Afghanistan's most famous crop is also its most notorious. Opium poppies thrive in sun-baked fields across lawless areas of the country, accounting for more than 90 percent of the world's opium supply. But as VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Kabul, there is one crop that could be even more profitable than the poppies - if it can reach the right markets.
Afghanistan opium poppies - big business
Southwest Afghanistan is a hub of poppy production, accounting for nearly all of this year's $3.4 billion in illegal opium exports.
But the region is also home to another cash crop - one that foreign donors and Afghan officials are hoping can replace poppies without reducing farmers' incomes.
Pomegrantes sales, possible alternative
The pricey fruits are pomegranates - and in Afghanistan, there are 48 different kinds - including a seedless one. With rising demand for nutrient-rich pomegranate juice in wealthy nations, U.S. and Afghan officials are trying to connect foreign businesses with local growers.
William Phillimore is a businessman whose company's "Pom Wonderful" branded juice has enjoyed a surge in sales from health-conscious consumers in the United States. He was invited to Kabul's International Pomegranate Fair to try the local fruit.
"The Kandahar pomegranate in particular is darker in color than most of the stuff you get in India, which tends to be lighter and sweeter with not as much acid. I think the quality is excellent," Phillimore said. "And I think that they've got a little work to do with the packing and sorting and grading and sizing for the international market because that's what the international market expects."
Pomegranates in Afghanistan are transported by the sackful along bumpy roads in trucks, which damages the fruit and reduces its shelf life. Less than five percent reach the lucrative export markets abroad. Afghan officials hope new storage facilities and better transportation can bring in more income for farmers.
"At this moment we have a problem of exports because very little investment has come into the processing of Afghan pomegranate," said Syed Suleiman Fatimi, who heads Afghanistan's export promotion agency. "We are especially looking into processing the Afghan pomegranate into concentrate for export or juices."
So far, most of the export efforts have focused on sending the finest fruit to upscale markets. This year, U.S. and Afghan funded programs helped send more than 2,000 tons of the fruit to supermarkets in Dubai.
More than two-and-a-half million trees have been planted in the last two years. The trees take up to five years to mature. But once they start producing fruit, USAID official Loren Stoddard says farmers are much less likely replace a productive orchard with poppies.
"Vegetable crops are great - the reason we like pomegranates long term is because vegetables you plant and replant and maybe replace with poppy," Stoddard stated. Pomegranates you never replace, so it really is the longer term solution."
Stoddard says farmers who export high-quality fruit can earn as much as $5,000 per hectare - about 15 percent more than poppies.
Pomegranate business slow now, but forecast looks promising
Few farmers are earning that much now. The industry is still dwarfed by billions of dollars in poppy exports and threatened by Afghanistan's deteriorating security.
But pomegranate farmers and buyers are hopeful.
In Kabul's main fruit market, vendors talk of the growing global demand for the fruit and rising prices. Hajji Argundabi is sending his end of the season Kandahari pomegranates to Tajikistan. Next year, he plans to ship them further.
"In the past, most of our product went to Pakistan. But now it is staying in Afghanistan and then going to Dubai and other countries. We will sell even more pomegranates in the new year," he said.
Afghan pomegranate prices nearly tripled in the past year when farmers produced about 50,000 metric tons. This year's harvest could yield as much as 60 percent more fruit - but officials say demand will still far exceed the country's supply.