“For as long as I can remember my father and grandfather grew merigold. That was our traditional work. We had tube wells installed to draw water and there was no shortage of it. But when the electricity crisis started in Pakistan we had long power outages in our village and could not operate the tube wells. The water scarcity severely affected our crop. Without enough water the fields dried up, the flowers died and the business was ruined," told Niazbeen Shah, while I sat under a tree outside his house, eating an orange he graciously picked for me from a tree nearby, listening to him, surrounded by beautiful, lush marigold fields in Walai Village in district Nowshera. “Without water, everything dies in no time," he sagaciously explained to me and I nodded in agreement, actually enjoying the orange very much.

The air, heavily scented by the fragrance of merigold which seemed to cloak everything, the hot afternoon, and the cool shade of the Oak was making me a little drowsy. 

I was doing impact assessment of the Women Economic Empowerment and Market Development Project implemented by Sarhad Rural Development Programme (SRSP), funded by Department of Foreign Affairs Trade, Government of Australia, and visited many villages in several districts of KPK with the project team and collected case studies from their different project activities as part of the research. UC Walai was one of the selected villages, where I met Niazbeen and saw the magnificent change that an innovative intervention had brought to the whole union council.

Before I tell the story of how Naizbeen Shah got his merigold fields back and how a smart intervention actually helped a whole village to get their business booming it is important to understand the development model used by SRSP which was to select the already existing local businesses which were not doing well and find ways and means to improve them.  

The objective of the project as the name indicates was the enhancement in income generation through various methods including skill development trainings of the participants, value addition in the selected businesses, developing linkages with markets, provision of agriculture and livestock extension services and also constant support and handholding.

During my research, I saw all the project activities and met scores of men and women who had benefited from the project activities. There were so many success stories and it is indeed a fact that the project has positively impacted hundreds of lives, livelihoods and households.

However, what I found to be the most remarkable aspect of the project was actually the excellent quality of work done by the project managers and team who had designed their value chain activities in such an outstanding manner that their small initiatives, interventions and activities succeeded in producing astounding results.

I hope that my observations and reflections would reach the government of KPK and they get the message that if there is a dedicated team of people who understand the problems faced by the communities in their businesses and can find solutions to overcome the bottlenecks, they can perform miracles and actually bring the dead to life as the story of Niazbeen Shah will tell.

I asked Nizazbeen Shah how he got his merigold farm back, “There was no help available to us from the government. The SRSP has long been working here and actually my tube wells was also a gift of SRSP back in 2007. I reached out to them for advice and they came up with the idea of installing solar panels for tube wells and decided to do a pilot project. My farm was the first one selected," Niazbeen explained.

The SRSP installed solar panels successfully and soon the pump was running on solar power.

“Because of the solar power we had electricity for the whole day and the tube well was functional again," he explained. “It changed everything. The dead land became alive and the flowers bloomed ” Niazbeen reported proudly.

Running the tube wells on solar power was one of the interventions in the merigold value chain that SRSP had selected in District Nowshera. The marigold business had all but come to a halt because of water shortage. By providing solar power to the tube wells the issue of constant supply of electricity was resolved.

But that was not the only intervention of the cleverly designed activity. A large pool was dug along the tube wells which was filled with water during the day so that the stored water could be taken by channels further and to ensure water availability at all times.

Then, Niazbeen Shah was provided with a local fish variety to release in the pond and also the right fish food. I saw the fish swimming in the pool and was told that the Rs6000 worth of fish would be ready to sell at Rs600 a kilo and would fetch more than Rs100,000 in only ten months.

As the next step the dynamic project manager in Nowshera decided to develop farm to markets linkages in Islamabad and Lahore. The merigold from Walai was a hit in Lahore and Islamabad flower market because of its size and fragrance and Niazbeen Shah started to get more orders than he could actually deliver.

Merigold is sold in form of a simple garland and there are usually about a dozen flowers in a garland. Mostly the picking and making of garland is done by women and all the women in the village without exception were engaged in making the merigold garland.

In each household in Walai today there are heaps of fresh merigold brought from farms in the morning and the women spare some time during the day to make garlands which are then collected at various points and transported to the market. It usually takes about one minute to make a garland and there are hundreds of garlands made by a household each day on an average.

Everybody in the village is earning with merigold from growing, making garlands, transporting and selling.

The interventions did not even end there. The project also introduced new varieties of imported flowers that were popular in main markets like Gladiolus which fetched good price and succeeded in growing them in Walai.

Other than merigold and Gladiolus now there are orange farms also flourishing and producing excellent quality oranges in the season.

Today, there are many solar powered pumps in Walai, installed by merigold growers, by themselves, who have been inspired by the success of Niazbeen Shah’s farm.

When I asked Niazbeen how much has the project contributed in improving his livelihood his answer was, “I owe everything to them. They had actually changed the destiny of the whole village."

I believe that the SRSP can play an enormous role in poverty alleviation of the whole province of KPK through similar thoughtful and creative initiatives. They have remarkable skills in identifying the problems in the business value chains and finding, simple, low cost solutions for them. 

Their intervention has been a whooping success in terms of increasing the income of the small businessmen and entrepreneurs. In total sixty men and sixty women participated in the merigold value chain activity. Remarkably the merigold production increased from five to 17 mounds per farmer and income has increased from Rs17,000 to Rs74,749 per beneficiary per year.