Potato seedlings a sign of potential for growth

From oil prospectors to potato specialists, businessmen are filling up Erbil as they seek a foothold in Kurdistan's underdeveloped economy.

The one-year-old Erbil Rotana hotel is just one mark of the UAE's presence in Kurdistan. Lee Hoagland / The National
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ERBIL, IRAQ // With only months to go before the first potato seedlings would need to be planted, Bernard Quere's mission was urgent.

The Middle East envoy for the French agricultural agency France Obtention- whose slogan is L'Univers de la pomme de terre - had flown from Paris in November to sell seedlings cultivated by French farmers to Kurdish agriculturalists.

By testing and marketing varieties such as elodie, frida and universal in this economically and agriculturally underdeveloped region of northern Iraq, he hopes to increase French sales of potato seedlings to Kurdistan from about 800 tonnes. That is about a fifth of the level from before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

"Before the war, Iraq in general was a first client of the French seed potatoes," recalls Mr Quere. "After the war, we lost everything. The market collapsed, and now we want again to go there and develop our business there."

Mr Quere is just one of the many businessmen who pass through Erbil daily, filling to the brim the few hotels that describe themselves as five-star and keeping a number of airlines including flydubai and Turkey's Pegasus busy on direct routes to the region's capital.

The visitors include insurance brokers based in Baghdad, engineers from Chinese national oil companies and even a lobbyist to the UK parliament. Their business, whether in potato seedlings or mining research, ultimately relies on Kurdistan's growing hydrocarbon revenue. At night these businessmen flock to the lobby of the Erbil Rotana.

The one-year-old offshoot of the hotel company based in Abu Dhabi is just one mark of the UAE's presence in Kurdistan. Dnata, the Dubai airport-management company, runs Erbil's airport. Sharjah-based Dana Gas produces nearly all of Kurdistan's natural gas, and OMV, quarter-owned by Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company, holds stakes in a several exploration licences.

In October, Abu Dhabi National Energy Company, known as Taqa, invested US$46 million (Dh168.9m) in the Kurdish explorer WesternZagros. Last month, a merger between DNO and RAK Petroleum left the UAE company with 42.8 per cent ownership in one of the first Kurdish oil producers.

Potato seedlings, at €600 (Dh2,915) a tonne, may be small change next to the multimillion-dollar oil deals, but Mr Quere takes his work seriously.

He spots Frédéric Tissot, the French consul general, having an aperitif in the Rotana lobby, unmistakable in a wheelchair and wearing a suit. The potato specialist has known Dr Tissot for three years, ever since a business development tour organised by the ministry of agriculture in 2009. Mr Quere approaches and offers his hand. The two men exchange a few words. Dr Tissot has been busy meeting contacts from an international oil conference.

Since his first visit in 2009, Mr Quere has built up a wealth of knowledge on the Kurdish potato market. Kurds prefer small yellow varieties, while the rest of Iraq favours long, white ones. France's total Iraqi potato seedling market was 15,000 tonnes before the war.It has now recovered to 3,000.

The main issue is teaching the farmers how to grow the elodies and fridas, says Mr Quere. "We have to give seeds but also the know-how - because they lost everything."

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