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Fruit Industry Gets Fresh Start

One of Afghanistan’s most popular former exports is making a remarkable comeback.
By Danish Karokhel

For decades, Afghanistan’s rich, ripe, succulent fruit was prized in markets across the world. It travelled by air, road and sea, bringing much-needed income to the country. But war and instability effectively destroyed the valuable trade.


Things went from bad to worse with the arrival of the Taleban regime.


Haji Mohammad Shareef, a grower in the north, was once forced to get permission from the student militia’s ministry of defence before he was allowed to carry one small bag of raisins to the capital.


“The rules didn’t apply to the Taleban themselves, or to their friends, but I had to get permission,” he told IWPR.


Fruit produced in the fertile areas of Baghlan, Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif and Parwan provinces did not get through to Kabul during Taleban rule because of fighting with the Northern Alliance.


It couldn’t even be transported through the Salang Tunnel, which connects the north of the country to the capital, as this had been blocked off by the student militia to prevent their enemy advancing on Kabul.


During the fighting in the north, Taleban targeted fruit farmers as they sided with the Northern Alliance. The regime cut down and burned trees heavy with fruit, prevented growers from watering their crops and tried to stop the transport of any harvest that survived.


But with the overthrow of the student regime, the farmers were free to get on with their work. Fruit production has steadily increased, leading to a drop in domestic prices and the resumption of a lucrative export trade.


Afghan businessmen have since formed a trade association, the 400-strong Union of Fruits and Vegetables, while a new market on the outskirts of Kabul, between Kolola Poshta and Tahiyai Maskan, already boasts 800 stalls.


“Under the student militia, only 350 traders were granted permits, but now 700 have permission to operate their businesses. More than 30 new trading companies are now exporting fruits to foreign countries,” said union coordinator Najibullah.


There is even talk of the United States possibly importing Afghan fruits. “If we begin to export our products to America, Afghan farmers will be encouraged and will turn their backs on the sowing of opium poppies,” he said.


It is a remarkable turnaround in just twelve months. Fresh fruits such as grapes, apricots, melons, peaches, pomegranates and apples - which once had a great reputation in the world - are once again on their way to Dubai, India, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.


Afghan fruit is back in demand and Kabul is now awash with businessmen keen to negotiate deals.


“In the past, the foreign traders would not come because of the war, but now they are here in big numbers,” said Haji Akhtar Mohammad, president of Idrees Mujeeb Fresh-Fruit Trading Centre. “We are delighted that the export of melons to India began again this year and Afghan fruits are on their way to Dubai by plane.”


He reports that 80 trucks of fruit travel to Pakistan daily, while the opening of the Afghan-Tajikistan border has allowed pomegranates from Tachkorghan to move into the Central Asian republic.


Afghan trader Meer Ahmad is sending cartons of the much-prized Ameeri apricots to Dubai for the first time in 20 years. “The traders that are coming to Dubai from foreign countries are selecting only Afghan fruit,” he said proudly.


However, the poor condition of the roads is not helping the industry to get back on its feet, as Agha, head of the Nijabat Khan company, which sends a truck of melons to India every day, explained, “We have problems trading with India because the Kabul-Torkham highway is in a very bad condition. If this road is reconstructed, Indian traders will show a greater interest in importing Afghan fruits.”


Improvements in communication and transport have led to fresher goods arriving at the markets. “The re-opening of the Salang tunnel has changed everything,” said Baghlan melon trader Mohammad Tahir.


“In the past, when a truck wanted to drive from Baghlan to Kabul, it had to come along the difficult Hajigak highway in Bamyan province – a two day journey that usually destroyed the fruit.


“Now the Salang tunnel is open again, a truck can reach the capital in one day. This has allowed the prices to drop significantly. Last year seven kgs of melon cost 50,000 afghanis, but this year it’s half that price.”


This is not good news for everyone. Dasis Khan, who has a fruit cart in the capital, said, “My business is worse due to the cheaper fruit. Under the Taleban, I was making 100,000 afghanis per day, but now I make only 50,000.”


Danish Karokhel is a full-time IWPR reporter


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