KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – With rain clouds looming on the horizon, approximately 4.5 tons of muskmelons made their way nearly 85km by an ornately decorated vehicle known locally as a jingle truck (aptly named for the metal chains and pendants hanging from the bumper) from a Spin Boldak farm to Kandahar International Airport, Sept. 8, where they will be flown to Dubai.
Farmers near Spin Boldak are helping to open the country to international trade by growing melons, grapes and pomegranates for export rather than illicit crops such as poppy and marijuana.
According to Gary Soiseth, Department of Defense director of economic growth, exporting produce isn’t exactly a new concept for Afghan farmers; they’ve been doing it for years. What's new is that nearly one dozen of them have come together to form Afghanistan’s first farmer’s association, Rabat Fresh Fruit Ltd.
Soiseth said that in previous years, farmers from Spin Boldak either obtained their own export licenses or shipped their produce through a single individual’s license, which posed its own set of risks.
“The fact that this group of farmers have come together, formed an association and obtained an export license in the association’s name is a huge step in the right direction,” he said.
The current process, from field to market, is packing the produce in the field as it is harvested, and loading and unloading trucks by hand. There are plans to open four new packing facilities in the region in order to process the produce in a more controlled environment using pallets and forklifts to improve efficiency.
Kandahar International Airport is also taking steps, with the assistance of the Border Management Task Force, run by the U.S., to provide facilities capable of scanning an entire pallet of produce at once. The new scanner is anticipated to be operational for the 2013 harvest.
With the addition of the new facilities, and particularly the pallet scanner, the amount of produce leaving the country by air is expected to increase. The current agreement between the farmer’s association and airlines is for approximately four to 10 tons of produce on a single flight. This number could go up in the future if air transit proves profitable versus ground shipments alone.
Along with the pallet scanner, the airport also has a new cold storage facility in place.
“The new cooler has the capacity to store 10 tons of fresh produce,” said Ahmad Ullah Faizi, the Kandahar International Airport general manager. “The cold storage is needed to prevent spoilage in the event of such an incident as a canceled flight or a lack of available space on a scheduled flight.”
Faizi also spoke about the additional benefits of shipping fruits, such as melons and pomegranates, to the international marketplace.
“[This shows that] the government is functioning properly. The government is aware of the problems of the farmers and they did help find some markets for them,” he said.
Previously, flights bringing supplies into the area were flying back out empty. By working with the local farmer’s association, the airlines are now able to return with fresh fruits to new and expanding markets.
Also beneficial to the farmers are the airport’s operating hours; Kandahar International is the only airport in the country to operate 24/7 and service is available on three local Afghan airlines plus one additional Iranian airline with flights to Iran, Kabul, Dubai and India.
The payoff not only to the farmers, but also the communities and the country as a whole, may be exponential. By reaching out to the international community through fresh produce, the people of Afghanistan, with GIRoA assistance, will be paving their own road forward.