Every Sunday morning, at the Haque Academy in Karachi, the sounds of people chatting, children playing and even a small band setting up in the corner conjure up memories of pleasant little funfairs that we all loved when we were students. However, it is so much more than that. The Karachi Farmers Market started with a focus on the need for organically farmed products in 2015 and has since flourished into a world of its own where families come together, nutritional awareness is developed and meaningful relationships are built between suppliers and customers.
“Organic farming”, a relative neologism developed by Lord Northbourne in his book Look to the Land caught on as a movement in the 1940s to counter what people felt was the irresponsible mass production in agriculture. Many argued that the greater content of nutrients, the absence of pesticides and fertiliser residues and environmentally friendly production made organic products a superior alternative to conventional agricultural production. As the movement started gaining momentum, regulations were put in place. Organic certification required by many countries allows the buyer peace of mind that certain standards were followed in the production of their food. Although they differ from country to country, the standards commonly cover the absence of chemical components like pesticides, fertilisers or antibiotics, humane livestock practices and localisation among others. Now the movement is catching up in Pakistan. Many new eateries catering to the more health-conscious urban residents are popping up in the land of nihari and seekh kebab. Mainstream grocery delivery services like Mandi Express have a separate section for organic products. And brands like Daali Earth Foods can be found at many supermarkets.
Leading the charge in Karachi is the Farmers Market. Every Sunday this little market pops up with a diverse range of vendors offering organic vegetables, home-made bread, honey, jams and sauces. Live cooking stations offer various Karachi favorites like khawsey and halwa. Many of the regular customers can be seen in animated conversation with vendors they have become friends – long after the purchases are complete. Adults and children sit around on the grass enjoying the fresh lassi and hot tea. It is truly a great way to spend a Sunday: shopping for the week while basking in the warm interactions taking place.
The market developed in an organic manner, much like the principles that guide it. It all started when Muzzamil Niazi, an organic farmer in Karachi (he humbly calls himself a foot soldier) was selling his produce commercially. He and his wife purchased a small piece of land in the Malir District. There they started growing vegetables for the family. However soon they had a surplus as they are but a family of four. “How much of the vegetables can you eat? So then we roped in our neighbours and our families. Even that got saturated” he reminisces. Things caught momentum when Sarah Nasirudeen, Laila Jameel and Maheen Zai, three Karachi residents from different walks of life, asked him to join them to create a platform to bring together producers and buyers of natural and organically grown food products. A lot of support was also provided by Tofiq Pasha, a well-loved local pioneer in water management. Standards for vendors at the market were developed by Qasim Tareen, known by many Islamabadis as the driving force behind the successful Islamabad Farmers market. In addition to organic farming techniques, they very thoughtfully cover a wide range of responsible and environmentally sustainable indicators. These include water management, soil quality, energy use, humane treatment of animals and the use of regional labour as well as fair human resource management. All potential vendors must be engaged with these standards before they are able to open a stall. As a result of the efforts of this group of well-meaning friends, the first official farmers’ market was held in August 2015 and has been thriving ever since.
“We have also changed our approach over time. As the philosophy behind organic agriculture practices is ‘cooperative’ and not ‘competitive’, we are now developing farmers up and down Pakistan including Hunza, Allai Valley, Malakand, Haripur, Multan, Rahim Yar Khan and southern Sindh. Some of them were already into different levels of organic agriculture because they have never really used chemicals up north” says Mr. Niazi. The farmers are located through an informal network of friends. It is indeed a small world when it comes to people seeking a healthier more responsible lifestyle. In fact, Mr. Asif Shigri, a tour guide from Gilgit-Baltistan who I met at his stall for organic nuts and honey was introduced to the market by a common friend of ours who leads yoga excursions in the north of Pakistan. The Market is helping bring these unique people and products to Karachi and currently, about 30% of the produce is from other regions of Pakistan.
Many of the regular customers at the market often have the same response when asked why they come every Sunday. They are all looking for healthy produce which is grown in an organic manner. But it is also the trust that they have in the people running the stalls. Instead of a big faceless supermarket, they are able to meet the people bringing the food to the table and the assurance that a set of values is being followed in the production of each and every item.
When I first heard about the various farmers’ markets popping up a couple of years ago, I asked an uncle of mine if he would accompany me one Sunday. Slapping my knee jovially he exclaimed that “It is only the rich robbing the rich – why would I go there on a Sunday morning when I can sleep in and get what I need at the supermarket tomorrow?” Having not been there or met the wonderful people behind this movement, I wholeheartedly laughed along with him. However upon actually engaging with the organisers, the vendors and their very satisfied customers, I am convinced that it is so much more than a market. Personal and business connections are being made across the country, awareness is being raised and the produce speaks for itself.
The future looks even brighter after speaking to Mr. Niazi. There are eight staple items in our cuisine – tomatoes, potatoes, onion, garlic, ginger, carrot, lemon and cucumber. He feels at least four of those are bought for every family’s table once a week. “We want to make it possible for everyone to be able to buy these and we want to try and bring the prices down. There will be a premium…economies of scale and a one-man army – but I am meeting many more one-man armies!” he says with a smile. “To me, organic is a culture which is inclusive. Higher prices make it exclusive. I have a personal mission to make it affordable to as many people as possible”.