Working on more productive and sustainable horticulture in Morocco

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Horticulture in Morocco has to become more sustainable and productive. Researchers of Wageningen University & Research have designed a demonstration greenhouse and are developing a research and education programme together with regional partners. In this project plant and economic researchers of Wageningen work together. 'The tomato production in Agadir can easily be doubled. It is about small steps, for most producers a low cost strategy works best.'

“In Morocco the tomato production can be improved in terms of quantity and quality. The latter is important for the export to Europe. Because of increasing drought it is also essential to reduce water use,” says Cecilia Stanghellini of Wageningen Plant Research. Morocco wants to further develop its substantial agricultural sector in order to increase farm income in rural areas and to prepare for future challenges concerning food security and climate change.

Among other vegetables and fruits the country annually produces more than one and a quarter million tonnes of tomatoes. Nearly one third is exported abroad, the rest is for the domestic market. The key region for tomato cultivation in Morocco is Agadir. “There are some big tomato producers in Agadir who export tomatoes to Europe, and many small and middle-sized producers who mainly produce for local markets,” says Marc Ruijs of Wageningen Economic Research.

Centre of Excellence

Stanghellini and Ruijs have recently designed a demonstration and research greenhouse and started working on a research and education programme. The plan will lay the foundation of a Centre of Excellence in Horticulture in Agadir and was made in cooperation with the Complex Horticole d’Agadir (CHA) in Agadir. The Association of vegetable and fruit producers and exporters in Morocco (APEFEL) is involved, as well as the agricultural counsellor of the Dutch embassy. The study is financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs through RVO, the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. “The Netherlands are at the forefront when it comes to horticulture and greenhouse construction. Dutch companies export both technology and knowledge,” explains Ruijs, a specialist in horticultural economics.

Climate control

“The productivity in Agadir can easily be doubled from 15 to 20 kilo tomatoes to 40 kilo per square meter,” says Stanghellini, who is an expert on greenhouse technology and energy and water use reduction. A demonstration greenhouse will show farmers the differences between current local cultivation techniques and the effects of innovations and technologies that will increase production and sustainability. “It is about small steps, for most producers a low cost strategy works best. The investments are not big but nevertheless will lead to an improved and more sustainable production,” adds Ruijs.

Better climate management will lead to bigger crops and improved quality. The Agadir region has a desert climate with hot days and cold nights. “The currently used greenhouses have non-controlled openings in the roof and suffer from huge fluctuations in temperature. Better design of the greenhouses and ventilation control will solve this problem. And the use of aluminium energy screens above the crops under the roof during night time will help to keep the warmth inside”, clarifies Stanghellini.

Closed irrigation

The already dry Agadir area sees even less rain than before and the periods of drought are longer as a result of climate change. In addition, irrigation is managed poorly and pumping up ground water makes the ground water table drop a few metres every year. Stanghellini continues: “Producers need to switch to closed irrigation systems that allow for drain water to be reused. Therefore they will need to cultivate their crops on substrate instead of ground.” One of the first tests in the demonstration greenhouse will be the measuring of water and nutrient use in open and closed irrigation systems. “We did this in Italy before and farmers could see for themselves how much they could save on fertilizer with a closed system. When farmers realize that they will earn their investment back in a couple of years, they have an incentive,” Stanghellini says. 

Future farmers and researchers

Not only the technologists need to be brought on a higher level, but also the farmers, researchers, trainers and university teachers. Wageningen will be involved in designing courses that will take advantage of the new greenhouse facility to educate greenhouse staff at several levels. “With the staff of CHA of the Institut Agronomique et Véterinaire Hassan II, where future engineers are educated, four priorities were identified. These are climate management, water and fertilizer management, crop protection and crop management,” says Ruijs. Possible additions later on are supply chain analysis and post-harvest loss.

The building of the demonstration and research greenhouse is now being tendered among interested Dutch companies. And Wageningen experts and the CHA staff are designing a brand-new two-year course for senior greenhouse staff. In July 2018 the current project will be completed. Then the involved parties will look for funding of further activities.

Successful horticulture projects

The Agadir study shows how complementary expertise of different research disciplines in Wageningen blend into successful horticulture projects worldwide. Wageningen Plant Research has contributed to the founding of many centres of expertise, for example in Mexico, Chili, the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. “We are also working on the optimization of greenhouse systems in Indonesia, Turkey, China, Argentina and Australia. We are doing many of these kind of projects, sometimes with other departments such as Wageningen Economic Research or Wageningen Environmental Research,” adds Stanghellini.

Ruijs and his colleagues of Wageningen Economic Research examine local, regional and global markets, analyse supply chains and study socio-economic impact on for example local employment. “It is not all about technology and productivity. Quality matters too. That is why we look into opportunities for high-quality products and different market segments. In Agadir for example some tomato varieties may fetch higher prices and restaurants and hotels may be willing to pay more.”

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