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Ramallah goes organic

A popular Tuesday health food market in Ramallah is helping marginalized women and young farmers sell organic produce.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Every Tuesday, Iman Turkman carefully harvests crops in her small garden, organizes them in plastic containers and leaves them at the garden door for pickup and delivery to the weekly Ramallah market held the same day. She grows tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, parsley and mint in her small plot in al-Nasseriya in Nablus. Turkman planted the garden in 2010 after graduating from university.

The Tuesday health food market, located on al-Maahed Street, near Yasser Arafat Square, began in June 2013 under the banner “Stay healthy and support food sovereignty for your people.” It sells organic fruits and vegetables and nutritional products free of artificial preservatives. Among the offerings are olive oil, pickles, jam, honey, yogurt, legumes, dates, thyme, couscous (maftoul) and concentrated natural drinks.

“I've been selling all my garden’s products in this market for an entire year,” Turkman told Al-Monitor. “This has given me security, as I do not worry about marketing, which concerns most farmers.”

By security, Turkman means the steady revenue she gets from selling her products at the same set price for a whole season, which might last for three months. By selling at the Ramallah market, she can avoid the market price fluctuations that producers face at the main fruit and vegetable market in al-Hasba, in Nablus, where prices vary from day to day. Turkman is also spared the burden and cost of transportation because the Tuesday market arranges the pickup of her produce.

The customers in Ramallah appreciate organic products like Turkman’s. She avoids the use of fertilizers and other chemicals in favor of environmentally friendly techniques, considered the best method in terms of promoting health.

Mohammed Abdullah visits the Tuesday market in search of healthy food. What attracts him, he said, is his absolute trust in the safety of the products, which is of particular concern given the increase in ailments due to fertilizers and other chemicals.

Abdullah goes to the Ramallah market to buy all the fruits and vegetables he needs for the week. He told Al-Monitor, “We cannot find 100% organic products in the West Bank except in this market. Here you can buy confidently, without worrying about the negative side effects of the chemicals other agricultural products contain.”

Since it opened, the Tuesday market has not had a problem attracting farmers who prefer environmentally friendly and organic agriculture or reaching the capacity needed to sell products at affordable prices.

Jihad Abdo, head of marketing at ADEL — The National Fair Trade Non-Profit Corporation, oversees the market in cooperation with the Ramallah municipality. He explained that the aim of the market is to link products and consumers through the concept of food sovereignty, creating an independent, local Palestinian economy by offering producers fair prices and consumers safe food.

There are 147 types of food at the market provided by the most marginalized and poorest Palestinian women, Abdo told Al-Monitor. The market achieves this primarily by engaging women's cooperatives and associations in villages to produce and sell products. Some 350,000 families benefit from the arrangement. The market constitutes the only source of income for some women.

According to Abdo, the market is distinct in offering safe, eco-friendly products prepared by women and without artificial preservatives. The food is preserved by adding oil, lemon or salt, and the market trains women how to do it.

Abdo added, “We are trying to support marginalized women and the agricultural sector on the one hand, and to turn the boycott issue into a food sovereignty program on the other.” He said that there are three types of consumers attracted to the market: those who want to buy artificial preservative-free products, those who like to support the women and young farmers who provide the products and those seeking to support Palestinian products and in the process help the boycott against Israeli goods succeed.

In the West Bank, Israeli products compete with Palestinian products. In Palestinian markets, it is typically hard to distinguish between the two types of goods, thus undermining the boycott effort. At the Tuesday market, however, people boycotting Israeli products are guaranteed they will only find Palestinian items.

Finding a place to successfully market products can be particularly challenging for farmers, especially the young ones. Such was the case for Riyad Arafat, who introduced pineapple cultivation to Palestine in his small garden in Tulkarm. Helping farmers over this hurdle, in his eyes, has been the key to the market's success.

Arafat told Al-Monitor that 2015 was the first season during which he grew pineapples, and they proved to be of good quality. Before discovering the Tuesday market, however, the main problem he faced was where to sell them. His produce was widely welcomed at the Tuesday market.

Arafat initially planted 1,700 pineapples, and now, thanks to being able to sell them at the Ramallah market, he intends to double the cultivated area in his garden. The profitable price at which he sells at the market covers the high cost of production.

Arafat said, “In the regular market, there is strong competition between the pineapples I grow and the pineapples that enter the West Bank through Israel. The Tuesday market, which is distinct in selling Palestinian products only, offers me a good opportunity to sell my pineapples.”

The Tuesday market sets a good example for other markets thinking about offering organic products and crops and providing alternatives to Israeli goods. Despite the Ramallah market's apparent popularity, the initiative could use support from official Palestinian authorities to help the adoption of its approach.

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