Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghan Raisin Producers Hope for Sweeter Future
Merchants and farming officials in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar say major investment in infrastructure is needed to help revive the once-thriving trade in raisins.
Kandahar was once famous for its fruit, including grapes which were turned into raisins sold all over Afghanistan and exported to foreign markets. The vineyards are concentrated in the Arghandab, Panjwai, Daman and Dand districts.
Years of conflict have reduced agricultural production, and food-processing facilities have long fallen into disrepair. Some prized varieties of raisin, such as the golden “abjash”, are no longer being grown.
Abdul Baqi Bina, deputy director of Kandahar’s chamber of commerce, said that while yields had risen due to the use of modern pesticides, quality had deteriorated. The province also lacked the capacity to process enough dried fruit.
“We do not have a fully-equipped factory anywhere in Kandahar suitable for cleaning, storing, packaging and finally exporting raisins to international standards,” Bina said.
With proper cold-storage, drying and sorting facilities, Kandahar would once again be able to compete in the dried fruit market, he said.
Vineyard owners say the war with the Taleban has done a lot of damage. Sediqullah, a farmer in the Chalghor area of Panjwai district, said some fields had been destroyed in fighting and others were no longer accessible because of the security situation.
Mohammad Daud Gulistani, head of agronomy in the provincial agriculture department, said the farmers badly needed government help. He claimed that recent attempts by NGOs and NATO-led troops to rebuild raisin-drying facilities had been worse than useless. For instance, new storage units had been built using cement rather than raw brick, with disastrous consequences.
“The weather is warm in Kandahar,” Gulistani explained. “Concrete storage units generate heat in this weather, and rot and blacken the raisins instead of drying them. The storage facilities should have been built based on guidance from the villagers or the agriculture department.”
Nonetheless, Gulistani said that his department had made plans for boosting production. Its staff were visiting farmers early on in the growing season to advise them on how to prevent disease and ensure their vines produced high-quality grapes. The department had also studied 100 grape varieties at a Kandahar research farm to find out which best suited the local climate and growing conditions, and now planned to distribute the most promising strains among local farmers.
“Good raisins come from disease-free grapes,” he said. “Every year, we try to prevent disease in Kandahar so that the vineyard owners produce good raisins from sound fruit.”
Officials at the chamber of commerce in Kandahar said that despite the lack of adequate processing facilities, they were still working hard to sell to foreign markets, exporting some 2,000 ton of raisins to Pakistan, India and further afield.
Bina said export levels would increase massively if central government or private investors turned their attention to dried fruit processing in Kandahar, but although promises had been made, no support had materialised.
“Last year, we exported 1,670 tonnes, and so far this year [from April], we have exported up to 300 tons of gerdak [raisin variety] from Kandahar. Last year, we earned 3.2 million dollars and this year we earned 654,000 dollars from raisin exports,” he continued.
Officials, traders and farmers all insist that investing in the sector, above all by building a fully-equipped processing factory, would improve the province’s fortunes.
At the Keshmesh Saray in Kandahar, the main market where raisins are traded, merchant Abdul Hakim agreed that processing was a major problem.
The dozens of raisin varieties produced in Kandahar were brought in sacks, and traders then had to then sort them into boxes in preparation for export.
“If the raisins were professionally packaged in boxes and cartons right after they were taken out of dry storage, I am confident they could be sold all around the world at a good price,” Hakim said.
Mohammad Ibrahim Spesalai is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kandahar
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