Raisin Producer Cooperative Center No. 2 stands astride the highway in Parwan Province, an hour north of Kabul. Inside the clay-colored building with a cheery yellow gate, Afghan raisin farmers sit cross-legged on the tan carpet, talking about the past and the future.
“Before the wars, we were exporting our raisins to the UK, to the Soviet Union, to India,” said Haji Hamidullah, who was chosen to be president of the Parwan cooperative.
“It’s our hope that we will again find good markets for our products on the international market,” he said.
Next month, raisins grown in Parwan will be found on the shelves of health food stores and fine food retailers in Britain, selling under the Tropical Wholefoods brand, thanks to an alliance between Afghan farmers; Mercy Corps, an international aid organization based in Portland, Oregon, and Fullwell Mill, a British food producer.
The venture is part of an effort to bring the so-called fair-trade movement to Afghanistan, a country known more for conflicts than cooperatives. Along the way, participants hope to build more stable and prosperous communities by improving on an indigenous business that was once a source of local pride.
In the decades before war decimated Afghanistan’s infrastructure and its land, the country produced 10 percent of the world’s raisins. According to the Afghan Department of Agriculture, Afghanistan’s raisin -production peaked at 86,000 tonnes in 1981 before plunging to less than a quarter of that by the end of the 1980s.
Since 2001, Afghanistan has slowly climbed back, with production hovering at 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes annually for several years.
Official figures show the country exporting more than 80 percent of its dried grapes, but the sweet, seedless raisins can also be found in local markets and are a staple of Afghan rice dishes. The country now produces 3 percent of the world’s raisins, with the biggest producers — the US, Turkey, China and Iran — controlling about three-quarters of the market.
Because of the fighting, farmers like Hamidullah have struggled to sell their goods any farther away than Pakistan. Mercy Corps, together with Fullwell Mill, set out to change that.
“We went to the farmers and we asked them: ‘Do you want to export your raisins? If so, and if you try your best, we can find a good market for you,’” said Aman Taheri, program coordinator at the Kabul office of Mercy Corps. “We told them our strategy was to increase their knowledge and their sales and to help give them linkages: the farmer to the trader to the buyer to the processor.”
The effort is part of a three-year, US$2 million Mercy Corps program, started in June 2008 with financing from the US Agency for International Development. Along with Parwan, the Mercy Corps program operates in Kandahar Province, which is far less secure.
The goal of the program, the Global Development Alliance, is to increase training, jobs and sales along the grape and pomegranate production chains (pomegranates have been harder to export, given security constraints in the south, where they grow in abundance).
The grape growing season lasts about six months, from spring through early autumn, with raisin-drying in the Parwan region requiring four to five additional weeks.
Last year, the Parwan cooperative had a bumper crop of more than 1,000 tonnes. This year, because of heavy rains, that figure could drop below 400 tonnes.