Prague, 19 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Saule is a fruit merchant who sells the famous "aport" apples, the big red fruit that has become a symbol of the southeastern Kazakh city of Almaty.
"[Customers] prefer Almaty apples," he says. "Only those who don't understand buy apples from China. Those who see the difference buy mainly Almaty apples."
"Chinese apples are very tasty. They are very juicy, very sweet, and look attractive."
But thrifty Almaty residents like Gulnar are increasingly attracted by cheaper apples imported from neighboring China.
"Chinese apples are very tasty," she says. "They are very juicy, very sweet, and look attractive."
The International Labor Organization is currently working with local Kazakh authorities and civil society groups in an effort to boost production and distribution of locally grown apples.
Saule Kudekova is the ILO's Almaty-based national project coordinator. She tells RFE/RL that her organization has targeted Taldikorgan, about 300 kilometers north of Almaty, to introduce modern cooperative principles among apple producers.
She stresses that individual farmers like Saule cannot be competitive on their own: "All farmers work in the Taldikorgan region as individuals. The main goal of our project is to put people together in farm associations in order to be competitive in the market. When people work together, they will be more successful. We would like to familiarize these people with [cooperative principles], which [are] very popular in Europe."
Membership in the cooperative is open and voluntary. Participants have direct influence over day-to-day business activities and share in the profits.
Geert van Boekel is the ILO's regional adviser on local economic development and cooperatives. He's based in Budapest. Van Boekel says local farmers in Kazakhstan must be convinced of the advantages of the cooperatives: "People are not used to listening to the demands of the clients. So a big part of our initiatives will go into training, trying to bring about a mentality change within the local producers."
Van Boekel notes that in today's competitive market, apple producers must guarantee the quality of their produce and promptly deliver the quantities demanded by their clients. The ability to store the harvest is also crucial. It means that farmers will be able to sell their apples when prices are higher.
Van Boekel also points out that grouping farmers makes it easier to invest in apple-processing machinery.
Van Boekel says Kazakh farmers lack many of the skills necessary to compete in today's market. To remedy this situation, the project envisages the introduction of entrepreneurial principles in vocational schools. "On the one hand, you have entrepreneurs complaining they cannot find qualified workers," he says. "On the other hand, there is a lot of unemployment. [So] we want to increase the level of the curriculum in the three vocational training schools that have been selected."
The Kazakh program is scheduled to run through 2005. Van Boekel says he hopes the experiences in the pilot areas will serve as examples for other regions and agricultural sectors in Kazakhstan.
(Merkhat Sharipzhanov, director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, contributed to this report.)