Afghans Expanding Pomegranate Exports

Noor Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan
November 14, 2007
Farm hands place mounds of bright red pomegranates into shipping boxes stamped "Product of Afghanistan." The price and quality of the sweet fruit are up, and the farmers are happy that a new storage facility has extended their selling season.

The advances in the pomegranate trade are a sliver of good news from a region of Afghanistan known more for Taliban attacks and a thriving opium trade.

Ubaidullah Jan, a 50-year-old farmer from the Arghandab area just north of Kandahar, said the price his pomegranates command has doubled this year to about 54 cents a pound, due to the new cold storage facility and quality control programs implemented by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"The goods we are selling with the help of USAID and being able to keep them in cold storage have brought a tremendous change in our business," Jan said, adding that his goods are sent to Dubai, Pakistan, India and Singapore.

Scarred by an almost perpetual state of conflict since 1980, Afghanistan has only one truly successful export: opium and the heroin that is made from it.

The country produced 8,200 tons of opium in 2007, up 34 percent from last year's record harvest. Farmers this year can make $2,000 on an acre of opium poppies, while wheat yields about $220.

The total value of the opium trade for Afghan farmers this year stands at $1 billion. The value of all of Afghanistan's legal exports in 2006, meanwhile, was $193 million, with animal hides and wool skins topping the list at $21 million.

Revenue from legal exports has increased an average of 28 percent annually over the last four years and will continue to expand, said Loren Owen Stoddard, director of alternative development and agriculture for USAID.

Afghanistan's fruit and vegetables in particular have potential, he said. The "perceived value" of Afghan pomegranates and other fruits is high in regional markets.

"Talk to an Indian fruit seller and he'll instinctively know that (Afghan pomegranates) are the best in the world," Stoddard said. "When we show up, the reaction is, 'Oh, these are the great Afghan products I used to buy.'"

In Kandahar, USAID is spending $6.6 million on agricultural and marketing assistance programs for producers of fresh and dried fruits and nuts.

The goal is sustained economic growth that can help reduce and eventually eliminate poppy cultivation. About 330 vineyards and orchards have been developed in Kandahar, and 51 raisin sheds have been rehabilitated. Next year, 12,500 grape vines will be planted.

Farming is challenging in Afghanistan. Pomegranate farmers in the Arghandab district abandoned their fields this month and headed toward the relative safety of Kandahar city after Taliban fighters moved into the region for several days.

USAID opened the cold storage facility in September and is trying to increase contacts with potential buyers overseas. Farmers are being taught to produce raisins away from Kandahar's dusty earth; cleaner raisins can fetch up to four times more at market.

Western aid workers dress in local outfits and travel the province to link buyers and sellers.

"War creates a lack of communication and so some of what our guys are doing is reintroducing Afghans to buyers who have changed over 30 years," Stoddard said.

The program has helped ship 690 tons of pomegranates to India, 600 tons to Pakistan and 36 tons to Dubai, mostly on military flights.

A sample 1,000-pound shipment was also sent to the United States, said Mohammad Gul, a USAID program officer in Kandahar.

The pomegranate growers say Taliban fighters _ who recruit gunmen and force some farmers into the poppy trade across Afghanistan's south _ leave them alone.

"This is a business we've inherited from our ancestors," said Hayatullah Khan. "The Taliban never say that we should grow poppy instead of pomegranates."

Khan said the success of the pomegranate project could lure other farmers back into legal crops, though the trend is currently in the opposite direction. Kandahar province in 2007 saw a 32 percent increase in the amount of land devoted to poppies.

To increase production, Afghanistan needs a better electrical grid. Only the western city of Herat, which imports power from Iran, has reliable electricity. The municipal grid in Kabul on average provides only three hours of electricity a day.

"The No. 1 challenge to agribusiness is electricity," Stoddard said. "You can't keep things cold and you can't bottle them without power."


Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso in Kabul contributed to this report.

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