Quinoa is a revenue-generating crop that has the potential to improve the livelihoods of poor smallholder farmers in areas with extreme soil and climatic conditions. As such, it is well suited for addressing income challenges faced by smallholder farmers in marginal regions of Morocco. Quinoa was introduced in Morocco in the 2000s, however its production has been constrained by lack of access to well-adapted and high-yielding cultivars, inappropriate crop management practices, weak value chains and limited market demand. The proposed project will be implemented in Rhamna Province, where a significant number of farmers live under the poverty threshold and where a quinoa value chain already exists but is constrained by various factors. The project will analyze the existing quinoa value chain, develop a pro-poor business model and scale it up. It will introduce and disseminate quinoa cultivars with high tolerance to abiotic stresses and high productivity and yield stability, as well as promote appropriate crop production/management practices among smallholder quinoa growers. It will increase the demand for quinoa-based products by raising awareness about its nutritional value through publicity campaigns that primarily focus on women. The project will have a strong focus on the empowerment of women, who will be actively involved in the project’s planning and implementation as well as various stages of the value chain. It will also work to create a conductive policy environment for scaling up quinoa production and marketing through engagement with policy makers and other key stakeholders in Morocco. The project is expected to benefit around 1,075 farmers and their family members. It will be implemented over a period of three years.
Rural poverty remains a challenge in Morocco, with about 14.7% of the population estimated to be living on less than US$2 a day (HCP, 2010). The poverty is predicted to intensify due to the deteriorating quality of land and water resources and the effect that this deterioration has on livelihoods.
Water resources in Morocco are becoming scarcer – a situation aggravated by the effects of climate change, erratic rainfall and a succession of drought years. Sustainability of irrigated agriculture in Morocco is also threatened by the salinization of land and water resources. Approximately 30% of the soils in irrigated areas are salt-affected. As a result, average yield losses are estimated to be as high as 50%, with economic losses exceeding US$ 0.2 billion per year (Taleb, 2006).
In this context, introduction of crops with a high value and a high tolerance to stress would enable to address simultaneously two interrelated challenges: abiotic stresses that undermine crop production and poverty that impacts the rural poor. In recent years, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa willd) has received much attention as a multi-purpose crop that can thrive in extreme soil and climatic conditions (Jacobsen et al., 2003). Quinoa is one of the most nutritious food crops currently known, regarded as a superfood because it contains all eight amino acids needed for human health. It is also gluten-free, has twice as much protein as maize, barley and wheat (Repo-Carrasco et al., 2003; Stikic et al., 2011), and more micronutrients than most staple grains, including wheat, rice and barley. Besides its use for human consumption, the quinoa seed, stems and foliage can be used as livestock and poultry feed. The utilization of various quinoa components, such as oil, starch, saponin and colourings, is in the process of being explored, with a potential to offer raw material for the chemical, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Quinoa has a high market value, generating 10 times more revenue per kilogram than wheat. As such, quinoa is an excellent choice for addressing food and income-related issues in marginal environments.
In Morocco, quinoa has been studied since 2000 as a drought and salinity-tolerant alternative crop that could contribute to the food security of people in mountainous areas (Benlhabib et al., 2014). A recent project led by Institut Agronomique et Véterinaire Hassan II and funded by the European Union – Sustainable water use securing food production in dry areas of the Mediterranean region (SWUP-MED) – demonstrated that quinoa grown under abiotic stress conditions in newly reclaimed sandy soils demonstrates higher economic and water saving values as well as grain and straw yields that those of wheat (Choukr-allah et al., 2016). Studies conducted in Marrakesh and Agadir showed that quinoa can be irrigated with saline water (up to 12 dS/m) without significant yield reduction and that a yield reduction of only 15% occurred when the crop received 50% of its total water requirement (Hirich et al., 2014a; Hirich et al., 2014b). The obtained results indicated that quinoa requires only half of the water quantity required by wheat. In the course of the SWUP-MED project, quinoa was tested on several farms in Bouchane with positive outcomes. It showed the potential to tolerate drought under rainfed conditions and high productivity when irrigated.
Quinoa has already been introduced in a dozen sites across the country and the number of quinoa growers is increasing each year, especially in Oujda, Benslimane, Fes, Laayoune, Boulmane and Marrakech. A survey was carried out by the SWUP-MED project among farmers in Rhamna Province to assess their perception of quinoa as a new crop that could potentially be introduced into their cropping systems (Pedersen et al., 2013). It found that the farmers would consider including quinoa in their production systems if there were a significant and sustainable market demand. The SWUP-MED project also analyzed quinoa market opportunities and social acceptance through surveys conducted nationally and regionally. The results revealed that quinoa could become a popular product on the Moroccan market due to its high nutritional value, but that intensive promotion campaigns would be needed in order to raise awareness among domestic consumers, given that quinoa is not part of the traditional diet. Some producer associations have already began producing quinoa-based processed products (e.g. couscous), including Chabab Mkhalif (Bouchane in Rhamna Province), Association Tirsal for Social Development (Agoudim commune in Khénifra), Association Moullablad (Ait Sbit in Rommani), Association of Cereals Producers (Berrechid). A few private companies, such as Amendy Food (Chichaoua) and Domaine Lion Agriculture (Marrakech) are also involved.
The demand for quinoa is growing and many farmers have taken the initiative to grow quinoa in various regions across the country. However, yield and production have been highly variable and inconsistent, averaging only 0.3-0.5 t/ha, while the maximum attainable yield can be up to 0.8-1.0 t/ha. A range of factors affect quinoa production, including the choice of cultivars, optimal sowing date, nutrient management, etc. Production and processing constraints that still need to be overcome in Morocco – in addition to those mentioned - include problems with seedling stand establishment, sensitivity to high temperatures and salinity, weed control and, more importantly, lack of knowledge about appropriate crop production/management practices. There is also a need to raise greater awareness among farmers, relevant government entities, the private sector and the general public about quinoa’s economic benefits and its potential as a stress-tolerant alternative crop for marginal environments.
The proposed project will combine scientific and practical expertise in addressing the challenges for sustainable production in marginal environments, aiming to put in place the prerequisites for scaling up quinoa cultivation in Morocco. It will introduce and disseminate quinoa cultivars with high tolerance to abiotic stresses and high productivity and yield stability. It will promote optimal crop production practices, enhancing quinoa growers’ knowledge of how to manage their cropping systems better in the face of climate change and degradation of natural resources. It will facilitate the formation of smallholder farmer cooperatives, improved access to credit and inputs, and linkages to markets. It will also stimulate market demand for quinoa and quinoa-based products. In this manner, the project will generate increased interest in the production and consumption of this superfood and ensure that it is sustained in the long term.
The project fits within the framework of Pillar 2 of the Morocco Green Plan, which focuses on the modernization of agriculture with social impact and investment in social initiatives to combat rural poverty. It supports smallholder agriculture in areas with fragile ecosystems (oasis, mountainous and marginal areas), aiming to improve the incomes of the most vulnerable farmers. A regional plan has been prepared comprising 300 to 400 social projects that will involve vulnerable farmers in viable activities backed by training and supervision. The government has budgeted about MAD 1.5 billion MAD per year to support regional development projects for poor communities. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery, Rural Development, Waters and Forestry has expressed interest to support the proposed project by matching IDRC’s contribution.