Pomegranate project proves fruitful
Kandahar, November 12, 2007 (The Globe and Mail - Canada): During the worst fighting north of Kandahar city earlier this month, as gunfire crackled through the orchards and hundreds of villagers fled their homes, a truck loaded with pomegranates rumbled along dirt roads in the middle of the night.
The fruit delivery was late, and the truck driver's boss in Kandahar city called him for regular updates on his crawl out of the war zone.
The driver reported some of the usual annoyances of transport in southern Afghanistan - a flat tire, engine trouble, getting stuck in a river - but with each phone call, his friends were relieved to hear he wasn't caught in crossfire.
Another worker for the same agriculture project had been hit in the shoulder by a bullet during the battles, and local coordinators from the United States Agency for International Development didn't want another casualty - not only for the driver's sake, but because they needed to get the truckload of pomegranates onto the next morning's cargo flight at Kandahar Air Field.
"I didn't sleep all night," said Mohammed Gul, a project manager for USAID. "It was the worst time of my career."
Meeting the shipment deadline was critical to the fledgling project, in which hundreds of tonnes of Kandahar's pomegranates are packed into boxes and flown to supermarkets around the world. It's the first time since the collapse of the Taliban regime that the region's farmers have sold their fruit overseas, and as harvest season finishes up this week, the people involved with the effort are quietly celebrating.
After three years of trying to open foreign markets to Kandahar's legendary fruit, once hailed as the best of the continent, the luscious red spheres are finally arriving in places such as Dubai, Delhi, Singapore, London, and even Vancouver.
It's part of a $120-million USAID project called the Afghanistan Alternative Development Program, intended to foster a legal economy in the south that might eventually replace the booming trade in opium.
The project has faced enormous difficulties along the way. Foreign staffers who oversee the work say they cannot be identified for security reasons, as the risk of kidnapping and murder rises in Kandahar city. The Taliban snatched Mr. Gul's driver, a local Afghan employee, and held him for more than a week in August until he negotiated a $5,000 (U.S.) ransom and bought his freedom.
As the Taliban encroached on Kandahar city during the autumn months, the pomegranate harvesters were forced to move their packing operations to a more secure location on the outskirts of the city. But the shipments of fruit never stopped entirely, and even the late-night delivery from war-torn Arghandab district didn't disrupt the operation: Mr. Gul mustered his team at the darkened warehouse, and got the sorting, grading, and packing finished in time for that morning's flight to Dubai.
"It was down to the last minute, but we kept it going," Mr. Gul said.
Prompt delivery and high quality, are essential to breaking buyers' prejudices against Afghan products, a USAID official said: "They hear it's from Afghanistan, and all they can think about is war," he said.
A different image of Afghanistan is now displayed in major supermarkets, where USAID officials have photographed their pomegranates featured prominently in major upscale stores.
"This is the first time in the history of Afghanistan that our fresh fruit has reached Europe, North America, and the Middle East," said Mustafa Sadiq, owner of Omaid Bahar Ltd., one of the distributors involved in the project.
Mr. Sadiq estimates that he has risked $200,000 on the venture so far, and may sink another $500,000 into the deal. The U.S. aid agency pays only the costs of shipping and boxing the fruit, which means a distributor such as Mr. Sadiq must arrange to purchase the fruit from the Afghan farmers and get it into stores.
Doing business in a war zone always means risks, Mr. Sadiq said, but he says wealthy Afghans have a patriotic duty to help their country.
The USAID project has driven up demand for pomegranates this season, increasing prices by 30 per cent in Kandahar, generating a better income for farmers.
"I don't know how much longer we will have war, but at least now we have business," he said. "As a businessman, I feel responsible, I have to do something."
Ten tonnes of Kandahar's pomegranates have already been shipped to Vancouver as a test of the market, Mr. Sadiq said, adding that he's planning a visit to Canada at the end of the year in hopes of finding more buyers.
If buyers are available, Kandahar's farmers see no reason why the fighting would interrupt their shipments.
Shamsullah, 22, stood munching on pomegranate pips during a break from packing the fruit into boxes, and seemed puzzled by the question of how the rising violence might affect the prospects of his small orchard in Arghandab district.
"Some orchards are damaged by fighting, but they're not destroyed completely," he said, casually. "We cannot stop working during the wars in Afghanistan, because otherwise we would never work."