Sunday, April 21, 2024

Sabzi shopping the organic way

When one talks about healthy eating, the first word that comes to mind is ‘organic’, a trend that is increasingly becoming popular among Pakistanis.

Organic food is defined as fruit and vegetables not grown from genetically-modified seeds and is free from pesticides and harmful chemicals. Organic products are then made by using these fruit and vegetables without preservatives and artificial additives.

In Pakistan’s bigger cities, finding organic food is a novelty, primarily because we are fed commercially-produced food, where quantity and shelf life are favoured over nutrient value. However, with more awareness about the inadequacies of the urban food supply system, more people are turning to healthier options, giving rise to the phenomenon of farmers markets in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, that offer locally-grown produce, along with a chance to interact directly with the farmers.

Rizwan Naeem and Asma Shah were the the first to kick off the trend in 2013 with the Khalis Food Market in Lahore. Later, it separated into two markets, namely: Khalis (run by Naeem) and Haryali Entrepreneurs Market (run by Mahrukh Beg).

Islamabad followed a few months later with the Islamabad Farmers Market (IFM), founded by Qasim Tareen in collaboration with Kuch Khas, a community centre. Tareen was an amateur farmer who needed to sell his fresh produce. According to him, Islamabad is surrounded by small farms, irrigated mainly by rain water and has access to the northern areas and hill stations, which make it a perfect location for an organic food market.

The popularity of the IFM led to the founding of Karachi’s Farmers Market (KFM) by Sarah Nasiruddin (owner of an urban farm and interior designer) with Laila Jamil, Muzzamil Niazi, Tofiq Pasha, Maheen Zia, (organic farmers) and Tareen (from IFM) as its core founding members.

According to Tareen, “food marketing labels such as natural, pure and fresh have been grossly abused; this has led to consumer doubts and hence the need for such markets.”

For Naeem, the concept is to create alternatives for health-conscious consumers along the lines of whole foods markets abroad. “As much as it was a socially-responsible act, making money was definitely an active part of it.”

Their business model is similar to that of most marketplaces; they provide a space for vendors to showcase their produce and consumers to meet them, exchange knowledge and buy their products. Khalis and Haryali generate revenue from the stalls, as well as from sponsorships by food-related brands; KFM and IFM (with fewer stalls and more stringent standards) are more of a community-building effort, and the emphasis is less on revenue generation.

Since the amateur farmer community is very small, they are well-acquainted with each other (vendors and buyers) and getting the word out is not difficult. For example, Nasiruddin says the first KFM was held in her lawn with 300 attendees (including vendors and buyers) by invitation. For others (or new) vendors, they get in touch with the markets on their social media pages and websites.

The products range from organic vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat, grains, oils, herbs, along with hard-to-find ingredients such as fresh figs, cherry tomatoes, avocadoes, kale, banana peppers, mushrooms, organic honey and fresh cheeses. Many vendors bring prepared products to sell as well such as salads, chutneys, natural beauty and skincare products.

KFMs and IFMs have a strict procedure in selecting vendors. They have to fill an application form (Rs 1,000 for KFM and Rs 500 for IFM), using the SAFA (Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture) system developed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It is based on a series of questions ranging from capital and land ownership to greenhouse gas emissions. Once a vendor fulfils the SAFA criteria, a visit is made to the vendor’s farm. Vendors once approved, become regulars at the market and require no further verifications. In order to reduce the carbon footprint, KFM and IFM also enforce minimal decoration on the stalls, no standees or banners, biodegradable packaging (no plastics) and only edibles on display.

IFM charges Rs 500 per stall and KFM Rs 1,000. Khalis’ rates are based on single and double stalls, varying from Rs 4,000 to 7,000, with an extra amount charged on hi-voltage appliances.

KFM, Khalis and Haryali do not operate in the peak of summer due to the heat outdoors and less variety in terms of produce. They usually start in September and end in March or April. IFM is the only exception which operates throughout the year. The venues for these markets are not fixed and change every year, ranging from commercial parks to school courtyards, as small farmers can’t afford to pay high rents.

The products range from organic vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat, grains, oils, herbs, along with hard-to-find ingredients such as fresh figs, cherry tomatoes, avocadoes, kale, banana peppers, mushrooms, organic honey and fresh cheeses. Many vendors bring prepared products to sell as well such as salads, chutneys, natural beauty and skincare products.

To ensure quality, the nutrient information is clearly labelled on the prepared foods. According to Tareen, “we especially ask producers to mention the salt, sugar and fat content, because some customers have medical conditions and it is important to be honest about what the product contains, and for them to know.”

As the vendors are mostly small-scale farmers and producers, the items are priced accordingly (usually steeply). The founders believe that because of the antiquated methods used, organic food takes longer to produce compared to non-organic food. It is not surprising, therefore, that regular customers belong to the upper-income segment and include celebrities, expats and foreigners, as well as concerned mothers and the health-conscious young and elderly. Khalis and Haryali boast an average attendance of 2,000 and 4,000 people every week; for KFM and IFM, the footfall is lower.

Nasiruddin says to make KFM more welcoming and fun, a band plays music during the market hours, there are also yoga and painting classes for everyone to give a sense of a ‘nice day out’ to families.

In addition to the weekly markets, the founders have experimented with different retail options to increase reach. Haryali has a brick-and-mortar store. Khalis did venture into online, but due to issues related to shelf life, warehousing and a scattered demographic, it did not last. KFM has recently started an online store, but their deliveries are limited to Clifton and Defence only. If it works out, Nasiruddin says they will increase the scope to all parts of Karachi.

Despite the popularity of these markets, major constraints are the prices, which are beyond the affordability range of most people. Another factor is lack of mass awareness. “Genuine brands have to work extra hard to teach customers how to spot the difference between fake and authentic vendors,” says Saba Gul Hassan, a certified dietician, life coach and CEO, SGH Health (a company that makes high-fibre and protein granola cereals), and who used to be a vendor at Khalis. Certification, supply, accessibility and delivery pose further challenges. “We need home-grown solutions; importing organic items from far away countries is not a sustainable answer to our supply issues,” says Tareen. In his opinion, this can to an extent, be remedied by revisiting indigenous local farming methods, food preparations and distribution methods. Moreover, better agricultural research, government support, farmer awareness and lots more organic food everywhere will help popularise it. A start has been made.

Source Aurora

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