Recognizing the need for a more diversified economy that relies less on revenues from producing crude oil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) opened a new chapter in its economic strategy by exporting the first-ever shipment of apples to the international markets in December 2023. Directly overseen by the Prime Minister’s Office of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the KRG Ministry of Agriculture, the inaugural shipment, weighing 500 tons, was dispatched to Qatar via air freight.
The initiative marks a leap forward in the economic growth of the KRI, which struggles with the reluctance of the Iraqi federal government to address decades-long oil and budgetary disputes. It also comes six months after the suspension of Kurdistan oil exports, the largest portion of the KRG’s annual budget, and thus adds an additional source of revenue.
The pioneer shipment
Attending a ceremony at the Erbil International Airport while loading the outbound cargo, KRG Agriculture Minister Begard Talabani said that the strategic plan aims at empowering local farmers, increasing production, identifying international markets, and promoting economic diversity within the region.
The minister also noted that the export of apples to Qatar is “just the beginning, and the process will continue.” She emphasized that the next objective in the export push is to involve the active participation of 10 local farmers, ideally creating 600 jobs.
Kurdistan’s agricultural portfolio
In a groundbreaking initiative on April 12, 2022, the Kurdistan Region marked its first venture into non-oil exports by sending pomegranates to Gulf countries and France. Subsequently, there has been a notable surge in demand for Kurdish potatoes, with about 90% being shipped to the UAE since August 2023. This has also piqued the interest of other Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia.
In another case, the introduction of Kurdistan honey into Qatar's market on November 29, 2023, showcased how the Beekeepers Network Association harnessed effective strategic branding efforts to realize a substantial boost in profits for local businesses.
Celebrating the achievements after a long quest to secure international markets for Kurdish products, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani wrote on December 21, 2023, on his official X account: “We delivered on our promise.” He pledged to remain committed to the KRG’s strategic plan of economic diversification and finding more markets for Kurdish products.
Beyond the orchards
As part of his cabinet’s agenda, Prime Minister Barzani first announced its ambitious plans for exporting agricultural products back in 2019 when he took office. Later, he introduced several groundbreaking measures to support local farmers, including the allocation of government funds to facilitate the adoption of modern agricultural technologies, the implementation of training programs to help farmers transition to modern farming methods, and the establishment of food industrial zones dedicated to the procurement of locally grown products.
“Kurdistan’s agriculture has untold potential. We want to see Halabja pomegranates compete globally, and apples in the Berwari valley exported. Walnuts from Hawraman, tahini from Amedi, figs of Akre, and other products, each of these tells its own story in new markets. And we can do it,” Prime Minister Barzani said in a statement dated June 13, 2023.
The Kurdish prime minister’s vision, however, was not limited to domestic reforms. He was, in fact, looking for a larger market for top-notch Kurdish products.
At the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos, he actively engaged with business leaders to explore potential markets for premium-grade pomegranates, apples, grapes, and honey. He specifically promoted Barwari apples during his meeting with the Majid Al Futtaim Group, which owns the chain of Carrefour Market stores in Iraq and across the Gulf States.
Furthermore, during a meeting with UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Prime Minister Barzani underscored the success of Kurdistan’s first agriculture export to the UAE, noting that the KRI is helping its neighbors meet their food security needs.
“This delivery is just the beginning,” he stressed.
Barwari’s apple bounty
Barwari is a mountainous region located in the Hakkari mountains spanning the KRI and southeastern Turkey. The region’s population consists of Assyrians and Kurds. Historically, Barwari was home to a Jewish community until its migration to Israel in 1951.
The region is presently divided into northern Barwari in Turkey and southern Barwari in the KRI. Nestled amid fertile lands and blessed with a favorable climate, the region cultivates a diverse range of agricultural products. Barwari apples, of which between 350,000 and 450,000 tons are produced annually, is its most famous product.
Shamal Abdulla is a journalist with 18 years of experience in the field. He has held a number of prestigious positions, including news director at Kurdistan 24 and the editor-in-chief of BasNews.