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Dogged by Refrigeration Issues, Afghan Farmers Depend on Pakistan

Potatoes to be sold in Jalalabad's main vegetable market are inspected and weighed, May 16, 2011.(Bethany Matta/VOA)
JALALABAD, Afghanistan - Farmers and traders in eastern Afghanistan say that despite a decade of foreign development projects, they remain economically dependent on their neighbors in Pakistan.

The main bazaar in the capital, Jalalabad is crowded with people buying and selling fresh melons, ripe tomatoes and sacks full of onions and potatoes. Fruits and vegetables from all across the country come to this market where it is sold to locals. But due to unreliable electricity and cold storage a lot of Afghan farmers' produce goes just across the border into neighboring Pakistan where it is stored and then re-sold.

"My name is Allah Mohammad," a local vegetable seller says introducing himself. He is selling his tomatoes from one of the many produce carts that line a busy road.

"We have heard there are no storage facilities and electricity. But in Pakistan they have facilities and electricity," he says.

Truckers and their assistants wait in Jalalabad's heat as produce is loaded onto trucks headed across the border into Pakistan, May 16, 2012. (Bethany Matta/VOA)
Truckers and their assistants wait in Jalalabad's heat as produce is loaded onto trucks headed across the border into Pakistan, May 16, 2012. (Bethany Matta/VOA)
Not far from the market, at the main loading station, onions and potatoes are being inspected and then loaded onto trucks headed for Pakistan. Gul Morad, head of inspection and regional chief for fruit and vegetable traders whose office is above the station says matter-of-factly, that cold storages do exist in the districts.

“Three to four years ago, USAID and DIA built us small cold rooms under the name ‘storages’ - but their capacity is only 4 to 5 tons. For these you have to use generators.” Morad explains. “Even if the generator stops for one hour, the room gets hot and the goods lose their quality.”

USAID says the deserted units do not appear to be theirs. The agency did however help fund Morad’s 24-ton cold-storage which he pays to maintain. The unit runs on both generators and power from the electrical grid and is a key part of the local economy.

Morad says most of time (when market prices go down) farmers and shopkeepers bring their produce here and store it for one or more days - for free. When the market gets better they take it out and sell it.

Local farmers and traders say proper refrigeration means higher profits, because they can store their own produce and make a better return in the off season.

However with too little cold storage, residents now rely on stored produce imported from Pakistan, which can sell for nearly triple the cost.

Many people, like farmer Ihsanullah from Ghawchak in Sukhroad district believe that some of the marked up vegetables are originally from here, but are imported into Pakistan, stored and then sold back into the Afghan market.

“Two things,” Ihsanullah says “potatoes and onions, they go from Kabul into Pakistan and are kept in storage and sent back to us. We sometimes work in the market so I am certain these two things are bought by big traders, stored and sent back.” He says, “our biggest problem here is that we don’t have storage.”

Inspection chief Morad disagrees and says the stored goods that come to Afghanistan are grown in Pakistan.

But both men agree that farmers and consumers both suffer from the lack of local refrigeration.

Agriculture is the main source of income for the country however Afghans say plans to develop the agriculture sector have not been realized. The Afghan government and the international community’s efforts to build sustainable storage and supply reliable electricity have not met expectations.

Now, as foreign troops withdraw and donor money dwindles, Afghan farmers say they are becoming more reliant than ever on Pakistan’s farmers and wholesalers.