Rozina Babar is at the heart of the new and thriving floriculture business that has come up in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region.
“Flowers are a childhood love,” Babar said, recalling how enthusiastically she would participate in floral decoration at the Jamat Khana — the place of worship of the Shia Ismaili community.
It is this passion which compelled Babar to pursue a career in flower decoration after she completed her Masters from the Karakoram University. But she realised in the early days that it would not be an easy task.
At the time farmers in the region never thought of planting flowers for commercial purposes. Flower cultivation was not understood to have any commercial value and often men thought the flower trade was beneath them.
“I am a man and have to deal with strong crops like wheat, maize and potatoes yields,” said Rashid, a farmer from a small village near Gilgit.
Babar recalled how, in those early days, “many male farmers would laugh at us and predict failure.”
Today, the story is very different. Babar runs a successful flower cultivation business, in which she employs 76 women and makes an adequate revenue by selling flowers grown on just 1,800 square yards (1,505 square metres) of land.
A success story
In the days before she began her own cultivation Babar said the lack of a flower business in the region meant that she would order shipments from bigger cities like Lahore or Islamabad if she wanted to make floral decorations for events. This not only added to overall costs but also took time, as the suppliers often took up to 20 hours to deliver the shipment.
In 2017, Babar approached the agriculture department of Gilgit-Baltistan with a business proposal and asked for support. Her idea inspired the department and officials asked her to select a group of women to train for flower cultivation. The department provided 80,000 gladiolus bulbs for the women to kick-off the project. With this, Babar began the experiment and used her own land for cultivation. If it had failed, she would be the only one to suffer a major loss.
Ghulam Ullah Saqib, the deputy director of the agriculture research centre in Shigar district who heads the project on the government end, said the experiment flourished as Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is an "ideal region" for floriculture. Low rainfall and moderate temperature support flower cultivation, conditions which GB witnesses from March till October.
“Disasters related to climate change have badly affected the seasonal crops of the Karakoram region. There is a serious need to reset our agricultural calendar and also to opt for new crops, especially those which are harvested earlier or later after the cultivation season,” Saqib told thethirdpole.net.
He also emphasised on the advantage of farming flowers, a low-risk crop which grows in 90 days. “Flowers are less expensive cash crops and give better returns than the potato and other regional crops.”
According to Saqib one 605 square yard (505 square metre) field of potatoes yields a profit of about PKR 21,000, whereas harvesting gladiolus in the same area earns PKR 83,000.
“After training from the agriculture department, now 450 women from 22 different organisations are working on floriculture in the Gilgit Baltistan region,” he said.
As the demand for flowers is not high in GB, 80% of the flowers are exported to bigger cities like Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad where demand is considerably higher. Depending on the size of their land, women earn an average of PKR 25,000 to PKR 80,000 per month through the cultivation and sale of flowers. It has transformed lives as some of the women farmers who had been deprived of opportunities due to a lack of education or an inability to travel for other jobs.
For export to other cities, flowers are packed in cartons with 100 sticks in each box. A bus service charges PKR 200-300 per box in order to transport them to Islamabad or Lahore. During the Eid and wedding season, flowers sell for twice the average price of PKR 25 per stick. Babar’s group exported 50,000 sticks in 2019 alone.
Shahida is one of the 50 women who cultivate flowers in Rahimabad, a village situated about 50 kilometres from Gilgit. While she was primarily a schoolteacher, Shahida decided to join the floral industry for extra income last year. Initially, she cultivated flowers on a small piece of land and surprisingly earned PKR 30,000. The returns inspired her to grow her business, and she now spends after-school hours tending to her fields. Shahida is confident that her income from the flower business will help her complete her Master’s degree in sociology from the Allama Iqbal Open University.
Mobeeka, another flower grower, said that cultivating flowers is better than potatoes, as the latter are hard to harvest. “Flowers need attention from seeding to harvesting but are not physically as tough as other crops,” she said. Wheat, maize and potatoes are difficult for women to handle as cutting crops, carrying big bales of crops, and digging potatoes from the soil are strenuous activities. “These crops are harvested in the hot summer season, so staying the whole day in the field isn’t an easy job for women.”
The main challenge for women farmers at present is the lack of opportunities in the local market. According to Babar, currently they only manage to get a few contracts for decoration at government and NGO events as locals prefer not to have flowers at their events. Babar is the main supplier of flowers at Serena Hotel in Gilgit, but the demand of the region’s hotel industry is far behind that of a booming tourism industry.
The CEO of Sustainable Tourism Foundation, Aftab Rana, seconded Babar’s claim that small hotels don’t use flowers for decoration. To boost the local market and also uplift the hotel sector, the foundation is working with the National Tourism Coordination Board (NTCB) to create the ‘national minimum standard for tourism and hospitality’ which will categorise hotels in the area. Based on these categories, the standards will be set for local hotels and service. Interior decoration of the rooms will be one of the main criteria. Babar hopes this will help the flower industry.
Babar and her fellow women farmers have already established a new business in GB — and they are not going to stop here. They hope to expand the market to include flower-based perfumes and cosmetics. They are in the process of asking the GB government for a cold storage facility where extra harvest can be kept. Having worked their way up, their future looks as bright as some of the flowers they now raise and sell.
This article was originally published on The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.