Kandahar, Afghanistan: Farm hands place mounds of bright red pomegranates into shipping boxes stamped with “Product of Afghanistan” on the side. The price and quality of the sweet fruit are up, and the farmers are happy about a new storage facility that 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 its Taliban attacks and 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 $1.20 (Rs74) a kg, due to the new cold storage facility and quality-control programmes implemented by the US Agency for International Development (USaid).
“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.
Scarred by an almost perpetual state of conflict since 1980, Afghanistan has only one truly successful export: opium and the heroin that’s made from it.
The total value of the opium trade this year stands at $1 billion. The value of all of Afghanistan’s legal exports in 2006, meanwhile, was $193 million. The overall legal export market has increased at an average of 28% a year 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 a lot of 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.
In Kandahar, USaid is spending $6.6 million on agricultural and marketing assistance programmes 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 dry raisin sheds have been rehabilitated.
So far, the programme has helped ship 690 tonnes of pomegranates to India, 600 tonnes to Pakistan and 36 tonnes to Dubai.
The pomegranate growers say Taliban fighters—who force some farmers into the poppy trade—leave them alone. “The Taliban never say that we should grow poppy instead of pomegranates,”said Hayatullah Khan, 42.
Jason Straziuso in Kabul contributed to this story.