Pioneering development in rural Uzbekistan

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Pioneering development in rural Uzbekistan

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
© Robin St@cinematicgraphics

Starting over is never easy, whether you’re an individual person or an entire nation. Nevertheless, the economy of Uzbekistan has made incredible progress in recent years. Following its transition to a market economy, it has averaged 8 per cent annual growth for the past 10 years. This rapid growth has, in turn, has triggered a nation-wide boost in development – and for the first time, its effects are being felt even in the country’s historically poorest areas, such as the Surkhandarya region.

Surkhandarya, a region in the country’s south-east, stands out among other areas of Uzbekistan for its especially favourable climate conditions and fertile soil. Perhaps unsurprisingly, agriculture is incredibly important to Surkhandarya, accounting for as much as 40 per cent of its gross regional product and employing nearly 37 per cent of its population. Historically, the region has concentrated on growing cotton and wheat, but the area is also well suited for horticulture (the cultivation of fruits and vegetables), as evidenced by the widespread presence of orchards, vineyards, and pastures throughout the region.

Nevertheless, a full two-thirds of Surkhandarya’s agricultural output is grown in small, household-owned plots. These family farms, called dehkan, were originally introduced by the Government of Uzbekistan as a way to improve food security: farmers could grow food for self-subsistence and sell their surplus to the local markets. Over the years, they have become a major source of food and income for the region’s rural communities. But despite the favourable growing conditions, dehkan farmers face several challenges common to rural small-scale farmers across the world: low crop yields, limited access to agricultural technologies and credit, and scarce employment opportunities – all of which often lead rural people to migrate to Uzbekistan’s cities or abroad in search of work.

Uzbekistan’s membership in IFAD as of February 2011 ushered in the Horticultural Support Project (HSP), the first international rural development initiative ever deployed in the country. Given the region’s optimal climate, efforts like these have a great potential to increase Surkhandarya’s output. Since 2012, HSP has been working to develop Surkhandarya’s horticultural sector to help improve the livelihoods of its rural farmers. Its activities create opportunities for many different kinds of agro-businesses, from family dehkan plots to small-scale horticultural service providers. Here are three of their stories.

Building the family business

At first, Gulbar Yuldasheva and his family saw farming their dehkan plot as just another family activity. His mother had always wanted to open her own business, but they had never had enough money. But the arrival of the HSP project brought them, and many other families across the region, the opportunity to apply for an IFAD-funded loan that could be used to turn their dehkan into a business.

Gulbar’s family decided to use their funds to build a greenhouse on their empty land in their home district of Djarkurgan. Soon, they began to grow more than they ever imagined. Gulbar and his family now have a thriving business. They harvest up to 60 kg of cucumbers and tomatoes per square metre of land every year – enough that they’ve been able to hire four people from their local village.

“The loan also helped my mum open her own fabric shop in the market,” Gulbar says. “But we will not stop growing vegetables either!”

New technologies bring new opportunities

Along with assistance for small-scale farms, HSP has also introduced several innovative technologies and practices, including the country’s first-ever seedling laboratory using in-vitro micro-clonal propagation techniques and the widespread adoption of refrigerators and storage facilities. The latter is particularly useful for helping farmers reduce post-harvest losses – a welcome advance for businesses like Manguberdi’s.

Manguberdi Mahmud’s company has been active in the fruit and vegetable sector for several years. At first, they struggled with post-harvest losses and spoilage, finding it difficult to turn a consistent profit. But in 2015, they applied for and received an IFAD-funded loan that allowed them to build a refrigerated storage facility. The investment paid off right away. Their losses plummeted dramatically, leaving far more product available for sale.

“Thanks to the loan, we created eight new jobs on our farm, and we now have ten people working permanently for us,” he says. During harvest seasons, Manguberdi hires twenty additional temporary workers, most of them women, to sort vegetables and fruits and prepare them for storage. Each worker earns up to 60,000 Uzbek Som (about US$6) per day – a significant contribution to the family budget.

Restoring lands and livelihoods

Surkhandarya is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with warming rates exceeding the global average. For this region and throughout the rest of the country, water resource management is one of the most pressing concerns: irrigated agriculture is the main consumer of Uzbekistan’s available water resources, consuming up to 90 per cent of the country’s total water supply.

HSP is using targeted investments to help create climate-resistant agricultural production systems throughout the Surkhandarya region. To date, the project has financed water-saving irrigation techniques on over 314 hectares of land. Efforts like this could help as many as 18,000 households gain access to irrigation water and decrease water losses from about 17.75 million cubic meters in 2015 to 4.4 million cubic meters as of 2019. For agri-businesses like Shodiev’s, innovations like these are invaluable.

“We had a large plot of land on which nothing grew, since it was not irrigated,” Shodiev says. In 2016, his business, an agricultural company in Denau district, received a loan to help them irrigate the site. He used the funds to build an overhead water supply over 7 km long, which allowed him to increase the garden area to 10 hectares. He also participated in IFAD-funded trainings on climate-resistant agricultural practices, learning how to select the varieties of fruit trees that are best suited for local conditions.

“The knowledge that I gained participating in the trainings was useful to me,” he says. “Since everything worked out so well for me, I will continue using this precious knowledge in my work.”

Uzbekistani agricultural businesses of all sizes – from small dehkan plots to larger firms – are increasingly interested in horticulture. This sector has proven to be a reliable source of income, food security and employment in rural areas, thanks in part to the work of projects like HSP. Although the project closed in 2019, its approach is now being successfully scaled up by the national government and by other multilateral donors such as the World Bank. Contributors like these have recognized the key role played by IFAD’s work, especially its efforts to help rural communities overcome poverty and develop their local economies. Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector is modernizing – and thanks to efforts like these, the country’s small-scale farmers and their rural communities are poised to become the protagonists of this effort.  

Read more about IFAD’s work in Uzbekistan.