Growing peanuts in Yemen [Archives:2008/1217/Business & Economy]

December 18 2008

Ali Saeed
Expected to become the bio-fuel of the future and an important source of revenue for some of the world's poorest countries, groundnuts more commonly known as peanuts have an ever more promising future. The agricultural sector is an important source of Yemeni income. Over the past two years, up to 74 percent of the population has depended on it as a source of income, with peanuts contributing to about 4 percent of the total GDP, according to the World Bank.

A peanut is a member of the legumes family that is related to peas, lentils, chickpeas and other beans. The flower of the peanut is borne aboveground but due to its heavy weight bends and eventually buries itself where the peanut actually matures. The veined brown shell or pod of the peanut contains two or three kernels. Each oval-shaped kernel is comprised of two off-white lobes that are covered by a brown-red skin.

Peanuts originated in South America thousands of years ago. Spanish and Portuguese explorers discovered them and brought them on their voyages to resource-rich Africa and from there it was introduced to other countries.

Peanuts and Health

Peanuts have a variety of health benefits. First, they are an excellent source of “good” monounsaturated fats which are important for the human diet as they promote a healthy heart. They also contain magnesium, folate, vitamin E, copper and arginine which help to dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow, and fiber -all of which are known to lower risk of cardiovascular disease. The recommended daily dose to help your heart is a small handful, which is equivalent to about 60 peanuts. This reportedly diminishes the danger of cardiovascular disease by up to thirty seven percent compared to those who never eat peanuts. Manufacturers have moved quickly to provide consumers with small, portion-control packets, which can be found in grocery stores, airports and., in some countries, vending machines.

A growing database of studies attesting to the health benefits of peanuts also indicates that they have antioxidants that protect the cells from cancer. They are found to contain polyphenols, a chemical that has antioxidants properties. Antioxidants are the natural substances in plants that protect the body from free radicals – 'volatile' chemicals in the blood. Although free radicals do play an important role in the immune system, they also alter cholesterol in a process known as oxidation, which is thought to speed up the hardening of the arteries. Red and orange fruits and vegetables are already known to be particularly high in antioxidants and so are peanuts. Lastly, according to a research published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, regular eating of niacin-rich foods like peanuts gives protection against Alzheimer's disease and age-related cognitive decline.

Climate for peanuts growing

According to farmers from Al-Mahwit governorate, peanut growing needs a moderate climate. Abdullah, farmer from Al-Mahwit said, “Governorates like Abyan, Al-Baydha, Al-Mahwit and Hajja are suitable land for peanut cultivation.”

Peanuts grow best in light, sandy loam soil. They require five months of warm weather, and an annual rainfall of 500 to 1000 mm or the equivalent in irrigation water. The pods ripen 120 to 150 days after the seeds are planted. If the crop is harvested too early, the pods will be unripe. If they are harvested late, the pods will snap off at the stalk, and will remain in the soil. Peanuts are particularly susceptible to contamination during growth and storage. Poor storage of peanuts can lead to an infection by mold fungus.

Cultivation-a family process

The process of peanut cultivation brings the whole family together with women and children also participating. It is a friendly occasion and often neighbors participate. After planting the seed, harvesting occurs in two stages. First the main root of the peanut plant must be cut off by cutting through the soil just below the level of the peanut pods. Usually men or machines lifts the “bush” from the ground and shake it, then inverts the bush, leaving the plant upside down on the ground to keep the peanuts out of the dirt. This allows the peanuts to slowly dry to a bit less than a third of their original moisture level over a period of 3-4 days. Between the stage of planting and cultivating, farmers water the plant in order to make peanuts grow comfortably.

Peanuts business

Fuad Howaidi, Manager of Commercial Exchange at the Ministry of Industry and Trade said peanut production in Yemen is still limited. In 2007, Yemen imported 2,353 tons of shelled peanuts with total cost of YR 310 million. Also they imported 1,425 tons of non-shelled peanuts worth YR 227 million from Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt. He added that peanuts' growing in Yemen does not satisfy local demand.

Peanuts farmers usually sell their product to merchants who have shops in local markets. They sell their products by kilogram. Ridwan, a farmer said, “We sell our product to local markets in our governorates by kilo, one kilo costs YR 250.” He added that from the local markets in governorates, his produce will be distributed to different Yemeni cities to be bought by people there.

Peanut consumption in Yemen

Most Yemenis give peanuts as gifts on occasions such as weddings and Eid. Peanuts are also passed around at qat chews due to growing awareness of qat not being healthy. The little nut is used in the chocolate industry and, in bakeries, often appears in different kinds of sweets.

Challenges of peanuts plantation

There are several challenges that face the Yemeni agricultural sector in general, but the most important to face the peanut industry is drought. As Yemenis mainly count on rainwater for irrigation, peanut production is a gamble. Peanuts take many months to be cultivated during which time it is important that the plants receive enough water so as not to lose the harvest. In Yemen, the best areas for growing peanut plants are mountainous terrains where it is most difficult to ensure regular irrigation.

The second challenge is the trend of swapping food for qat in cultivation, as most Yemeni farmers tend to replace their traditional food produce for the qat tree because it is easier to harvest and at times more lucrative.

Third is the problem of internal migration. Fifty years ago, Yemenis used to depend on agriculture, but after the revolution most of them entered the business world or traveled to work in the Gulf. After the gulf crisis they came back, but opted to stay in cities instead of going to the countryside and working in farms. As a result of this, most farms now suffer from negligence. In addition to this, youth is nowadays migrating from villages to the cities in large numbers, leaving their farms behind.

Agriculture can offer pathways out of poverty if efforts are made to increase productivity in the staple foods sector by connecting smallholders to rapidly expanding high-value horticulture, poultry, aquaculture, and dairy markets, as well as by generating jobs in rural economy. Moreover, greater investment in the Yemeni agricultural sector must be given priority in the development agenda, if the goals of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 are to be realized.