On a fine January morning, Muhammad Sajjad was all smiles after seeing thriving saplings of Chinese sweet chili at a nursery in a remote farm near Pakistan's eastern city of Multan.
"These saplings are very close to my heart; in their blossom, I can see the future of Pakistan's agriculture industry, which will bloom just like my saplings when modern Chinese technology is applied," Sajjad says.
Launched in 2013, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a corridor linking Pakistan's Gwadar Port with Kashgar in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which highlights energy, transport and industrial cooperation in the first phase, while the latest phase expands to the fields of agriculture and livelihood.
Echoing the CPEC's cooperation in agriculture, in 2021, China Machinery Engineering Corp and Sichuan Litong Food Group established a company and carried out a red chili contract farming project, and one of six model farms of the project is in Multan.
Sajjad's nursery is among thousands of acres of model farms where the company teamed up with locals for the contract farming of Chinese chili varieties, with an aim to export the crops back to China after harvest and earn foreign exchange revenue for Pakistan.
Muhammad Adnan, executive manager of the company, says that local farmers' interest in cultivating Chinese chili is increasing due to its better yield and strong resistance to diseases.
"Local chili is highly vulnerable to diseases, and farmers are hesitant to grow it, but the Chinese varieties are robust, easy to pick, and are sold at a higher price directly to Chinese companies from the farms, without any involvement of middlemen, making it highly popular among local farmers," he adds.
Adnan says that in the near future, primary and deep processing units for the crop will also be established in Pakistan, adding more value and jobs for locals.
The most crucial time for the crop is January as the seedling process is underway in tunnels and the plants can easily rot because of disease or low temperatures.
However, local agriculture technicians at the project are handling the sowing process, Zhao Jianhua, a Chinese agronomist at the company with 27 years of experience in chili cultivation, says. He has trained over 20 Pakistani agricultural technicians in the past years, who can help the farms independently.
"We are not only bringing cultivation technology to local farmers, but also working together with Pakistani agronomists to promote the development of the chili industry by combining technology with the advantages of both Chinese and Pakistani chili varieties," he adds.
Muhammad Irfan Ahmad, assistant executive manager of the company, says that techniques like nurturing the plants inside the tunnel, modern ways of transplantation and providing sufficient nutrients to the crops are some of the methods that local farmers did not adopt previously, as they relied on old methods of farming.
"With the assistance of Chinese agronomists, we show people how to plant chilies and how to take care of them in a scientific way," he adds.
Ahmad says that the harvest time for the chili is usually around June. Still, due to early monsoon patterns in Pakistan, which started last June, some of the plants have been affected. By applying new techniques, they will reap the chilies in May this year to avoid the monsoon season.
Muhammad Ejaz, a farmer who is preparing his land, located right next to the nursery, for transplantation in the coming days, says that their hopes are high regarding the project, and they believe it will bring socioeconomic prosperity in the region.
"The best thing about the chilies is that it takes only six months to yield a crop, unlike local chili, which takes eight to 10 months. By planting Chinese chili and following the guidance of the experts, we can now harvest the chili in a timely manner and sow another crop following that to earn more money," Ejaz says, while looking at the lush chili beds in the nursery.
Local experts and farmers believe that the project has a bright future, as more and more farmers are getting interested in it, and it will gradually expand to other parts of the country due to increasing demand from farmers.