibrahim adds: “The drip irrigation system makes a big difference. In the past, plants simply dried out because we couldn’t water them regularly – due to the inefficient use of resources. This is different now: We save water by not using it for watering the soil, but solely for the plants.”

The rootstock nursery team does not rest on its already accomplished successes. They are all eager to further improve their work and to become pioneers in their field, by adapting the cultivation, taking into account local conditions. In doing so, they are currently growing a plant that might be suitable for the mountainous areas in Samangan while having great potential for increased revenue: the asafoetida plant. The sticky substance in its roots has a garlicy flavour and is commonly used in India. Viktor points out that one plant produces one kilogramme of resin (sticky substance) which can be sold at around 100 Euros. So far, the asafoetida plant has not yet been successfully cultivated in Afghanistan. However, the people working at the nursery in Aybak have analysed the soil – something Viktor taught them too – and concluded that hing might grow well in their area.

Whether Mohammad Ibrahim, Jawed, Viktor and their colleagues have found a plant that might improve many farmers’ lives remains to be seen as the plant must be at least four years old before it will yield. They are very optimistic though and in any case they will continue to search for ways to optimise cultivation in their province. 

Our main problem was the lack of water. From Mr Viktor, I learned different techniques on how to use water more efficiently.
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