As the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) prioritizes efforts to diversify the economy and limit its dependence on crude, an entirely different oil sector is booming – olive.
In 2008 and 2009, the KRG’s Ministry of Agriculture visited the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria, famous for its olives, to learn about the trees. They returned with saplings and found that the trees grew well in the Kurdistan Region’s soil. After Turkey and its Syrian proxies seized control of Afrin in March 2018, a group of farmers established a little Afrin in the Kurdistan Region, using trees they brought with them.
In 2008, there were 169,400 olive trees in the Kurdistan Region, according to the ministry. Today, after the government spent at least $23 million planting and importing trees, there is more than 23 times that number.
“Kurdistan Region has passed a good phase in planting olive trees,” Hussein Hamakarim, head of the KRG’s directorate of farming and forests, told Rudaw. “According to initial figures, there are currently about four million olive trees in the Kurdistan Region.”
With more trees, more factories to process the olives have opened up. New factories have been opened in Halabja, Raniya, and Kalar, in addition to the two old ones in Halabja and Erbil.
Last year, 306 farmers took 1,103 tons of olives to Zamzamin factory in Erbil, producing 24.7 tons of olive oil. One week into this year’s harvest “and so far we have received 150 tons of olives from farmers to produce olive oil,” Sulaiman Shekho, head of the factory, told Rudaw.
After extracting the oil, the remains are used to produce soap and other beauty products.
“We have so far produced 50 tons of soap. Fifty percent of this was from Kurdistan Region’s olives and the rest from Afrin olives,” said Shekho.
Shekho, who also owns an orchard of 45,000 olive trees, says they see better yield in the Kurdistan Region than in Afrin. “Kurdistan Region’s soil is very suitable for planting olive trees. We imported some trees from Afrin and planted them here. Their production was more than those in Afrin,” he explained.
The growing business, however, means a drop in prices. Niyazi Mahmoud, who has an olive orchard in Shamamk, Erbil, says the price of olive oil is half what it was a few years ago.
“A kilo was worth 25,000 Iraqi dinars ($21) before, but last year a kilo was worth 12,000-15,000 Iraqi dinars ($10-$12.50) because of an increase in production,” said the farmer.
Reducing the Kurdistan Region’s financial dependency on the oil sector is a focus of the current government. “We will develop the agricultural, industrial, and tourism sectors to attract foreign investment,” reads its agenda.
The parliament is currently drafting a bill to protect domestic agriculture and industry.