Q&A: Shahida Zubair, Organic Maldives

Shahida Zubair is the founder of Island Organics Maldives Pvt. Ltd., which in 2007 funded the Maldives’ first organic farm on Maarikilu, Baa Atoll. In an interview with Minivan News, Zubair describes the methods which are transforming Maarikilu’s sandy and low-nutrient terrain into agriculturally productive and sustainable soil. The method could help reduce the country’s heavy dependency on foreign imports, fuel and pesticides while improving nutritional value and civilian economic independence.

Eleanor Johnstone: When, how and why was your farm established?

Shahida Zubair: The idea of starting an organic farm came from my experiences of visiting agricultural islands in Maldives. For years I have seen agricultural workers using highly toxic synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides on their crops, entirely oblivious and ignorant of the damage they cause the soil and the environment, not to mention expensive for the farmers themselves.

Simply explaining the concept of organic farming to these farmers was not effective, so I realised that my skills as an ecologist could be utilised to demonstrate the concept of organic farming, an ecologically sustainable form of agriculture which works in harmony with the environment. I therefore founded the company Island Organics in 2007, and began successfully cultivating and producing organically-grown produce on Maarikilu, Baa Atoll.

EJ: Was the idea of an organic farm in the Maldives original, and what responses did you get from officials or locals when you first proposed the project?

SZ: We have pioneered the concept of sustainable organic farming in the Maldives. Our farm began as a pilot project committed towards empowering local communities by demonstrating and teaching the skills, knowledge and technique of organic farming.

At first, the local community was sceptical and expected us to give up quickly as they thought we would not be successful.  However officials from the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture have been very supportive and encouraged us throughout our trials. We believe we have an excellent partnership with them as they have always given us advice and direction whenever we requested for it.

We host people from the local communities, especially women and youth, on field visits to our farm, so that they can see firsthand the methods we are using for farming organically and how to prepare and use biological pesticides safely. We demonstrate the method of composting so that they can implement it in their home gardens and become self-reliant, instead of buying expensive synthetic fertilisers and proved that crops can be protected using biological pesticides effectively instead of chemical pesticides which are harmful to them and the environment.

On September 25th, 2011, we hosted a field visit of 40 people from Dharavandhoo, Baa Atoll. Thirty of them were Certificate Level participants of the sustainable agriculture course “Promoting community resilience to climate change”, organised by the NGO Live & Learn, in collaboration with Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture. The field visit was very successful, the majority of the participants were women who were very eager to stop using artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides and start making their own compost in their home gardens, especially after realising that it is more beneficial financially and environmentally.

Four extra field visits have been organised in the near future by the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture and Live & Learn, with participants from Kihaadhoo, Kamadhoo, Maalhos and Kudarikilu, Baa Atoll.

EJ: What types of food do you grow, or plan to grow?

SZ: We currently cultivate papaya, aubergine, several varieties of chilli pepper, pumpkin, butter nut squash, gourds, cucumber, radish, beet root, rocket salad, cabbage, lemon grass, Maldivian breed of free-range organic chickens and Dhiyaa Hakuru (Coconut Sugar Syrup). We hope to expand and produce organic virgin coconut oil, granulated coconut sugar and canned coconut milk.

EJ: Many studies have concluded that the Maldivian terrain is unsuitable to farming–what’s your methodology?

SZ: Our methodology is an alternative to synthetic fertilisers. We prepare the fields using a mixture of shredded coconut husk, organic compost, green manure and ash, all of which are prepared on site. Other natural soil fertilisers are sourced locally, such as fish bone meal from islands such as Felivaru, and seaweed from Hithaadhoo and Thulhaadhoo. By limiting the source of these materials to local suppliers, we are striving to strengthen the local economy and ensure that suppliers in the Maldives are economically supported. These resources form part of the crucial nutrient cycle as composting improves the soil structure, helping to retain moisture and provide nutrients. Organic compost is undeniably superior to synthetically produced fertilisers. A nutrient rich soil produces healthy plants which are consequentially better able to resist insect and disease attacks; therefore the dependence on chemical pesticides is eliminated.

The model we have been implementing on the farm for the last four and half years is simple and cost effective because we use renewable resources to fertilise our crops. This is therefore sustainable and can easily be replicated in home gardens and on other agricultural islands. It also contributes to food security because soil remains fertile over a long period of time. This simple model empowers communities by being self-sufficient and self-reliant, as well as economical because residents do not have to depend on imported synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides.

The soil in most islands is not fertile and due to the sandy condition does not retain nutrients for a long period. It is possible however, to convert it to fertile soil using the methods we are implementing on the farm. The process of composting in Maldives is surprisingly fast due to the warm temperature and high humidity of our climate. Organic matter breaks down into compost within 3-4 months due to bacterial activity. So, yes it is an astonishingly fast process with wonderful results. Since we have been able to achieve success, we believe anyone can replicate this model almost anywhere in the Maldives with a bit of hard work and patience. The appeal is simple implementation.

EJ: How does the Organic Farm reflect the growing global trend of sustainable living and organic agriculture?

SZ: Over the last few years, consumer demand for sustainably produced food has increased rapidly.  The global trend towards living sustainably is becoming more popular and efforts to reduce the carbon footprint are increasing daily. The future of agriculture is sustainable small farms with self-reliant communities. The current use of synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides has been proven to be unsustainable and harmful to the environment. As we have been reducing our reliance on fossil fuels (by using solar energy) and only use natural fertilisers, our farm reflects the growing trend for sustainability.

EJ: What could organic farming do for Maldivians, and for the national economy?

SZ: Because the produce can be consumed immediately, the fruit and vegetables have higher nutrients and so are healthier for us. Food miles are non-existent, saving on the damaging greenhouse gas emissions associated with our modern food chains. Waste is more or less eliminated from going into landfills because they are being composted and turned into fertiliser. And by managing their home gardens using organic principles, locals will encourage bio-diversity, thereby helping improve their local environment.

At present, Maldives is heavily dependent on imports, especially food and energy. One way of reducing this dependency is through organic farming which contributes towards food security by strengthening the agricultural sector. It will increase income opportunities, strengthen our livelihoods, improve nutrition, thereby improve our quality of life. It will also reduce dependency on expensive imports of synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides and instead we can become self-sustaining using local resources.

EJ: What do you see happening next in the country’s agricultural sector?

SZ: We are facing rapidly rising fuel costs; undeniably the way forward is sustainable agriculture using renewable energy technology in the agricultural sector. We should start implementing types of renewable energy such as solar and wind energy, biomass fuelled from waste.

Currently there is a rising interest in hydroponics. However, I believe that organic farming is a far more efficient and sustainable form of agriculture, especially as water is such a precious commodity in the Maldives.

It is my belief that it is imperative for small farms to transition to an ecologically managed system of agriculture if they are to be competitive and sustainable in the long run. Our method of sustainable organic farming is a combination of crops and livestock, with poultry and goats. Chickens and goats all provide a source of income and supply manure which we use as a fertiliser for our crops. This integrated system of crops and livestock on small farms can be more competitive because they can be more energy-efficient and self-sustaining.

The stakeholders involved in the agricultural sector should realise that the only way forward in such a fragile environment as the Maldives is by farming organically. It is the only method where we can preserve and conserve our soil, fragile aquifers and our marine environment, as well as adapt to climate change.

I feel that we as a nation are at the right moment to launch this type of sustainable agriculture which has enormous potential for the local market. It also is very appealing for the tourism industry as we can offer locally grown quality organic produce to our luxury hotels instead of importing produce grown in other countries.

The Organic Farm plans to expand its current workforce of ten by hiring and offering internships to locals. The farm is currently self-sufficient, operating on profits earned from produce sales.


Coconuts and sea cucumbers main course for Maldives agriculture

President Mohamed Nasheed recognised World Food Day this week by inaugurating the Coconut Planting Programme in Noonu Ken’dhikulhudhoo and diving for sea cucumbers off the island.

Recalling his 2009 underwater cabinet meeting, which drew international attention to the topic of climate change, the President’s dive honored an initiative for sustainable aquaculture in the Maldives.

For the past two years, a researcher known as Kandholhudhoo Dombe has harvested sea cucumbers in Ken’dhikulhudhoo lake and sold them on the international market, namely to Singapore and Hong Kong, MP for the area, Ahmed Easa, told Minivan News.

“Dombe did research on sea cucumbers 20 years back, and finally, over the last few years the research has become successful,” said Easa. “We are exporting quite a lot of these, and I believe that with the government’s support we have a good opportunity to develop agriculture in the Maldives.”

Sea cucumbers are bottom-dwelling animals enjoyed most commonly in Asian countries. The species is said to have nutritional and pharmaceutical values.

The government yesterday signed a contract establishing a formal cooperative relationship between Masmeeru Investments and the Noonu Ken’dhikulhudhoo island council. Under the agreement, the lake will be used for 20 years to harvest sea cucumbers, although the lease price will be re-negotiated with the community every five years.

The project comes at no cost to the community, and Dombe is responsible for any environmental or legal damages incurred. Dombe is also required to contribute a minimum of Rf 50,000 (US$3200) annually towards community projects on the island.

The contract has also opened up job opportunities. Easa said that new staffing needs will provide between 10 and 20 jobs for locals seeking employment.

“The government wants to do this properly. Currently, the community is receiving Rf 4-5 million (US$260,000-325,000) in profits annually from the project. It’s time to invest more, and we want to protect both sides,” Easa said.

Approximately 6 tons of Maldivian sea cucumbers with a value of US$12 million are exported annually. They are currently selling for between US$130-$150 per kilogram on the international market. Locally, one cucumber sells for Rf3.

All in the timing

Easa said the initiative comes at an important time for the Maldivain economy. Although leading economic contributor tourism is expanding, the Maldives’ most profitable export industry, fishing, is entering troubled waters.

In an interview with Minivan News, Felivaru’s Deputy General Manager Mohamed Waheed observed that the Maldivian tuna catch has fallen from “very high” figures in 2005-2006 “to now less than it was in 1995-1996.”

“The main thing is that the pattern of fishing changed,” Waheed said at the time. “May to August is the low season, but we can usually still catch fish in the southern waters of the country. But this season it did not happen – we had hardly any fish in the north, and very little in the south.”

Competition from the foreign market is also cutting into local fishing profits. While fresh local fish costs between Rf18-20, the same fish tinned abroad and imported back to the Maldives costs Rf11.

Noting the struggles of the fishing industry, Easa called agriculture the next big economic contributor.

“Tourism and fishing are declining, we need another way to provide income. Sea cucumbers have a bright future. All you have to do is drop the seeds in a lagoon or a lake and let them grow for eight to twelve months,” he said.

During the events on Ken’dhikulhudhoo, President Nasheed noted that the government plans to open the fisheries sector, especially the aquaculture and mari-culture fisheries, for investors. He observed that the Maldives was “wasteful by neglecting the potential use of various products of the palm tree,” and needed to capitalise on its natural and man-made resources to meet daily requirements and generate income-boosting activity.

Overcoming obstacles

The US State Department’s profile of the Maldives notes that agriculture makes up a mere two percent of the nation’s GDP, and that the soil has traditionally supported only subsistence crops such as coconut, banana, breadfruit, papayas, mangoes, taro, betel, chilies, sweet potatoes, and onions.

The report also observes that the 2004 tsunami contaminated many groundwater reserves with salt water. The U. S. government recently contributed US$7.1 million towards improving water systems in Lhaviyani Hinnavaru and Haa alif Dhihdhoo islands.

According to Easa, hydroponic methods may overcome these obstacles.

“The government is doing a good job of informing the community on how to grow products in different systems,” he said. “At yesterday’s festivities, there were stalls instructing locals on how to grow vegetables and fruits at home using these methods.”

Organic farming methods could also yield positive positive results. Island Organics Maldives Pvt. Ltd., which was founded in 2007, supports the Maldives’ first organic farm on Baa Maarikilu.

Company founder Shahida Zubair told Minivan News that the farm uses local resources to fertilise crops by composting shredded leaves, branches and coconut husk, manure from chicken, seaweed from Thulhaadhoo and Hithaadhoo, and kitchen waste.

“We have been trying over four years to fertilise our poor soil organically and now we are successful because the soil is beginning to be alive with micro-organisms and mycorrhizal fungi and earthworms,” she said. Zubair indicated that the soil results can be achieved elsewhere and will improve crop growth.

The President also attended celebrations in Thoddoo of Alifu Alifu Atoll, where he inaugurated the tele-medicine unit at the Thoddoo Health Centre, and helped lay the foundation for new classrooms at Alifu Alifu Thoddoo School.