Imagine a wide, sunny and fertile oasis, 800 metres above sea level, at the foot of the impressive Himalayan mountain range, with a pristine air and water supply.
Now picture a ground full of rich soil, free of man-made chemicals, nurturing 65 types of nuts, fruits and vegetables with high nutrient content and intense aromas: rare wild sour cherries, mulberries, blackberries, sea buckthorn, raspberries and pomegranates, along with organically-grown blackcurrants, sultanas, apricots, strawberries and more.

This rural paradise is located in Samarkand, the second-largest city in Uzbequistan and home of the Turkiston Gulba, the first FAIRTRADE cooperative in the country, a group of 150 farming families who work with Silk Road Organic Foods, a 100 percent subsidiary of Austrian food trader Marap HandelsmbH.

Founded in the 7th century B.C., Samarkand has been an important centre for the silk and other trade routes from China, Afghanistan, Iran and India. It was also a rich farming region.
Once an oasis along the “Silk Road”, during Soviet control the province of Samarkland — and all of Uzbekistan — embarked in intensive cotton and rice production, even in the most deserted areas.
Irrigation water was taken from two major rivers that feed the Aral Sea, which was the fourth-largest inland water body in the world.

In just over 30 years of intensive monoculture, the Aral Sea shrunk to two-fifths of its original size, the water level has dropped by 16 metres and the volume has been reduced by 75 per cent, with all known fish unable to survive in the toxic salty sludge produced by man-made fertilizers and pesticides. The devastating ecological effect has created severe economic and social problems in the region.

Unsuitable for intensive cotton farming, the valley that hosts the Turkiston Gulba cooperative and the Marap projects was long ignored by the large cotton agro-industrial projects. Today, these soils and wild flora, untouched by chemicals, are among the most valuable assets the community offers. The magnificent valley’s potential was spotted by Marap founder Josef Bertagnoli while searching for new food ingredients for his trading business.

Josef fell in love with Samarkland and its people, rich culture, landscape and bounty of unique foods. He even met his wife there, who is also a business partner. j Bertagnoli says proudly. Today, the company employs 40 people in Austria and 30 permanent and 300 during the processing season (10 months) in Uzbequistan.
Marap offers 150 different products, including dried organic and fair trade-certified fruits, nuts and vegetables from Uzbequistan, quinoa from Bolivia, physallis from Ecuador and sugar from Paraguay.

Buyers around the world appreciate Marap’s high-quality products at competitive prices, positioning the firm among the leading suppliers of organic nutritious ingredients and ready-to-eat meals.

In 2011, the Turkiston Gulba cooperative and Silk Road Organic Foods became fair trade-certified. Due to the great success of this first Fairtrade project in Uzbequistan, in 2012 Marap is planning to bring two more farmer groups into the Fairtrade system. Standards for several fruits such as raisins, apricots, pomegranates and walnuts are on the way, to allow the new Fairtrade farmer cooperatives to receive premiums for their valuable work and cargo.
Marap expects to expand the number of fair trade farmer members to 1,000 over the next few years. “Once the community sees what sustainable farming means and the power of working as a team with the same goals and values, it is much easier to grow,” says Bertagnoli.
Last year Marap, with the Austria Development Agency (ADA), constructed the world’s largest carbon-neutral solar and biomass dryer system, installed at Silk Road Organic Foods in Samarkland.

The solar panel system was assembled in record time — six months — allowing Marap to double the volume of sun-dried fruits and vegetables from the Turkiston Gulba cooperative, the wild collection areas and its own farms.
“It is a major investment that will be paid off soon, considering that Uzbequistan offers 300 days of strong sunlight,” says Bertagnoli.

The drying concept has been designed to allow 100 per cent traceability, batch by batch. The new system allows Marap to offer sweet, sour and gold berries, mulberries, sea buckthorn, goji berries and a number of high-quality dried vegetables such as zucchinis, tomatoes, egg-plants, carrots and parsley.

With the new solar drying system, other small-scale farmer groups may become suppliers of fresh fruits and vegetables without become spoiled and the need to travel long distances, reducing waste and increasing their income at fair trade prices.

A second part of the drying system planned for 2012 is a “biomass recycling burner,” to enable Marap drying its organic lines at night or in bad weather, obtaining energy in the form of warm air. The agricultural waste such as cherry pits and nut shells will be utilized as fuel.
Bertagnoli said it feels good to improve the quality of life for the people of Uzbequistan, one of the three largest cotton producers and one of the largest water consumers and polluters per capita in the world.

Marap has structured its business for three distinct markets: One-third is dedicated to selling in bulk the ingredients they produce and source; one-third to attend retail shops and large supermarket retail chains and one-third for private label retail projects: Pearls of Samarkand is Marap’s latest brand, designed for high-quality organic dried fruits and nuts, super foods and exotic and special regional delicacies; Bio-leben and Lifestyle Organic cater to the food retail trade, with a classic range of organic dried fruits, nuts, seeds, sugar, cereals, flours, oils, waffles and snacks, all certified organic; the Bio-logisch brand is designed for large buyers in the hospitality and catering industries. The range includes large safe containers with high-quality products for restaurateurs at an excellent price-performance ratio and KRESTO was Marap’s first brand and, today, it stands for not organic-certified pulses, special cereals and Demerara sugar to serve the food retail trade and large customers in the hospitality industry.

With an annual turnover EUR 15 Mio Marap sees further growth. “We will now consolidate our business in the EU countries where we are already present and will focus on France, Germany, Scandinavia and the UK. The US and Canada are also attractive markets, where Marap is already spreading its wings. The secret of the company’s success? “We select our partners well, because we want to make strong alliances and to develop long-lasting relationships”, says Bertagnoli.