Cutting a profit at high altitude: IFAD support for Morocco’s Plan Vert

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By Margarita Astralaga, Director of the Climate and Environment Division, IFAD

The mountainous areas of Morocco’s Central Atlas range offer ideal conditions for the cultivation of high-value fruit and nut trees, which can grow in shallow soils, on hills and slopes, and thrive in the harsh climate characteristic to the region. Nevertheless, small-scale farmers typically grow rain-fed cereal crops and legumes for their own subsistence, even though returns are low and increasingly unpredictable as a result of climate change (see figure 1, that illustrates trends of increasing temperature and diminishing rainfall, yet more frequent storms). In support of the Government’s “Plan Maroc Vert”, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is funding the Rural Development in the Mountain Zones Programme (PDRZM) to increase the profitability and resilience of small farm businesses in Sefrou and Azilal provinces and expand tree crop surfaces by more than 2,000 ha, split between apples, plums, walnuts, almonds and carob.

In each target community, the technical package promoted by PDRZM is identified jointly by local farmers organizations, government extension services and project staff. The project’s “toolbox” contains a mix of adapted technologies. Drip irrigation, for instance, conserves diminishing water resources and is well suited for fruit trees, such as apples and plums, which maintain a high enough economic value to offset the capital costs of the system. The introduction of drip irrigation has the potential to be transformative. Landscapes that predominantly feature grain cultivation and livestock raising, may over time gradually convert to orchards in a more diversified and market-oriented production mix.

In the Ait Sbaa Cooperative of Sefrou province, a Farmer Field School was established to train apple growers in the use of drip irrigation and rational pest-management techniques. To create additional employment, particularly for women, the project will provide a matching grant for the establishment of a refrigerated storage and fruit transformation unit. Cold storage and fruit drying give rural producers the option to hold onto their production for marketing when the prices are more favourable, which is particularly important for apples, whose farm-gate price is halved at harvest time. In Bougrinia Cooperative, also in Sefrou, an innovative plum dryer powered by crushed olive seeds has been installed, dramatically reducing both the cost of operation and the greenhouse gas emissions of the unit.

In Sidi Ahmed Ben Driss cooperative in Azilal province, the project trained and equipped a youth group for the production of briquettes using the crushed seed and pulp that is the by-product of olive oil extraction. This simple, easily-replicable unit has created 3 permanent jobs, reduced the amount of waste from oil extraction and provides local schools – and eventually local residents – with an alternative to firewood as a fuel for heating and cooking.

Where traditional gravity surface irrigation systems exist, the project is investing to reduce losses. In the Slilou watershed for example, nearly 9,000 m of canals are being restored and lined with concrete. To ensure sustainable and equitable management of these irrigation perimeters, the project established a total of 24 Agricultural Water Users Associations (AUEA) and supports them with training to ensure adequate operation and management of the systems.

The project was also been able to generate “quick wins”, which is a real challenge when working with tree crops that typically require several years before entering production. In Azilal, 16,000 wild male carob trees, with limited productive potential, were grafted with female transplants, allowing for a marked increase in production within one year of the operation. Similarly, 10,000 walnut trees were pruned, fertilized and the ground immediately adjacent profiled to enhance water infiltration. It’s worth noting that the pruning of the walnut trees were initially questioned by some beneficiaries (Won’t a smaller tree give less nuts?). The project thus decided to operate in phases, allowing beneficiaries to see for themselves the benefits of the pruning on a sample of trees before it is generalized.

By establishing a typology of profitable interventions, such as the ones described above, the project hopes to facilitate the replication of profitable and resource-efficient approaches throughout the “Plan Maroc Vert”.

Young rural Moroccans interviewed by the Project Mid-Term Review team in November 2017 testified that, if life on the farm is about judicious resource management and business acumen – as opposed to just hard back-breaking work – then they’re ready to embark on such a journey.