Arab world

How Date Farming Helps Yemenis on Soqotra

Development projects in Soqotra account for a fraction of funds requested by aid agencies every year, but the impact so far is wide and sustainable.
Yemen news, Yemen war, news on Yemen, Soqotra, Socotra, date farming, Yemen agriculture, Yemen economy, Yemen conflict, Fernando Carvajal

Dates in Birkat al-Mouz in Oman. © Smaks K / Shutterstock

December 06, 2021 10:29 EDT

The disconnect between donor-based development aid and local needs grows wider as the crisis deepens in Yemen. Focus remains on prioritizing emergency response to crisis zones, such as the devastating environment in Mareb, rather than the development of stable economic zones. At the micro-level, political stability has proved effective for humanitarian aid and job creation. 

Chaos Makes a Comeback in Southern Yemen


As the economy continues to deteriorate in war-torn Yemen, with widespread protests from Lahj to Shebwa and Hadhramawt, there has been little to no hope. Devaluation of the Yemeni rial is a prominent issue driving protests across southern provinces, while the mass displacement of civilians from northern provinces is driven by violence and unpaid salaries by Houthi authorities. The humanitarian crisis deepens as unemployment grows and donor funds are insufficient to meet demand by international nongovernmental organizations. Opportunities for job creation are minimal, but small initiatives led by local actors, with direct assistance from state donors, have made progress as economic activity contributes to local stability.

In a micro-environment like Soqotra, political stability over the past seven years of conflict has come at a high price. While fighting at a scale similar to the Yemeni mainland has not reached the Soqotra archipelago, the political conflict managed to disrupt life until a degree of order was established over a year ago. Humanitarian assistance has flowed into Soqotra for years following devastating cyclones, but with recent political stability on the island, assistance has shifted to more permanent projects — from hospitals and a power station to the island’s first factory.

Small Steps Forward

While industries struggle through a moribund economy, the agriculture sector has received much-needed investment, mostly from aid agencies. Challenges remain, like annual storms, drought, pests and shortage of labor. From Hodeida to Hadhramawt, agriculture has struggled. Date farming is a particular example. This sector has suffered across the mainland, but it is being resurrected on Soqotra.

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In August 2020, a group of women led now by Wafa Mohammed was hired to operate the first factory on Soqotra island. Built in the outskirts of Hadibu, with funds provided by the UAE’s Khalifa Bin Zayed Foundation, the date factory became the first major project of its kind on the island. The factory can deliver nearly three tons of dates per day from a harvest of around half a million palm trees. According to Mohammed, this factory collects produce from around 500 farmers and has a direct impact on the economy of nearly 2,000 families on the island.

Prior to the construction of the factory, production was only for local consumption. Saeed Othman, a date farmer in Soqotra, said that in the past, “production was very weak because it was just for daily consumption.” The island also lacked other agricultural products and dates were often used as feed for livestock. Production at the factory has also created a competitive environment among local farmers as demand for higher quality increased for export, said Othman.

The factory project instantly provided unexpected opportunities to a group of college graduates, who simply had no hopes beyond the usual “routine at home, cooking, cleaning, doing the other home chores,” said Mohammed. Farmers across the island also highlight the opportunities created by the factory, primarily through an increase in income impacting their daily life. Farmers and factory workers alike enjoy the benefits from a stable environment that allows economic activity outside a war economy that prolongs the armed conflict on the mainland.

Conflict and Aid

As local, regional and international organizations jockey for their share of available funds since the donors’ conference on March 1, the debate continues over alternative approaches. UN organizations requested nearly $4 billion this year, only to receive pledges for $1.7 billion, of which an undisclosed amount has been dispersed so far.

Corruption, low-impact and reduced funding have all contributed to wide-ranging debates in recent months over alternatives to the current process. The multilateral approach has failed to deliver sufficient funds to meet demand, while warring parties continue to capture aid and obstruct delivery. In an environment like Soqotra, isolated from the armed conflict on the Yemeni mainland, direct delivery of aid by a state actor has proved efficient, delivering long-term impact on the ground.

The date factory project came as the political conflict in Soqotra settled. Under the current circumstances, the situation in Soqotra could offer an alternative. For example, in contrast to affected areas in Hadhramawt or Mahra, soon after Cyclone Chapala struck the Soqotra in 2015 and following Cyclone Makunu in 2018, the United Arab Emirates delivered life-saving assistance directly to the people on the island. During the length of the conflict, the UAE has delivered over $110 million in aid to the Soqotra archipelago. The aid has targeted areas in public and health services, transport and storage, fishing sector, construction, public education, energy and potable water.

Aid provided over the years also targeted farmers, who not only benefit from the funds provided for their crops, but also from projects like the date factory. The factory, for example, has provided an outlet for farmers to export goods rather than relying on local consumption alone. The aid provided has allowed the farmers to expand and stabilize harvests, improve the quality of products and increase revenue. In addition, the power plant in Hadibu, with a capacity of 2.2 megawatts, provides facilities like the date factory with a sustainable power supply that contributes to local economic security. The UAE also provided the Qalansiya area with 800 kilowatts. Other projects include a distribution network for more than 30 sites and solar-powered street lighting.

Development projects in Soqotra account for a fraction of funds requested by aid agencies every year, but the impact so far is wide and sustainable. Other environments could emulate the process in Soqotra, but deeply rooted political conflicts remain an obstacle. Aden, the interim capital, continues to suffer from a lack of sustainable power source, unemployment is high despite efforts by Aden authorities and the political conflict easily escalates to armed clashes. On the mainland, it is more difficult, but opportunities abound across southern provinces.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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