Thar transforming traditional food preservation practices into business

HYDERABAD: For generations, women in the Thar Desert have preserved rain-grown foodstuffs, mainly vegetables and fruits, a practice they have equated to art, and now they are taking it to the next level .

“Whenever we need it, we take a small amount of canned vegetables to cook for our own consumption,” said Purma Menghwar, a farmer from Ratnor village in the desert part of Umerkot district.

Menghwar claims to still have some dried guar and raw melons that she saved last year after the monsoon season.

“We cut pieces of pods from sangri, guar, raw melon, watermelon, apple gourd and other wild vegetables and place them in the sun or in makeshift huts for storage,” said she said, adding, “They preserve these foods through traditional methods.”

These preserved products have generally remained safe for 12 months or more, she said.

Golo Bheel from Rajhar Thar village near Nabisar speaking about the value of watermelon seeds said “they pick it at the end of the season when they throw the fruit and sell it at Rs4,000-8,000/maund on the market, depending on the situation”.

His family owns land where they grow rainfed crops like guar, melon, watermelon, pearl millet, mung bean and apple squash.

It seems happy to save crops after receiving rains in late September.

“The rainy weather has changed and many farmers have been growing mustard oil crops for the first time in the Thar after receiving rains in late September,” Golo said.

He said desert farmers have never produced mustard in these areas before as its natural season starts in October and November, adding that farmers in canal areas usually grow the crop.

“This year, the rainfall has given Thar farmers an opportunity to experiment with the new crop in the desert,” Bheel said.

Professor Aasia Panhwar, a food technologist teaching at the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) at Sindh Agricultural University (SAU) Tandojam, said that at a time when the whole world needed organic food for consumption to avoid health risks, desert dwellers were unaware that they could also sell their preserves to earn money.

Professor Panhwar has led sessions organized for desert women to scientifically adopt processing and packaging methods. These naturally grown products have nutritional value to keep people healthy by consuming these organic foods.

She is involved in community training for food processing, packaging and marketing, saying Thar vegetables and fruits have more potential for value addition and processing.

She said there was a big difference between organic produce from the Thar and those grown in the canal areas in terms of taste, color and nutritional importance.

“We consume vegetables contaminated with chemicals available in local markets in villages and towns. Only okra and cauliflower receive 27 different pesticides from cultivation to harvest,” Prof Panhwar said, pleading for people to stay safe and healthy in this situation where everything is chemically treated.

In relation to this, she said Thar foodstuffs are better for consumption.

She identified the problems women in the desert face when drying vegetables in the sun, on cloudy days and at night.

“These vegetables can be dried indoors at low temperatures to maintain their nutrition.”

She said women in Thar needed awareness and solutions to address their own malnutrition issues.

Sumera Manjhand of Thardeep Rural Development Program (TRDP), working with desert communities in Umerkot district, said women have the potential to initiate processing and packaging of naturally grown vegetables to avoid the malnutrition because they are rich in nutrients.

“They work to build food security resilience for smallholder farmers by adopting multi-level approaches to avoid the effects of climate change. The introduction of food preservation technology among Thar women aims to promote the business and have alternative sources of income.

This year, the people of Thar received rains earlier in June and later in September last year, which benefited crops sown early and produced new produce, which was now flowing into markets.

Manjhand said he trained 40 people, men and women, from different villages in the desert to adopt this new technology. “Now they seem able to make pickles from raw melon, watermelon, guar, apple gourds, which they use for consumption and some more for sale.”

She said these women now had kits comprising 26 different items for value addition, processing and packaging for marketing.

Professor M Ismail Kumbhar, Research Professor at SAU, said that only arid areas of Sindh like Thar, Kachho, Kohistan and Indus river basins are known to produce organic food products without using any chemical inputs. “Otherwise, in the canal areas, not a single food item grows without chemical input,” he said.

He said that in addition to natural fruits like melon and watermelon, desert dwellers also produce organic milk, yogurt and honey.

“Desert dwellers already have traditional links to local markets to sell their produce during the rainy season.”

Kumbhar said that there were more precious objects under the feet of these (desert) people, which they should know for their own benefit.