Omani farmers struggle to sell, not grow, their produce

AL HAMRA, OMAN // In the shadow of Jabal Shams, the country’s tallest mountain, more than 300 farms, separated by corroding wire fences, grow enough food to feed two dozen villages. Yet, more than half the yield of crops such as potatoes, limes and dates fail to make it on to supermarket shelves.

Transportation is not the problem. Imported food is.

Retailers say they prefer the quality and appeal of well-packaged imports over local produce. This presents a major challenge to local farmers who are struggling to sell what they grow.

About 15 per cent of the 1.9 million population depend on their livelihoods from 120,000 registered farms in Oman, according to the ministry of agriculture. Yet, more than half of these farmers live below the poverty line.

This belies the government’s ambition to shed their reliance on food imports and become a “self-sufficient” nation by 2015, according to a report released last year. As part of this drive, the government has since introduced subsidies for farming equipment, fertilisers and seeds. However, the country only produces 35 per cent of all the locally consumed produce as well as 25 per cent of all meat, poultry and dairy products, according to the report.

But farmers say they are still unable to sell their products in a country where more than half the food is imported. Instead, they are asking for restrictions on certain food imports such as dairy, meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables, in order to protect their market.

“We are struggling to sell our fruits and vegetables because supermarkets prefer to buy imported products,” said Mansoor al Hamadani, a farmer in the northern town of Saham. “We need the government’s intervention to either stop importing the food that is grown here or increase import duties.”

Oman’s traditional crop – dates – has also been affected by imports from nearby countries such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Date farmers are baffled as to why the government does not protect the pride of Oman’s farm produce.

“You cannot find better dates than local ones,” said Mbarak al Essa, a date farmer in the eastern coastal town of Sur. “Yet, we face stiff competition from regional countries who are freely exporting their product here. I think the government must do something, like restricting foreign dates from being dumped here in huge quantity.”

As part of the Gulf Co-operation Council, Oman has a unified and fixed import duty of five per cent on all products. So it is unlikely that the duties will be lifted any time soon or that imports will be taxed higher than local food. A complete ban on imported food is out of the question, according to officials at the ministry of commerce.

“We sympathise with the local growers’ problems but there is no plan in the near future to increase import duty. It will also be in violation of the WTO’s (World Trade Organisation) ruling to ban foreign food coming here,” said a commerce ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press.

When most of their goods fail to make it to the retail stores, some farmers set up stalls by the side of the roads to sell their goods to passing motorists.

“Only 30 per cent of my harvests are bought by large supermarkets, where the money really is. The rest I sell off at cut price here on the roadside. The problem is that there is a lot of competition for the pavement business,” said Noor al Shaikh, 79, a farmer from Barka, north of Muscat.

Executives at the supermarkets refused to comment on why they preferred to stock foreign goods over local staples. But some distributors selling local and foreign foods to the retailers said consumers preferred the look of well-packaged products.

“Local growers need to work on their presentations and improve their packaging if they want to compete with foreign products,” said Tamwar Khan, the manager of Horizon Foods Company in Muscat.

There is some support for the local growers. It comes from the corner shops that supply the neighbourhoods in smaller towns such as Samail, Bid Bid and Fanja.

“We stock locally grown food as much as we can and that goes for all other shops in this area,” said Ali al Suroor, a shop owner in the north central town of Fanja. “It is the least we can do to support our farmers.”