A week or so ago I bought some pomegranates in my local fruit market in New Delhi. They were huge and glowed bright red, and the small juicy crystals of flesh inside tasted as good as they looked. But the most remarkable thing about the fruit was the box they came in. It was stamped in big, bold letters with the words "Kandahari Pomegranates. Export Quality. Products of Afghanistan."
It's not often that you see a product made in Afghanistan. The country is the world's biggest opium producer, but that's not an export government officials shout about. Yet before its descent into chaos in the late 1970s, Afghanistan was famous for its pomegranates, grapes, apricots and other fruit. Since then, as war cut the old trade routes and Afghanistan became isolated, traditional markets have been lost. So what were these pomegranates doing in my local fruit shop? And if they were available in Delhi, why aren't they in North America or Europe, where pomegranate popularity has boomed thanks to their health properties (mmm, antioxidants!), use in cocktails (mmm, pomegranate Manhattans!) and the recent revelation by California scientists that pomegranate juice may be a good alternative to Viagra (ahem)? Could Afghanistan be on the brink of a pomegranate-led recovery?
Not quite. The pomegranates I enjoyed were shipped as part of a USAID-funded Alternative Livelihoods program. The idea, explains Loren Stoddard, head of USAID's Alternative Development and Agriculture program in Afghanistan, is to restore "some of the old trade routes that were broken." Since the Taliban regime fell six years ago, USAID has helped plant more than a million pomegranate trees, Stoddard claims, and this year Afghan farmers harvested between 33,000 and 44,000 tons (30,000 and 40,000 metric tons) of the fruit, of which some 1,102 tons (1,000 metric tons) were flown or trucked out. Most of it went to India, Dubai and Singapore, but tiny quantities found their way to London and Vancouver. Alas, strict phytosanitary requirements, which guard against the importation of bugs, have so far kept Kandahari pomegranates out of the U.S. Stoddard predicts that next year's harvest will be as big as 68,000 tons, with exports rising to as much as 3,000 tons. "The demand we're seeing has been incredible," he told me by phone from Kabul. "And this is a licit agricultural product … something that there's a lot of pride in."
All that said, pomegranate exports this year will bring in about $1 million for Afghanistan, a blip compared to the more than $1 billion that poppies will earn. Stoddard says that farmers who manage to export their fruit can make as much as poppy farmers per acre around $1,600 to $2,000 per year. The problem is that most farmers are not selling for export, and earn just a few hundred dollars per acre a year from fruit. That keeps poppies looking pretty attractive.
It's not all about price, though. Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio of the U.S., has worked with Afghan business partners over the past two years to produce fruit-based soap and body oils. Their Kandahar-based cooperative Arghand now exports to Canada and the U.S. "You don't even need to compete with opium on a straight price level, since there are other risks and taboos associated with growing opium," explains Chayes. "The best way to combat opium production is to expand the market for Afghanistan's fruit."
There's a big problem, of course. As Chayes says, "expanding in an active theater of war is an increasingly tricky notion." At the moment, Arghand relies on the generosity of the Canadian army, which lets Chayes use its post office for shipping. A commercial air-freight service, she says, would give a huge boost to the growing number of Afghan traders who want to export. It's a classic catch-22: freight companies shy away from Afghanistan because it's so unstable, but stability will come only when Afghanistan's economy improves, which will require more investment, such as freight services.
So what to do? Afghanistan's pomegranates are not going to drag the country out of poverty or end the drug trade any time soon. But perhaps the countries fighting extremism in the region could look at some sort of regularized freight service to boost the economy. Even better would be for foreign companies to see opportunity and profits in Afghanistan despite its problems. If, like me, you love pomegranates and want to help one of the most neglected places on the planet, then demand that your local shops stock the Kandahari good stuff the fruit that's better than any drug you could ever try.