September 10, 2013

In Afghan agriculture, fruits of labor uncertain

As a U.S.-funded marketing program is turned over to Afghanistan, concern grows that its modest success will wither.

By PAMELA CONSTABLE/The Washington Post

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.

click image to enlarge

Hajji Hazrat Mahmad, 70, was persuaded by his son to switch to modern methods of growing grapes in his family vineyards, but taking financial risks is rare in Afghanistan’s rural society.

Pamela Constable/The Washington Post

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.

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