Fruits and vegetables: the secret weapons of these Azerbaijani’s food heroes
Using innovation and determination, these food producers are building back their businesses and communities in spite of COVID-19.
A year before the country was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, Tahmina Isayeva from Zaqatala district in the northwest of Azerbaijan started a small business of drying fruits in her kitchen.
“In the beginning it was my hobby to preserve fruits by drying them. We arranged fruits on the drying tray with spaces between for good air circulation and then set the tray in the sun for some days. It is a traditional method, but it is a long process,”says Tahmina.
“It started quite well and my acquaintances became my first consumers. For a year, I produced almost 300 kilograms of dry fruits. It was not easy as I did all the processing myself – harvested apples, plums and figs from our garden or bought fruits from the bazaar,” she said.
However, in 2019, the Women’s Resource Centre in Zaqatala, awarded Tahmina a fruit dry processing machine to enhance her business.
Although the pandemic challenged her business’s profibility, she used this time as an opportunity to study and bring her production to the next level. Now she is the first commercial producer of dried fruits in her village.
“The pandemic was a big challenge for my business as people’s capacity to pay decreased. I was not disappointed. Instead, I was searching tips to improve my business and started setting up the production process with the involvement of other women. Also I plan to get a quality certificate for my products to increase selling at the market,” Tahmina said.
Fruit and vegetable culture
Fruits are a big part of the culture and economy of Azerbaijan. The country’s varied climate ensures that fresh fruit can be picked all year round. Some fruits and vegetables are celebrated with local harvest festivals, highlighting their importance for the community and national economy.
According to Azerbaijani State Statistics Committee, exports of fruits and vegetables in 2020 amounted to USD 607.7 million and provided a third of the country’s total non-oil exports last year.
Fruits are also as part of traditional Azerbaijani tea culture. Visitors to someone’s home, whatever the time of day, are always offered tea alongside bowls of dried fruits and nuts as well as various homemade jams. In fact, people in Azerbaijan joke that jam can be made from everything if you just add sugar.
Fruits and vegetables are also particularly important to another young Azerbaijani farmer, Jalal Alakbarov from the Samukh region in northwestern Azerbaijan.
Jalal’s family has been in the business for many years, mostly relying on traditional methods of production. As part of the new generation, however, Jalal is regularly looking to innovate with new techniques and technologies to better their business.
While vegetable crops are mainly produced in open fields, Jalal and the younger generation have been using greenhouses to protect cultivation. Greenhouses better control production than in an open field and consequently leads to higher yields, better quality and better use of inputs.
In the last 10 years, Jalal has managed to expand his farming, producing tomatoes and strawberries in greenhouses.
“I’ve gained new experiences from growing crops to pest control. Through these gains I achieved an increase in the yeild and profitability of my farm,” says Jalal, noting that he now shares this knowledge, gained in part through FAO’s field training, with other farmers. “No man is an island; we support each other, especially during the recent pandemic situation.”
Like with Tahmina and farmers around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges for Jalal. Quarantine measures created a shortage in labour. Decreases in income, meant decreased consumption and market prices of fruits and vegetables went down. Restrictions on market access also affected sales.
“During the pandemic period food security became critical, especially when doctors recommended to eat healthy food and include fruits and vegetables on the daily menu. We, farmers, were like a regiment fighting against COVID-19, and I think we are winners in this war,” Jalal concludes.
Isa Aliyev, also from the Zaqatala district, is another successful fruit producer, specializing in homemade jams extracted from strawberry, pear, cherry and even tearose petals. But it is his green walnut jam that customers fervently seek out.
It may just be a coincidence that the shell of a walnut looks like a tiny brain, but research suggests that this nut may indeed be good for your mind. Walnuts provide healthy fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals — and there are plenty of ways to use them in dishes, including the Azerbaijani preserve that Isa has perfected.
“This is our main business,” describes Isa. “It is quite profitable, but at the same time it is a really time-consuming complex process, which takes up to 15 days to get a product ready for sale.”
To make the jam, walnuts need to be harvested before the hard inner shell develops, when the inside is still light green and easily cut. For preserving, the size of green walnuts should be between a very large olive and a very small egg. Peeled walnuts are soaked in lime water for 10 days, rinsing frequently to wash away the naturally bitter taste of unripe walnuts. Walnuts are then cooked four times in the sugar syrup, adding cloves or cardamom to the pot. The green nuts turn into a dark mahogany brown and have a rich maple or date flavour.
“Although during the pandemic we had to reduce production by five times as consumers’ purchasing power went down, we did not give up,” says Isa. “Tea in Azerbaijan is traditionally served with jams so our products will be in demand again.”
With the desire to improve their practices and businesses, Tahmina, Jalal and Isa have all been in touch with FAO, participating in various projects throughout the country. One FAO project supported by the European Union is helping communities to promote farmers’ products globally, creating agriturism opportunities for foreign tourists.
In Azerbaijan and countries worldwide, FAO focuses on providing family farmers with training and techniques to improve their production, reach more markets and ensure their food and nutrition security.
Behind all of our food, there is always someone who produced, planted, harvested, fished or transported it. In the run up to World Food Day on October 16, we thank these #FoodHeroes who, no matter the circumstances, continue to provide food for their communities and beyond. There are countless ways to be a food hero in your community and now is a great time to start. Our actions are our future.