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How avocado became king in this West Bank city

Increasing numbers of Palestinian farmers in Qalqilya and Tulkarm are opting to grow avocados given the potential earnings from local demand as well as from export.

Yusef Abu Daher, a produce grower from Qalqilya, in the northern West Bank, decided five years ago to grow avocados on his land instead of vegetables in a greenhouse. New prospects for marketing avocados inside and outside the Palestinian territories and their price, which is steadily higher than for other crops, make them an attractive fruit to grow. Abu Daher is among some 400 producers in Qalqilya governorate who have opted to cultivate avocados, the harvest of which begins this month.

Abu Daher opted for avocados because planting is easier and less costly than for other traditional crops and because avocados maintain the same price throughout the harvest season, selling at no less than seven shekels ($2) a kilo on the local market. Other drivers include the high demand on the Palestinian market and prospects for export.

Abu Daher grows a variety of avocados over 30 dunams, annually producing 150 tons of the fruit on average. The only obstacle he has faced are weather-related diseases, which has required him, and other farmers, to draw on the knowledge of a Palestinian laborer who works with avocados on Israeli farms.

Ahmad Eid, director of the Qalqilya bureau of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) Agriculture Ministry, said that the potential economic profitability of avocado growing has indeed come to the attention of the ministry. In fact, he asserted, the ministry had trained agricultural engineers to impart information to growers as part of a plan developed 10 years ago to increase avocado cultivation. 

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Eid said that growing avocados is at the moment limited to 5,000 dunams in Qalqilya and 500 dunams in Tulkarm. Cultivation of them sprang from the personal initiative of Palestinians who had gained experience working with them in Israel. According to Eid, his ministry has been distributing seedlings for free for more than 10 years, given their high price, and providing guidance to growers.

“An agreement [with] the Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture five years ago allowed us to export avocados,” Eid said. “That was the turning point in the sector.” Prior to the agreement, export had been limited to small quantities and private efforts by growers. “The economic returns are very good compared to the other crops,” Eid further stated.

While avocado growing has taken off, business in other fruits has declined. Eid explained, “The cultivation of guava and citrus has shrunk due to the lack of marketing outlets and too much competition.”

According to Eid, the Agriculture Ministry distributes nearly 10,000 seedlings yearly to growers, a quantity suggestive of the farmers' inclination to opt to grown the produce, of which three varieties are cultivated in Qalqilya: Ettinger, Hass and Pinkerton. Eid also explained that 8,000 tons of avocados are produced in Qalqilya yearly. Eight hundred tons are exported to Jordan and Kuwait, and this year exports are expected to begin to Qatar and Iraq, he added.

For the moment, avocado cultivators are somewhat apprehensive about the coming harvest. Abu Daher told Al-Monitor that said weather conditions this year had not been ideal and that he and other growers lack experience dealing with climate-related problems.

Midhat Zeid lives east of the Israeli-built separation barrier but owns 350 dunams of land west of barrier on which he has planted mangos and other tropical fruits new to the Palestinian agriculture sector in addition to avocados. Zeid, one of the first farmers to grow avocados in Qalqilya, explained to Al-Monitor that avocado farming requires consistently high temperatures and high humidity, along with abundant irrigation. “This year, however, 30% of [my] crops were affected by weather fluctuations,” he said.

Qalqiliya's climate is suitable for avocado production, but during the current growing season the area experienced lower than usual nighttime temperatures. The fluctuation between high temperatures during the day and low temperatures at night caused some of the fruit, especially the Pinkertons, to fall to the ground early in their development. The hot-cold fluctuation also contributed to fruit cracking, making them vulnerable to attack and infestation by insects, whose numbers mushroomed due to the combination of the need to irrigate because of the daytime heat and the dampness at night stemming from the cooler nighttime temperatures.

In addition to weather and disease, exporters like Zeid are grappling with problems arising from government policies, in particular the high exportation fees charged by the Jordanians. Abu Daher, who also exports, said that for the past two years, Jordan has imposed a fee of 400 dinars ($560) on every ton of avocados, which is a burden for exporters. 

He added that the Agriculture Ministry should assume a greater role in the export of avocados, perhaps overseeing the entire process, especially when it comes to packaging in accordance with international standards. He would like to see all farmers export their goods through central packinghouses under ministry supervision.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Tareq Abu Laban, marketing director at the Agriculture Ministry, said that the ministry is following up on the marketing of avocados locally, given the high demand, and in Jordan, which is currently the largest market for Palestinian-grown avocados.

Commenting on the fees the growers pay, Abu Laban noted that avocados, similarly to other Palestinian-grown produce, are technically exempt from customs taxes in Jordan, as stipulated by Decision 200 (2000) by the Arab League Economic and Social Council, which exempts Palestinian goods and products from all customs duties and taxes, to promote economic development. Despite this, Abu Laban explained, Jordan has imposed some fees in the past two years, but there is not much the PA can do about it.

The tax that Jordan levies on Palestinian products varies according to the commodity. In the case of avocados, Abu Laban said, because they are considered a luxury product, the import tax on them is consequently high.

Abu Laban also remarked that the ministry is looking to open new markets to avocados, but the export quantity continues to be relatively small, given that it is still a somewhat new product for the Palestine territories and local demand is significant.

There are no official figures on avocado cultivation's contribution to the PA's gross domestic product or its share of overall agriculture production, which increased in 2018, to 3%, up slightly from 2.8% in 2017.

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