Thar turning traditional food preservation practices into enterprise

October 24, 2021

HYDERABAD: For generations women in Thar desert have been preserving rain-grown food products, mainly vegetables and fruits, a practice they have got down to fine art, and now they are taking it to...

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HYDERABAD: For generations women in Thar desert have been preserving rain-grown food products, mainly vegetables and fruits, a practice they have got down to fine art, and now they are taking it to the next level.

“Whenever we need, we take a little amount of preserved vegetables to cook them for our own consumption,” said Purma Menghwar, a farmer woman of village Ratnor, the desert part of Umerkot district.

Menghwar claims to still have some amount of dried guar and raw melons she preserved last year after the monsoon season.

“We cut pieces of sangri pods, guar, raw melon, water melon, apple gourd, and other wild vegetables and put them under the sun or inside makeshift huts to preserve them,” she said, adding, “They preserve these food items through traditional methods”.

These preserved products usually remained safe for 12 months or longer, she said.

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

His family has a piece of land where they grow rain-fed crops like guar, melon, water melon, pearl millet, mung bean, and apple gourd.

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

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

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

“This year rainfall has provided an opportunity for Thar farmers 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 Agriculture University (SAU) Tandojam, said at the time when entire world required organic food for consumption to avoid health risk, the desert people were not aware that they could also sell their preserved products to make money.

Prof Panhwar has conducted sessions arranged for the desert women for scientifically adopting processing and packing methods. These naturally grown products have nutrition value to keep the people healthy through consuming these organic food items.

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

She said there was a wide difference between Thar organic products and the ones grown in canal areas in terms of taste, colour, and nutritional importance.

“We consume chemical-tainted vegetables available in local markets in villages and towns. Only okra and cauliflower receive 27 different pesticides from cultivation to harvest,” said Prof Panhwar, pleading could the people stay safe and healthy in this situation when everything gets chemical treatment.

Compared to that, she said food products in Thar were better for consumption.

She identified problems the desert women face while drying vegetables under sun, in cloudy weather, and during nighttime.

“These vegetables can be dried inside homes with low temperature to maintain their nutrition.”

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

Sumera Manjhand of Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), working with desert communities in Umerkot district, said women have potential to initiate processing and packing of naturally grown vegetables to avoid malnutrition as these were rich in nutrients.

“They are working to strengthen the food security resilience of small-scale farmers by adopting multilevel approaches to avoid effects of climate change. Introducing food preserving technology among Thar women aims to promote enterprise and have alternative sources of income.”

This year Thar people received rains earlier in June and later in September last, which benefited early-sown crops and produced new products, which were now pouring into markets.

Manjhand said they had trained 40 people, including men and women, from different desert villages to adopt this new technology. “Now they seem capable of making pickles of raw melon, water melon, guar, apple gourds, which they use for their consumption and little extra for selling.”

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

Prof M Ismail Kumbhar, a researcher teaching at SAU said only arid zones of Sindh like Thar, Kachho, Kohistan, and river Indus catchment areas were known for producing organic food products without using chemical input. “Otherwise, in canal areas, not a single food product grows without chemical input,” he said.

He said besides natural fruits like melon and watermelon, the desert people also produced organic milk, yogurt, and honey.

“The desert people already have traditional linkages with local markets for selling their products in the rainy season.”

Kumbhar said there were more valuable items beneath the feet of these (desert) people, which they should know for their own benefit.

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