From a gritty walled compound in a fringe of Kabul better known for bombs and violent demonstrations, Mustafa Sadiq is building a global empire on fruit, selling Afghan produce to the health-conscious in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Gaudily painted trucks line up outside Sadiq’s Omaid Bahar factory and workers in juice-stained clothes unload sacks of pomegranates. The fruit’s dark red seeds are prized in Europe for their abundant antioxidants, as well as in Japan, where many believe they can help fight cancers in the aftermath of last year’s Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.
“Besides a thousand things negative said about Afghanistan, no one can ignore the quality, the taste of our fruits, that everywhere it is admired,” says Sadiq, a quiet 47-year-old with ambitious plans to expand his two-year-old, US$30 million venture into a US$100 million Afghan-born fruit behemoth.
Omaid Bahar, or “Spring Wish,” is a rarity in war-wracked Afghanistan: a medium-sized business employing almost 1,000 people and thriving even as many entrepreneurs eye the country’s exits, worried about what will happen when NATO combat troops leave in 2014.
Underscoring fears of a Taliban resurgence or worse, a renewal of the bloody ethnic civil war that raged through the early 1990s, Afghans carted US$4.5 billion in cash through Kabul airport last year to safety abroad, according to the Afghan Central Bank, much of it ending up in Dubai.
The company is a huge gamble for Sadiq as other businesses fall around him, including many which relied on making military boots and uniforms, but whose orders have recently been cancelled or scaled back.
Where others fret about instability, Sadiq sees opportunity, selling fruit juice concentrate and fresh produce to Britain and Western Europe, as well as Canada, Dubai, Pakistan, India, and markets in Southeast Asia.
He has advanced plans for joint ventures in the US, and sales of juice in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well as at home, where Afghans are mostly unaware of how highly regarded their homegrown pomegranates are by health food aficionados.
“We have a premium product here and it is almost organically produced. Because of the climate and the taste we are a step ahead of our competitors,” Sadiq said. “People talk about the health benefits. But unfortunately in our country, people are not that much aware.”
Pomegranates, a staple in the Bible and in Homeric tales, and whose edible pulpy seeds are laden with health-giving antioxidants, vitamins and fiber, have been cultivated for thousands of years. Their deep red juice, also used in cocktail-mixing and Middle Eastern cooking, is sweet with a sour finish.
Afghans argue that the fruit originated in the country’s fertile river plains and valleys.
Sadiq has had to overcome myriad problems thrown up by the war and Afghanistan’s history of conflict, including Taliban insurgents blocking access to farms, Stone Age agricultural techniques, potholed supply routes riddled with landmines and the bureaucratic torment of its notorious kleptocracy.
“If we had peace and security in the country, we would be in touch directly with the farmers. Now we cannot reach many places that we want. But overall, we try our best,” he said.
Inside his factory, fist-sized pomegranates tumble into water for cleaning before bobbing onto conveyors and into a stainless steel crusher where they are pressed into juice concentrate by machinery imported from Italy and Sweden.