“Under the hot Aqaba sun, an all-female team of recent Jordanian university graduates took turns planting lettuce and bok choy seeds in the desert soil. Just minutes earlier, they had prepared a special compost blend — a mix of peat moss and ground coconut shell — which allowed them to turn the otherwise arid soil into fertile ground.
The 15 female engineers were participating in their first site visit of the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) research center in Aqaba, as part of a 12-week training program to boost innovative practices in sustainable agriculture in Jordan. The training program is a joint project between Hussein Technical University and SFP, a Norwegian NGO focused on providing fresh water and food in desert regions.
For many of the participants, this was their first experience seeing what they had learned in university outside of a textbook.
‘For me, this was the first time seeing agricultural fields like this,’ Dania Shahrori, a 24-year old graduate in water and environmental engineering, told Al-Monitor. ‘It’s unique to see these new techniques in Jordan,’ she said.
The SFP employees guided the participants through the research facility and through the lifecycle of a crop grown using their experimental techniques. The participants first learned how seawater was taken from the Red Sea a few kilometers away and about the desalinization process, before learning how to determine the proper salinity level of the water. They then observed the composting stations outside and the crops grown using the custom-made compost.
The participants asked the two SFP staff members many questions about the research station’s technology, crop yields and the chemistry behind the special compost blends they were making. After stumping the SFP country director with a question about a specific part in the desalinization machine’s reverse osmosis filter, one of the women explained that she was working in a waste management startup and thought the part could be useful for her work.
In Jordan, women make up just 14% of the workforce as of 2019, one of the lowest female labor participation rates in the region. In the agricultural sector specifically, women typically work low-skilled, low-earning jobs, rather than more technical and managerial roles.
To this end, the program not only focused on the technical aspects of sustainable agriculture in Jordan, but also on the soft skills necessary to bring a project to fruition, Ruba al-Zu’bi, a sustainability expert and mentor for the program, told Al-Monitor.
Throughout the site visit, participants formed breakout groups to discuss what they were learning and later attended a mentoring session where they pitched and refined ideas for their own sustainable development projects.
It is not only important, however, that women are empowered to work in higher-skilled roles in the sustainability sector, but also to create a general awareness of sustainable practices as women are often the head of households and make the day-to-day decisions about the homes’ consumption in Jordan, according to Zu’bi.
Indeed, there does seem to be a rising awareness of the importance of sustainably grown agriculture, at least in the capital city of Amman. Zeina Fakhriddin, program mentor and operations manager for Mujeb Organic Farm, a local farm focused on sustainability, said that demand for their vegetables had skyrocketed in recent years, especially after the coronavirus lockdown in the spring. She also noted that over 60% of the farm’s customers were women.”