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Flowers Bloom Where Poverty Once Flourished

September 14, 2012


THAUBAL, Sheikhupura District, Pakistan – Flowers bloom where poverty once flourished in fields tended by Ahmad Ali. It’s a transformation that still amazes the 60-year-old man, his wife, Meeran, and 31 other families in the tiny village of Thaubal in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Not long ago, Ali was best known among friends as the man who could barely feed his family after he lost an arm in a fodder-cutting machine. He tried to grow wheat on his one acre of rented land, but “most days, it wasn’t enough,” recalls Ali, shaking his head. “We barely survived.”

But that was before his young friend and fellow villager, Mohammad Habib, 30, heard from other farmers in the district about the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF), supported by the World Bank.

The government of Pakistan created the PPAF to provide loans, grants, and technical assistance to the poorest individuals and communities in the country to help them earn better incomes and improve their lives.

Loans help turn crops to profit

College-educated but out of work, Habib approached officials at the Rural Community Development Society (RCDS), a PPAF partner organization in Sheikhupura District. He wanted a loan that might help convert unprofitable wheat and rice crops to a more lucrative vegetable and flower business.

Together, the farmers would plant tomatoes, chilies, bitter gourds, onions, garlic, cucumbers, and okras. Fields of roses, marigolds, sunflowers and other blooms were also planned. Plus, they wanted a bio-gas plant to replace costly diesel fuel needed to pump water from their tube well, and to power a cooling system for vegetable cold storage.

After a technical assessment, RCDS agreed to provide the villagers a bio-gas plant, watercourse lining and drip irrigation facilities at the cost of Rs 1.38 million (about $15,000), with a 30 percent contribution by the local farming communities. 

As a result, 2,540 feet of watercourses were lined with brick, a bio-gas plant was installed and drip irrigation tubing for around three acres of land for horticulture were provided in the village. The group was expected to start repaying the loan with proceeds from their crop sales.

It was an ambitious idea with plenty of merit, says Qaisar Iqbal, manager of RCDS.

Ali is still clearly surprised by the result. When he grew wheat it was often a losing proposition, he says. Typically, once a wheat farmer pays for seed, fertilizer, and pesticides, he can still face a 30 to 50 percent loss on their harvest. This prompts a downward spiral into poverty, as loans with exorbitant interest rates are often taken from moneylenders, explains Iqbal.

But with flower and vegetable gardening, profits come easily, notes Iqbal. Each plant might cost Rs 3, but will create sales of Rs 13 and a clear profit of Rs 10 (about 10 cents). Better yet, flowers and vegetables are harvested every few months, not just twice annually like wheat or rice.

“Now in this village, about 80 percent of the fields have been converted to flowers and vegetables, with just 20 percent left to conventional crops. The crop patterns here have almost entirely shifted,” adds Iqbal.

Ali’s wife, Meeran, says their family always struggled in the past. “Now we are all working much better. We have enough to eat meat and drink Lassi (a local drink derived from yogurt). We can save money for the marriage of our son and daughter.”

" It was much harder daily labor before, but now we are growing many things, and life is easier. Our children are studying. We get better food, and if anyone falls sick, we can afford good medicines. "

Razia Bibi


Program brings benefit to all

Meeran says the family manages to earn about Rs 4,000  (about $43) monthly, even after paying back their share of the PPAF loan. And the fieldwork is less labor intensive.

“There is much time-saving,” she says. “Before, we were always working and worrying, but now with flowers and vegetables, we have days and days saved. I have more time for my house.”

Village elder Mohammad Tufail, 90, says he also considers the loan program “a great blessing.”

“Now, there are benefits and benefits for all of us. Life is much easier. Even a small child can manage the water flow to our crops,” says Tufail of the new drip irrigation system.

With the loans, villagers have managed to add more time and money-saving devices. First, they purchased a biogas system that converts manure and plant matter into fuel. It runs an engine that helps pump water into their irrigation system and saves on costly diesel.

The farmers also created a community cold storage room, cooled by a simple air conditioner that’s powered by the bio-gas system or a diesel generator. With cold storage, the villagers can properly preserve large quantities of vegetables before transporting them to market. The plan ensures better prices for their produce, says Habib.

Fountain of life

“Now we work as a collective, buying, selling and working together. Our savings are increasing,” says Habib, who plans to marry soon because of his newfound financial security.

Displaying the community’s detailed financial accounts, Habib says the PPAF system allows villagers to make deposits into a banking and savings program. Each rupee is accounted for until a villager wants to make a withdrawal.

Razia Bibi says she and her husband, Majeed, can now afford to send their three children to school. With wheat crops, they lived on about Rs 2,000 (about $21) monthly, but now with vegetables, they earn as much as Rs 7,000 Rs (about $75).

“It was much harder daily labor before, but now we are growing many things and life is easier,” says Razia Bibi. “Our children are studying. We get better food, and if anyone falls sick, we can afford good medicines.”

Standing nearby, villager Mohammad Akbar agreed. “This change was like our fountain of life.”