Ali Tareen cuts every inch the figure of the young heir to a massive family fortune. Young, an Oxford Graduate, and well-spoken he meets us in a quiet office building nestled in the heart of Lahore’s Gulberg III.
The walls of his office are covered by large, modern art and there are hints of sports equipment strewn across the room in an otherwise clean little space. A single, autographed cricket ball occupies a place of honour on his desk.
Yet Ali Tareen spends very little time in his Lahore office. Most of the year he is somewhere or the other in South Punjab, flitting between his family’s sugar mills in Rahim Yar Khan or his father’s farm in Lodhran.
The Tareens are one of the largest land-owning families in Pakistan. Over the decades, they have built a fortune off the back of being some of the most progressive farmers in the country that have managed to diversify into sugar mills and other businesses. And through Jahangir Tareen, the family also holds significant political capital.
An overwhelming perception that exists in the urban middle classes and in Pakistan Studies textbooks is that the country’s federal and provincial legislatures are controlled and heavily occupied by feudal lords. This has not been strictly true for some decades but the link between politics and jagir in Pakistan has been inextricable.
Some of the most prominent names in the country’s history have come from large landowning families. Liaquat Ali Khan was one of the largest landlords in Muslim India before partition. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s father was the largest land-owner in Sindh. Nawab Akbar Bugti until his death held some of the richest lands that Balochistan has to offer.
But over the years times have changed. Politics is dominated more by seths and industrialists than it is by agriculturalists. In fact, inherited agricultural land has long been a source of political patronage for many in the corridors of power. Nawabzada Nasrullah, the last great Churchillian politician Pakistan produced, had famously sold most of his baghat by the end of his career. Former President Farooq Leghari also sold large chunks of his family land in Dera Ghazi Khan to fund his career in politics after he left the presidency.
The Tareens hold a unique place in all this. As a significant power broker that played a vital role in the formation of the PTI government in 2018 and the ouster of Usman Buzdar from the CM office in Punjab, Jehangir Tareen is perhaps one of the last ‘great’ land-owning politicians of this country. With the current political situation in the country bleak and a power-vacuum emerging in the absence of the now scattered PTI, it seems Tareen will once again be front-and-centre in national politics.
But most of his land was not inherited. In fact, by the family’s own estimations at least 90% of the land they currently operate was either bought or leased by Jehangir Tareen after he turned 30 and not inherited. Far from being a politician that inherited a great agricultural fortune and sold it in pursuit of politics, Tareen has turned the business side of agriculture profitable.
For some years now, that family wealth and in particular the agricultural and sugar business have been managed by his son Ali Tareen. Far from the image of a ‘feudal’ politician, the younger Tareen is a dedicated son that has shouldered his father’s responsibilities. He currently spends most of his time managing the JDW Sugar Mills as well as agricultural land in Lodhran. Earlier this month, Profit sat down with Ali Tareen to talk about agriculture, climate change, and food security. The conversation, which stretched on and went from general to technical, hinged around what it means to be a farmer in Pakistan all illustrated through the example of mango farming.
All in on farming — how the Tareens became the Tareens
“Our land sucks. It was a sad realisation but I still remember how it happened. It was 5AM, my first day on the farm after coming back to Pakistan after graduating, and I was sitting in the little office we have there,” says Ali Tareen. On his return from Oxford, Ali had made his way to the family farm with the intention of learning the ropes of the family business. That is when he received the reality check.
“Our Australian consultant was in Lodhran those days and he said to me that the land was crap. I still remember his words he said ‘in Australia this would be a housing colony nobody would try to grow anything here’ and that jolted me right up. We have been doing everything we can and putting in all kinds of resources to grow the most basic crops on our land.”
The bulk of the land owned by the Tareens is in Lodhran. The land is canal irrigated for the most part but is not close to a river and faces water shortages regularly. It is also part of the vast tracts of desert lands that were irrigated and turned green by the British colonial government in the 19th century. Here, however, the Tareens have managed to run an operation that is based on the principles of progressive farming. Behind this has been Jahangir Tareen.
“My father used to work at a bank,” Ali tells us. He is referring, of course, to the few years the elder Tareen worked at Grindlays Bank in Lahore. “The story goes that the bank where my father worked was underground. One morning in 1978 he went into the basement where his office was with the sun at his back and by the time he walked out the sun had gone down. That very day he resigned from the bank and moved back to his father’s farm in Lodhran. Within those few days he was away from Lahore, in the South of Punjab, and waking up at 5AM working as an agriculturalist.”
It was a rare story of a person stuck in the 9-5 corporate rut abandoning the vices and attractions of the urban centre to go live a life of green pastures filled with nature. But very quickly Jahangir Tareen made it work for himself. The family farm in Lodhran was not nearly as large as it is today. In many ways it was as typical a land-holding as there could be in South Punjab. After quitting as a banker, Jahangir Tareen worked to expand his father’s footprint. He became CEO of his family’s beverages business in Multan in 1981. Over the next eight years, he increased the business manifold and in the year 1989 Pepsico International offered him a franchise in Lahore. Mr. Tareen took over the franchise in 1991 as the Chairman of Riaz Bottlers Limited and developed it into one of Pakistan’s best operating franchises.
His biggest focus, however, was the agricultural sector. Agriculture is after all the largest sector of the Pakistani economy and the only ‘real’ sector that we have. Tareen bought barren land adjacent to his family’s farm and quickly began developing it, planting mangoes, cotton, sugarcane, and vegetables using the latest farming techniques and research. At the same time, he also went into the sugar business.
The elder Tareen established his first sugar mills in 1992 as JDW Sugar Mills. This has grown into Pakistan’s largest sugar milling operation. You see, very quickly Tareen realised that the only way to make a sugar mill work well was if farmers were producing more and more sugarcane and were incentivized to do this.
“Rahim Yar Khan used to be a cotton growing area when we set up our mill,” says Ali. “Now it is the biggest sugarcane producing area in the region. That is because we came in and said from the get-go to the farmers that our goal is to have you grow lots of sugarcane for cheap and sell it to us at high rates. Before this the relationship between the sugar mills and the farmers was that the mills would squeeze the farmers. Eventually, the farmers would simply stop growing sugarcane. And that’s why we provided cash loans, we gave seeds, we held training and sugarcane yield has never been higher,” he explains. The Tareens also made the calculated decision of supporting their mills with their own plantation of sugarcane on over 30,000 acres of land. This quickly transformed them from wealthy landed elite to extremely wealthy landowners and sugar barons.
“You need to always be testing” — what does it mean to be a progressive farmer?
The ethos behind this entire success story was the concept of progressive farming. Progressive farmers refer to those agriculturalists that seek to actively reduce the dangers involved in agricultural practices by engaging in rigorous scientific testing and use modern technology and techniques to maximise their yield and increase their earning.
“When my father came to work on the family farm he had different ideas. He was foreign educated, he had his own ideas and he sought outside help to transform our land,” says Ali. “So he went to Australia and came back with some consultants that he offered jobs to in Lodhran. One of the first things to happen was that when this consultant came to Lodhran he noticed we were flooding our mango orchards with water in the winter time. He immediately asked why we were doing this and we explained that mango trees would die if not given water in the winter months.”
“He then told us that mango trees don’t need water in the winters. We were using diesel to pump water from the nearby canals and flood our fields. Now, a mango tree takes five years to grow and our consultant said it would take 2-3 years for the effects of this to become apparent. It was a huge leap of faith but my father agreed. Except he didn’t stop flooding the entire orchard. He just set aside a certain part of it as an experiment.”
This little anecdote both encapsulates the inquisitive spirit that allowed Jahangir Tareen to transform his family farm into one of the richest in Pakistan as well as captures the true essence of progressive farming. To do it right, it isn’t about constantly doing one new experiment after another. It is a question of always testing and doing controlled experiments. At the end of the day, farmers want to maximise yield at the lowest cost possible to increase their profits. If an experiment brings an increase of 1% more yield a year but costs a lot more money than the method that would give 1% less yield it isn’t worth it.
“As progressive farmers we are always testing. The latest chemistry, tech, seeds, techniques etc we are always testing to see what our best bet will be. When we are growing our crops, for example a thousand acres of wheat, there is a test happening in every single block for all of these different factors. Whether that is soil testing or anything else we are trying to milk every small advantage. It is very important to always want to learn if you want to be a progressive farmer. The increment you get in yield versus your inputs to get that additional yield is also very important. So there has to be a cost benefit analysis. We have more of an opportunity to do this because we have more land. People with just 5 acres can’t afford to experiment. In addition to yield, we need to focus on efficiency as well. For example our biggest focus in recent times has been water consumption since water availability will go down.”
“I’ll continue with the mango example here,” Ali Tareen tells us as he picks up a small bottle of water and firmly sets it in the middle of the table. “Think of this bottle as a mango tree. The roots are at the base. That’s where the tree feeds from.” As he explains his hands spread out and stretch all around the base of the bottle. “The roots spread like a spiderweb. Now, back before these consultants showed up there was a trend in south Punjab to do ‘goddi’ around mango trees — reshuffling the soil. This meant that the roots were getting damaged. On the advice of the consultants we stopped reshuffling and very quickly the roots started to spread wider and the surface area from which the plant could absorb water suddenly increased.”
Just think of the brilliance of this little suggestion. After the Tareens stopped the practice of goddi on their mango orchards, they simply placed two sprinklers on either side of each of their mango trees. Before this, they were flooding their orchards using diesel and also putting in a lot of manual labour to reshuffle the soil. The new method ended up cutting their water consumption by 80-90%.
The fault in our crops
If these anecdotes and Ali’s explanations illustrate anything it is that even less than desirable farmland can be utilised and made productive with the right information and technology in hand. The only question is, how do we get the methods and inputs used by progressive farmers to regular farmers? On top of this there is another issue. The Tareens have thousands of acres of land at their disposal. This means they can easily run controlled experiments on large tracts of land. For anyone that has a land holding less than 100 acres, how are they expected to farm their land and also use some portion of it for experiments? As land holdings get smaller, so does the opportunity to take risks.
“Look, we are firm believers that agriculture is where Pakistan must be investing in the long-term,” says Ali. He hesitates a little, contemplating whether to say the next bit but finally takes a breath and continues. “I don’t know if I should be bringing this up but before the 2018 elections we spoke to a number of people about what sectors we should be focusing on. One of those people is the economist Atif Mian. Now he’s a very smart guy and he was adamant that we need to be focusing on the agriculture sector. The problem in this country is that the average yield a farmer gets is very low especially compared to the global and regional averages.”
“If progressive farmers like us get 1000, they get 600. We spend less per acre because we try to reduce costs and usage of petrol, water, fertiliser etc. The only way to optimise this is actually to use the scientific method. But if you can get the average farmer from 600 to 850 by somehow distributing this knowledge then that is a huge boost to the country. We are not just producing for our own population then but are actually in a position to export as well.”
In this he is spot on. Pakistan has a dire need to invest in its agriculture. Last year, the country became a net importer of food. For an agrarian economy, that is an abysmal state of affairs. Yet despite this we continue to put money into real estate development, going so far as to convert existing agricultural land into commercial real estate and play with the very existence of entire rivers.
“Right now we are instead focusing on real estate. What no one seems to realise is that while building a house generates immediate economic activity, once it is finished everything in that house is imported. Everything from the tiles and the fixtures in the bathroom to the car that will be parked in the garage and the chargers that will be plugged into the socket is imported. On top of that the land can also not be used again. If we had spent the same amount of money and energy on agriculture that would have a much bigger impact.”
The problem of course is that the government does not understand any of these intricacies. The government of Pakistan is heavily involved in farming. It sends procurement officers out every year and encourages the planting of some crops over others. It sets support prices and is supposed to conduct research as well. It is also responsible for setting targets. The problem is that the government does not farm itself — which means it does not understand everything that can go wrong.
“People in government and in business are used to spreadsheets. They think in terms of fixed costs and expected productivity. But there are so many things that can go wrong in agriculture. There are some things you can’t predict. Even if you predict it, you can’t do anything about it sometimes,” says Ali Tareen.
The climate change conundrum
“It is a mind numbing process explaining agriculture to relevant government officials because they don’t know anything and don’t understand the unpredictability” Ali adds. “Just look at how climate change has impacted us. I’ll go back to the example of mangoes. We get affected by frost. It isn’t about the overall temperature in the winter. Even if it goes below -3 for an hour, most of our trees get frost damage. Just in that one hour. Most of the time the entire tree dies. In 2014, we had a frost that came and wiped out 50% of our entire orchards in one night. We have done a lot of research to prevent frost etc. We have our methods like watering to increase temperatures but sometimes you can’t fight it,” he explains.
He is correct of course. Perhaps nothing illustrates the impact of climate change more than last year’s catastrophic flooding. Sindh and Balochistan saw the highest amount of water fall from the skies in living memory, recording 522% and 469% more than the normal downpour this year according to the met department. The PDNA report, released by the representatives of the government and the international development institutions, calculated the cost of floods at $30.1 billion – $14.9 billion in damages and $15.2 billion in losses.
“No matter how many methods you have, however, there is little you can do sometimes. Say you survive the frost and the buds are appearing in March. You notice there are many fruiting points. In that one month a toofan or andhi hits. Half the fruiting points fall. What do you do now? Ok sure, you survive this as well. You can see the fruit on the tree now. You can count how many. But then a wind blows and half the fruits fall and are damaged. What do you do?”
That really is the question that it all comes down to. For a man like Ali Tareen, the question is always why farming? Perhaps it has to do with being closer to nature. Perhaps it is the fact that rural life appeals to some people more than others. Maybe it is simply because his father managed to build an empire on the back of progressive farming. Whatever it is, for now it seems the Tareen family business is in safe hands. As Ali himself explains, when it comes to farming, it is about resilience more than anything else. “You roll with whatever comes your way. We’re like boxers in that way. We keep taking the punches trying to survive each round.”