Business Development or Solidarity? How to help Palestinian farmers

“Palestinian olive oil was once world renowned,” says Jamil, a livelihoods expert, in the car on the way to the factory. “With 100,000 Palestinian families depending on olive production, export sales could make a significant contribution to broad-based economic development. Some NGOs talk of solidarity but solidarity is not enough to develop a viable economy. We cannot, long-term, sell basic olive oil at premium prices – look at the solidarity market in Europe, now they are in recession it is not holding up. We need people to buy Palestinian olive oil because we produce it well. We need to be good in business.”

We enter the factory and are met by the dynamic company CEO, Ziad. “I was born to sell. My father established this business, I was involved in it as a kid. We worked with multinationals so I learnt how to be a business partner with them. We were creating jobs but we were importing – I want to help my people grow by exporting. I want to be the first Palestinian multinational. Premium pricing requires both a premium product – extra virgin olive oil, not the basic oil – and premium marketing – the right label, the right colour bottle, the right brand. Palestinians used to make the best olive oil in the world. We will again.”

We travel to the meet the farmers. They proudly show their Golden Award certificate. They talk about how higher standards in growing and processing olives have enabled them to make at least 10% more from the same olive trees. The business development approach pays. Literally.

But they also talk of challenges which business development alone cannot overcome.

“Israel controls all the water. We don’t get enough water for our groves. You can easily see when a grove is Palestinian or settler by how green it is. ”

“We get stuck at checkpoints, it takes hours to get anywhere. It pushes our costs up and up. We cannot compete.”

“The Israeli separation wall was built through my olive groves. To get to my land on the other side of the wall, I have to apply each time for permission. To make space for the wall 200 of my trees were uprooted. The trees were over 300 years old.”

“The economics for Palestinians are always constrained by the politics of the situation,” says Mohammed, an NGO worker. “You cannot say we are open for business when we do not control our water supply and our roads. We need people overseas to share what is happening. Olive trees are not just a product.  We grow olive trees because if we leave the land untended it is vulnerable to confiscation. We grow olive trees because they are the symbol of our people.”

“When outsiders help,” says Reyad, a farmer, “it gives me hope that we are not alone, that people care about us. When I say thank you I do not mean only for the help with the olive processing, I mean for caring. I lost my trees, my farmland. But well, what can I expect? So it is …” He does not cry. I must not. I have no words. I hold his hand. We hug.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76