Life for women in Gaza has never been easy, the frequent escalation of violence has made the situation even worse. Add to it the unemployment crisis, with half of the workforce looking for a job. When farmers are wilting in a world where food demand only rises, agriculture offers life-saving opportunities to many in Gaza. Aseel Al-Najjar, Ghaida Qudeih, and Nadine Abu Rouk – three young women with degrees in diverse fields, sidestepped the crisis in 2020 by starting their project, Green Girls.
Living in Khuza’a, a rural area adjacent to the Israeli border with thousands of acres of farmland, agriculture was an option that could be capitalized on.
The idea to work in agriculture and attract other women — from planting and harvesting crops to marketing them throughout Gaza — was fleshed out soon, although there was a lot of insecurity around the project. It was daunting, the path to farming was circuitous, but the young women were excited about having a blank slate to work with.
Tired of unrewarding volunteer work, Abu Rouk, 25, a finance and banking graduate, says, “Ideas like a beauty salon or a bakery needed quite a bit of capital. It was then my father suggested we start an agricultural project.”
AN OPPORTUNITY AND A CHALLENGE
In Gaza, more than 11% of women work in agriculture, which has about 340,000 acres of arable land. With Green Girls, they started building a new life, farming the land and serving the community. But it isn’t an easy journey. Gaining access to capital and land are big hurdles for beginning farmers.
Qudeih, 26, an English and Commerce graduate, who became acquaintances with Al-Najjar and Abu Rouk through volunteer work and youth community initiatives, says, “Women support men in the agricultural fields. But with support from men, starting a farming project by women was an alien concept in our society.” Among many challenges, including the manual hard work, planning and setting up the project, she says, was difficult since they had a mere $300 funding available. To add to that, none of them had any background in agriculture.
They took help from their friend Khalil Abu Rjeleh in renting agricultural tools from a store (the community would not lend to girls) and were able to plant their first crop — peas.
“After consulting our friend Khalil, veteran farmers, and some agricultural engineers, we started work on the farm. Putting in long hours — often 12 hours a day — we cleaned the land, plowed it, planted seeds, irrigated, and then harvested the crop, which we promoted to the market,” says Qudeih.
Without financial and technological support — for planting, harvesting, processing, or marketing — the Green Girls relied on their determination and willpower to make it through their first harvest. This self-reliance is all too common in Gaza, where there are limited resources for most businesses.
“We didn’t receive any support from project incubators in Gaza. We got a little support from agricultural institutions but not enough to cover the costs of the entire project. We were frustrated when we realized we were fighting for our pilot project without support. But we are determined and will not abandon our dream or stop working on this project,” says Abu Rouk.
One of the main challenges in southern Gaza is water scarcity. “And what little we have is saline, making it unsuitable for irrigating a number of crops, especially the ones we would like to grow,” Qudeih says.
Resorting to fresh water is expensive, and there’s also no storage facility — they don’t have reservoirs – and renting ponds from neighboring farmers increases the cost of production.
“Another challenge is our inability to build greenhouses. The price of [ building a greenhouse] on one dunam (around 900 sq. meter) is $21,000. This is a significant expense for us at the beginning, even though greenhouses are critically important — they protect crops from climate fluctuations and pests, allowing us to grow all kinds of crops throughout the year,” she adds.
FARM ON A BORDER HAS ITS CONS
They irrigate their fields manually due to the lack of an automated irrigation system. Since sharing the border with Israel because of the ongoing conflict makes it unsafe, Qudeih says having access to the latest agritech would have aided them in operating their farm with an app, and irrigation and pesticide spraying could have been taken care of without stepping into the field.
“In the last war, in May 2021, we lost a significant portion of our carrot crop from our five dunam [1.25 acres] plot. According to our production plan, each dunam [quarter acre] should produce five tons of carrots, yielding 25 tons of carrots from five dunams. Because of the war, we could not irrigate our fields for ten days, which badly damaged our crops. We were able to harvest a mere seven tons,” she says.
“We have become accustomed to active shooting almost daily,” says Qudeih. “One day, we were working on the land and began to feel a burning sensation in the nose and the back of our throat and chest. We left the farm and realized that the airstrike created a toxic plume.”
The young women have moments of extreme fatigue. It is an exhausting job, although an escape from the harsh reality of unemployment and uncompensated volunteer labor.
The profits vary every season according to the type of crop and market demand. Abu Rouk says that some crops have high-profit margins that cover the operational costs of planting them, “while others yield such little revenue, barely covering their production costs.”
SOCIAL MEDIA AND EXPANDING BEYOND GAZA
Social media played a big role in promoting their venture and products, championing women’s labor.
“The region where our farm is located is known as the bread basket of Gaza. Various crops are produced throughout the year, and people come here to buy. We contract with wholesale merchants when we have a large crop. If we have a small amount, we promote it on our social media pages,” says Al-Najjar, who graduated with a degree in elementary education.
Our customers trust us, she adds, “We started with three dunams of open farmland and then rented another five, thanks to social media, which enabled us to obtain new funding. Now, we have eight dunams of open farmland and two dunams in greenhouses.”
Currently, they sell their products in Gaza, but with a new food culture whetting interest in agriculture, they aim to expand the border and produce and sell high-quality, nutritious, and pesticide-free food.
“We dream of selling our products in markets outside Gaza, but we need to officially register our company in the Ministry of Economy, which is expensive. We are trying to raise funds to register our products. Furthermore, the closed border crossings prevent us from selling our products in foreign markets. We are working hard to get Green Girls into all markets because our [social media] followers want us to do this,” adds Al-Najjar.
EMBRACING TRADITIONAL MEANS OF BREAD
Abu Rjeleh, who helped the young women get essential agricultural tools when they started the venture, says, “They adhere to a good plan that follows the appropriate cycle for each crop. They are interested in farming light crops, such as peas, carrots, and melons, that require a lower investment, allowing them to move forward with their project without an undue financial burden.”
“When they started, I saw them laboring for long hours — 12 hours a day. They have managed to escape the grim reality of unemployment for a kind of work they have come to love,” Khalil adds.
It is almost unprecedented for women to run arable farms. But with more role models like Green Girls and their huge social media following, farming could be seen as quite a desirable, almost cool career.
“We started a simple project and escaped from unemployment. Our parents supported us despite how society judged women’s work. Now, we have secured our independent and profitable work,” says Al-Najjar.
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