2019 Women Trading Globally participant featured by UN Women Asia and the Pacific for leadership during COVID-19
Sahar Iqbal graduated in English Literature from a renowned College (Kinnaird College for Women) in Pakistan. Previously a journalist, now an agriculturist by heart and soul, she aims to motivate more females to come out of their houses and work in the agriculture sector. In the year 2014, she got married into a culture which had and still has zero tolerance for a woman coming out of her four walls and taking the lead in the field.
Sahar has shared her story with us through the following Q&A.
Q&A with Sahar Iqbal, Agriculturist, Ahmad Yar Farms
What led to you to establishing your company, and what drove you to commence international expansion?I belong to a marginalised sector of my country where educated women are confined into four walls in rural settings. I was married into a traditional setup: four walls, agricultural land, and an educated husband, that is where my fate changed and my story began. I started working on my agribusiness farm as I thought that there was a void gap in terms of women leading a farm. I started utilising my PR skills by connecting to the multinational companies and convinced them to do a contract with my farm and this has lead us to corporate farming. After that I started working on my next strategy to grow globally and therefore I got my farm registered and started communicating with international buyers. I utilised internet facility available in my village and after sheer hard work we started selling out our food products to international buyers.
What are some key takeaways / what did you learn from participating in the Australia Awards Women Trading Globally program in 2019?
Women Trading Globally Program is a life changing experience for myself. The platform gave me an exposure to learn and explore the things that were unknown for me. When I was selected for the course, I couldn’t expect myself to learn as much as I did from those fourteen days. Upon my return, I applied every bit of the learning to my farm – from the importance of certification to staying connected with those who proposed to help me develop my land. The first thing I did was to get my farm certified by a third party which made my farm the only one to be certified in the neighborhood.
In our networking session I met the generous agronomist I made friends with who still helps me out in reclaiming my saline and waterlogged land. Saline land is one of the biggest hassle for us and he is helping me out in reclaiming my land.
As a result of participating in the program, what are some successes that you have experienced?
After returning to my country I couldn’t tap more into the international market as I was planning to, so I started selling out my story to the local stores with my product. It’s a new initiative in Pakistan and hasn’t been done before. This is one of the successes that I have achieved from the program.
How have you been impacted by COVID-19 and how have you responded?Ever since the lockdown happened in Pakistan, I instantly came to realise that it is going to impact my agricultural community too. Coronavirus is also another major threat to those farmers who are already going through hard labour producing crops and putting it in the hands of the consumer.
In March, with COVID-19 cases rising and lockdown extended in Pakistan, we could feel the stress in our community as well. A lot of our community was already working in an urban setup and with sudden lockdown, most of the daily wagers were forced to leave their jobs and come back to rural areas.
This was and still is a challenging time for all of us. We are learning and are exposed to new things that weren’t familiar before. Fear of contracting COVID-19 and creating awareness about avoiding the disease disrupted our wheat harvesting.
The migrants who came back did not have any financial help and this hit us hard as a community. My husband and I decided to help them settle them in our community.
In the beginning, there were no basic guidelines or standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the agricultural community in Pakistan. We knew the basic SOPs of work, so we started creating awareness among our community of 100 people to start practicing social distancing, the correct use of masks, hand washing, and personal hygiene. For social distancing, we made sure that only four workers should be working in the field of one acre with the divided number of hours so that others get to perform their tasks as well. We kept the wages and working timings equal for all of them.
We made sure that our employees maintained proper social distancing and hygiene while sowing and fertilising fields. They bathe after every workday and wash clothes with soap and dry under the sun. Masks have been made mandatory in our field.
During the lockdown period, we only had access to one mode of communication i.e. internet and we took full advantage of it. We wanted to give our community the opportunity to learn the technical part of farming so we started giving lectures in our vicinity with proper social distancing in place about sowing and producing Pedi-rice and maize with drip irrigation. This method requires fewer numbers of people in the field and it helps with our water-saving agenda too. Secondly, through the internet, we also explored new opportunities for employment not only for ourselves too but for our community as well. We trained them on Biofloc fish farming and taught them about making vermicompost out of biogas slurry which we have used in organic farming. We have also given them training on forming silage that has provided fodder for our animals in the lockdown period but also helped the other dairy farms near our vicinity.
I believe that we all are in this pandemic together and if we fight through it collectively, we might beat it together too. Let's try to look towards the light to get us through the darkest period of our lives.