Afghanistan dehydrated vegetables bound for European soup pots

Washington, December 18, 2004 - Afghanistan, long famed for its dried fruits and nuts, is gearing up to enter the lucrative international market for dehydrated vegetables. The first Afghan factory to process vegetable dehydrates for export will begin operation in January 2005, with soup pots in Europe the initial target.

The Parwan Dehydrates Factory, an hour's drive north from Kabul, has already contracted its 2005 production of dried vegetables, valued at $1.2 million, to buyers in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

The strong demand from Europe could lead to five to seven additional factories, according to Erica Oppegard of Development Works, Canada. She said when more factories are up and running, Afghanistan might be able to extend its exports to the United States and Canada.

Development Works Canada is a subcontractor for a wide-ranging agricultural rehabilitation program in Afghanistan that is financed by the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and managed by the U.S.-based Chemonics International. The budget for the project is $3.1 million with $2.3 million provided by USAID/Chemonics and $800,000 by Development Works Canada.

Situated in Charikar, the capital of Parwan province, the factory sits in the fertile Shomali Plains ringed by snow-covered mountains and populated mainly by ethnic Tajiks. Oppegard said approximately 1,400 male Afghan farmers with holdings averaging two hectares each have been contracted to supply vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower, turnips, zucchini squash, French beans, spinach, chili peppers and onions.

A separate project, run by some 400 women from their homes, will provide sun-dried tomatoes that will undergo further processing in the factory. Oppegard said that some women are widows from the war with the Taliban. Twelve other women -- all of them widows or breadwinners for war-disabled husbands -- will be employed in a separate facility, manufacturing metal crates to transport the vegetables from the fields to the factory.

The total number of farm workers involved in the project is expected to be 6,000 to 7,000, Oppegard said.

Oppegard, describing how the factory works, said the vegetables will be weighed and graded according to quality, then washed, peeled and diced, and put into drying trays. After emerging from the drying process, the vegetables will be placed in heat-sealed bags for export.

In the initial stages, four Western expatriates along with a dozen Afghans will carry out the administrative and management functions at the factory. But eventually when the factory reaches full capacity in early 2007, 85 people, all of them Afghan, are expected to run the factory, Oppegard said.

The factory will be run as a cooperative with 60 percent held by Development Works and 40 percent held in trust by the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, and the farmers involved are eligible to buy shares in this agri-business venture, Oppegard said.

"Afghan women have expressed interest in working in the factory, Oppegard said, predicting that eventually one-third of the workforce would be female.

"In talking to farmers, I found out that they are really interested in long-term economic opportunities, and offering them this kind of business partnership appealed to them.

They can double and triple their income with this project, earning anywhere from $900 to $3,000 a year," Oppegard said.

She added that there are plans to build similar factories in other areas of Afghanistan such as Jalalabad in eastern Nangarhar province, Kunduz in the north, Herat in the west, and Kandahar in the south.

"The most likely site for the next factory will be Jalalabad with its longer growing season," Oppegard said. She added that the prospect of a lucrative income from vegetables could become an incentive for farmers in Nangarhar to stop illegal cultivation of opium poppies.

An additional 200 to 300 additional farm owners could be enrolled in the dehydrated vegetable operation in February 2005 if the full capacity of the factory has not been reached, Oppegard said.