Kurdistan’s Booming Olive Industry: A New Hope for Kurdish Farmers

The aroma of freshly pressed olive oil is wafting across the Kurdistan Region, a sign of a burgeoning industry taking root. This article explores the rise of olive cultivation in

Kurdistan’s Booming Olive Industry: A New Hope for Kurdish Farmers
May 18, 2024

The aroma of freshly pressed olive oil is wafting across the Kurdistan Region, a sign of a burgeoning industry taking root. This article explores the rise of olive cultivation in the region, delving into the experiences of Kurdish farmers who are embracing this new crop, the operations of a leading olive oil factory striving for quality and growth, and the potential of olive production as a valuable export.

Kurdish farmers embrace olive cultivation

Abdullah Sadiq, a 60-year-old farmer from the district of Sharazoor, is an active driver of the growing popularity of olive cultivation in the Kurdistan Region. He has grown olives for two decades, having planted 60 olive trees around his house specifically for oil production. According to Abdullah, olives have a long history in the region, but recent years have seen a renewed interest in their cultivation due to several factors. Unlike other crops, olive trees require minimal care, can withstand harsh weather conditions, and are exempt from import duties.

Sadiq finds olive trees to be not only low maintenance, but also resilient. He proudly shares that his olive trees yield around 500 kilograms of olives annually, with the olive harvest season in Kurdistan stretches from October 15 to January 15 each year. Farmers cultivate two distinct types of olives: one variety specifically suited for oil production and another for eating.

Zahir Ali, a 62-year-old farmer from Sulaymaniyah, exemplifies the region’s shifting agricultural landscape. Traditionally, Ali focused on cultivating pomegranates and figs. However, recognizing the potential of olives, he has recently established an olive nursery, a clear indication of the growing interest in olive cultivation among Kurdish farmers.

Climate change and the appeal of olives

Olive trees, known for their longevity, were historically abundant in Western Kurdistan (northern Syria). Due to climate change, some farmers in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have begun planting olive trees, recognizing their potential.

Burhan Ahmad, a farmer from Kirkuk, highlights the multifaceted value of olives and olive oil, emphasizing not only the culinary benefits but also the medicinal properties of these products.

Ahmad is particularly enthusiastic about the future of olive cultivation in Kurdistan. He recently planted 70 olive trees and has witnessed a steady increase in their yields year after year. He believes that Kurdish farmers should embrace olive cultivation for export, considering the region’s untouched natural environment and the minimal use of pesticides in the growing process, which translates to high-quality olive oil.

From harvest to production

After harvesting their olives, Kurdish farmers use some for personal consumption and the rest for oil production at facilities like the Rasan olive oil factory. Established in 2018 by the Halabja Group, Rasan aims to contribute to the local economy by producing Kurdish olive oil. During the olive season, farmers from various cities across the Kurdistan Region deliver their harvest to the factory. While 60% of the olives processed by Rasan are sourced locally, the remaining 40% are imported from neighboring countries like Syria, Iran, and Turkey.

At 34 years old, Payam Saywan, the director of the Rasan factory, asserts its status as Iraq's foremost olive oil producer in terms of volume. The facility achieves a remarkable daily output of 120 tons and possesses an annual capacity reaching 150,000 liters. Emphasizing quality, Rasan prioritizes stringent quality control measures, subjecting each batch of olive oil to thorough testing for indicators such as peroxide value, pyrroline, and oxidation prior to market distribution

Rasan’s olive oil is distributed throughout Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, and the factory has recently made inroads into the international market, exporting their products to Germany and the UK. Negotiations are underway to begin exporting to Norway as well. 

Accordingly, the factory has witnessed a substantial increase in sales, from 27,000 liters in the first year to a projected 150,000 liters this year, indicating high customer satisfaction with the quality of their olive oil.

Growth and sustainability

So far, Rasan has successfully exported 10 tons of olive oil abroad, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has played a crucial role in facilitating these exports and promoting the product internationally. The factory directly employs 25 individuals and indirectly benefits an additional 100 people, contributing to the region’s economic development.

While olive production among Kurdish farmers has increased significantly, it still falls short of meeting the factory’s demand. To address this gap, Rasan has established a modern olive tree nursery, focusing on two specific olive tree varieties carefully selected for their high yield and suitability to the region’s climate. By marketing these high-quality trees, Rasan believes that it can eliminate the need for olive imports, creating a self-sustaining olive production cycle within the Kurdistan Region.

Kurdish farmers are not blind to the ease of olive cultivation and its potential as an export crop, similar to other agricultural products grown in the region. They acknowledge that the region’s climate is remarkably conducive for olive growth, comparable to neighboring Syria, which has a long history of olive production. 

At the same time, farmers like Abdullah Sadiq believe that widespread adoption of olive cultivation can not only diversify their income, but also establish the Kurdistan Region as a prominent exporter of high-quality olive oil, leveraging the region’s untouched natural environment and minimal use of chemicals.

Challenges and the road ahead

Despite the promising outlook, the burgeoning olive industry in Kurdistan faces challenges. Meeting the increasing demand for olives from factories like Rasan remains a key hurdle. Additionally, ensuring the long-term sustainability of olive groves requires careful management practices to prevent soil erosion and promote biodiversity.

However, Kurdish farmers and the Rasan olive oil factory, along with the support of the KRG, are demonstrating a deep commitment to overcoming these challenges. Through collaborative efforts, they are fostering a thriving olive industry that has the potential to become a valuable source of income for Kurdish farmers and establish the Kurdistan Region as a significant player in the global olive oil market.

Omar Aziz is a journalist and videographer from Halabja, specializing in Kurdish media since 2012. With a media degree and a passion for storytelling, he captures impactful moments and sheds light on important issues through his work. 

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