MIR BACHA KOT, Afghanistan – Abdul Qadir, a farmer in the fertile Shomali region north of Kabul, grows grapes much the same way his father and grandfather did. He tends his vines close to the ground, crams clusters into big plastic sacks, drives them 25 miles to the capital and sells them from his car for about $3 a bag.
Abdul Qudoos, a grower and trader from the same district, has abandoned such old-fashioned ways. He ties his vines to cement trellises, chills grapes in a cold storage facility, packs them in imported boxes and ships them by container to India and Dubai. This year, he was able to invest $200,000 in his expanding fruit business.
Qudoos, 38, made that leap with support from a U.S.-funded agricultural marketing program that American officials call a small but exceptional success in a decade of economic assistance. The project has already endured difficulties ranging from Taliban attacks to resistance from farmers. But now it may face its biggest challenge of all: The project must soon be turned over to Afghan hands.
And that raises the question of whether the ambitious program will produce more thriving farmers like Qudoos, or will wither on the vine.
“I risked my money and I sent my grapes beyond Pakistan, farther than my family had ever done,” said Qudoos, proudly holding up an imported packing box. “I took some loss at first, but now I am making 30 percent more than we ever did before.”
For several years, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has worked to help small Afghan farmers shift from traditional local crops, such as wheat, into high-value exports. Improved grapes and nuts, they point out, can also out-earn opium poppies, which find eager buyers in the drug trade.
The grape program has faced an array of obstacles unique to Afghanistan, such as land mines left in vineyards from years of war and threats from Taliban insurgents. It has also required participants to take financial risks for a promise of long-term gain — qualities that are still rare in this traditional society.
Like all USAID programs, the grape project must be turned over to Afghans, in part because of U.S. transition policy and in part because of new requirements from international donors that 50 percent of every aid program be budgeted through the Afghan government.
William Hammink, the USAID director in Kabul, said “a major part of our transition is to ensure that everything we do is Afghan-led, with Afghan ownership and commitment to sustainability.”
Much of the expertise and field training has been provided — with USAID support — by a California-based nonprofit called Roots of Peace. But as foreign financial and technical assistance shrink, there are concerns that Afghan officials and private partners may be unable or unwilling to adapt.
“We haven’t coddled anyone, but we have to get more Afghans invested in this opportunity, because we will be fading out,” said Gary Kuhn, executive director of Roots of Peace, during a visit. Both local traders and bureaucrats will need to assume new risks and responsibilities. “It’s like training wheels,” he said.
On paper, the project’s record is impressive. It has helped 19,000 farmers plant new orchards and vineyards, trained 85,000 in better techniques, and subsidized cold storage plants and initial fruit shipments abroad. Today, USAID officials said, trellised and chilled grapes earn the highest profit margin of all Afghan produce. In 2010, one hectare (2.4 acres) of wheat netted $2,000, ordinary grapes $5,700, apples $6,200 and trellised grapes $11,000. Opium poppies netted only $4,100.
Resourcefulness and diplomacy have helped the program overcome a variety of glitches and threats. After providing thousands of wooden grape trellises, officials found farmers using them for firewood, so they switched to cement posts. Field workers were threatened by the Taliban, which often targets Western aid programs and strongly opposes those that employ Afghan women. But Kuhn said Afghan intermediaries were able to reach a modus vivendi with local insurgents.
“At first we faced resistance from farmers too. We provided them with a lot of posts, but they were not keen on changing,” said Abdul Razzak, a technician with USAID. “But slowly they have realized that the system works and they are getting better-quality grapes. Now they are coming to us for posts.”
Still, for every enthusiastic beneficiary like Qudoos, a hundred farmers remain skeptical or unaware of the program. And the grape project highlights the difficulties facing even relatively successful development efforts.
In Shomali, years of conflict had turned most vineyards into charred ruins, and small farmers spent every penny replanting them over the past decade. Some said they could not afford to rent space in cold storage facilities, or did not trust traders to ship their crops and pay them back later.
As Kuhn and a group of visitors drove through Shomali last week, they passed endless mud-walled gardens with low-growing bushes bearing grapes that would start to spoil as soon as they were picked.
At one farm, where women covered in burqas were being taught to prune grapes, the patriarch said they would not be allowed to travel outside the compound to see the packing plant.
At a second vineyard, owner Said Zubair proudly displayed rows of new trellised vines bursting with grapes. Yet he also complained that he could not afford to rent access to the packing plant.
“We started from zero, and we learned that it is so much neater and easier to brace the grapes up high,” Zubair said. “But I don’t have the resources to go to the cold house, and the traders take our grapes on loan so most farmers don’t trust them.”
Another new outlet for Afghan fruit, the country’s first juice processing plant in Kabul, has encountered graver troubles. In December, a suicide truck bomb left almost half the facility destroyed. Today, it is back in operation, and last week owner Mustafa Sadiq treated visitors from Roots of Peace — which provided him with start-up support — to glasses of melon, berry and pomegranate juice.
But Sadiq complained that he had difficulty connecting with far-flung small farmers to bring him their leftover fruit and had to import skilled technicians from India. He said he received neither sympathy nor help after the bombing from Afghan ministries, which he called corrupt and incompetent.
In the Deh Maskan market, Abdul Qadir said he knew that trellising and chilling would enable his grapes to last longer, but that he could barely afford $150 per week in fuel to irrigate his vines — let alone invest more in a dream like exporting to India.
“If I had the money, I would put all my grapes on pillars and send them to the refrigerators,” said Qadir, 38. “I inherited my grandfather’s land and way of doing things, and I sell about 70 sacks here every day. It’s enough to make ends meet, and it is a blessing from God.”