Wedged between India and Pakistan, Kashmir is a lush, green bowl-shaped valley surrounded by the Himalayas. While the land is fertile, a protracted political dispute over the region has caused widespread instability as people struggle with unemployment, chronic rural poverty, food shortages, and poor infrastructure. Potatoes and apples have emerged as two of the most important cash crops for smallholder farmers in this region, with about 42% of the total population deriving their livelihoods directly or indirectly from apple cultivation and trading. Similarly, current potato production caters to only 17% of total demand, while the remainder is imported from neighboring states. There remains an untapped potential if these industries can overcome poor quality standards, weak value chain linkages, weak marketing, and inadequate services.
Kashmir’s unemployment rate is double the Indian national average, with female unemployment seven times higher than males. Youth comprise 70% of the total population, with a large contingent of them educated but unemployed. Mercy Corps sees the potential here and their Kashmir Apple and Potato Producers Livelihood Enhancement (APPLE) Program team works directly with 2,700 households in 35 rural villages towards the following goals:
- Improved organizational and business capacity of farmers to benefit from value chains
- Improved productivity through use of suitable technologies and knowledge services
- Improved access to stable and profitable markets
Farmers access financial literacy and inclusion, advanced business training, on-farm demonstration sites for improved technologies, and marketing information. They collaborate through participation in farmer interest groups and producer organizations, improving their capacity to work together as “producer enterprises,” increase value addition, and strengthen linkages of farmers among themselves and with other stakeholders. A particular emphasis is placed on youth and women as agribusiness entrepreneurs to ensure greater participation and empowerment of marginalized groups.
During the start of the program in July 2016, the Kashmir Valley experienced widespread civilian protests which resulted in the lock-down of markets, businesses, schools and offices, and a government-imposed curfew. Work continued with farmers in the field and, by early September, office hours resumed. A kick-off meeting was held in December with participants from the Department of Agriculture, Department of Horticulture, National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), Farm Science Centers of the Agriculture University, and others.
This banner used in the meeting depicts an ancient Kashmiri proverb — “Akh Te Akh Gaye Kah” — which translates into “one plus one equals eleven.” The proverb stands for synergy, cooperation, and collaboration, visually depicted here using Chinar (maple) leaves on a trunk. The first two trees each have one leaf and when they come together they form a big tree with 11 leaves. Mercy Corps understand that the sum is often greater than the individual parts and, accordingly, partnership and collaboration are central to its global vision for change.
Apart from building technical capacities around farming, the APPLE program seeks to nurture a culture of cooperation and collaboration so that families increase economic stability while also strengthening community.