When Raisins Give Hope to Afghan Farmers

October 8, 2010

KABUL — Raisin Producer Cooperative Center No. 2 stands alone astride the highway in Parwan Province, an hour north of Kabul. Inside the clay-colored building with a cheery yellow gate, a group of Afghan raisin farmers sits cross-legged on the tan carpet, talking about the past — and the future.

“Before the wars, we were exporting our raisins to the U.K., to the Soviet Union, to India,” said Haji Hamidullah, who was chosen by his fellow farmers to serve as president of the Parwan cooperative. “It’s our hope that we will again find good markets for our products on the international market.”

Next month, raisins grown in Parwan will once again land on shelves in Britain, selling in health food and fine food retailers under the Tropical Wholefoods brand thanks to an unusual alliance among 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 practices and profits of the so-called fair-trade movement to Afghanistan, a country known more for conflicts than cooperatives. Along the way, participants also hope to build more stable and more prosperous Afghan communities by building and improving on an indigenous business that in years past was 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 toU.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the country’s raisin production peaked at 86,000 metric tons in 1981 before plunging to less than a quarter of that figure by the end of the 1980s.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has slowly climbed back into the global marketplace, with production hovering at 25,000 to 30,000 metric tons annually for the past several years. Official figures show the country exporting more than 80 percent of its dried grapes, but the sweet, seedless Afghan raisins are an easy-to-find snack in local markets and a staple of Afghan rice dishes. The country is now home to 3 percent of the world’s raisin production, with the biggest producers — the United States, Turkey, China and Iran — now accounting for roughly three-quarters of the one million metric tons of the raisin market.

With competition stiff and Afghanistan still struggling to recover from the destruction of war, farmers like Mr. Hamidullah have struggled to sell their goods any farther away than Pakistan, leaving them at the mercy of local markets — and local prices. So 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, which includes two months of technical training each year for the 300 Parwan farmers in the program, is part of a three-year, $2 million Mercy Corps program started in June 2008 with financing from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Along with Parwan, the Mercy Corps program operates in Kandahar Province, which is far less secure. The goal of the project, the Global Development Alliance, is to increase training, jobs and sales for Afghan participants along the grape and pomegranate production value chain. (Pomegranates have been harder to link to global markets, given security constraints in the south, where they grow in abundance, but Mercy Corps has had some success this year in helping farmers to earn more from the lucrative fruit.)

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. How many grapes each hectare of land yields depends to a great extent on the weather: Last year, the Parwan cooperative had a bumper crop of more than a thousand metric tons. This year, given the heavy rains, that figure could drop below 400.

Although billions of dollars have been spent on development programs in Afghanistan since 2002, few have had such a direct link to international markets. And judging from the challenges Mercy Corps and Fullwell Mill have faced since starting the program in Parwan, it is not difficult to see why the program is such a rarity.

Mercy Corps first reached out to Fullwell Mill in 2006 to study the possibility of producing organic raisins in Kandahar. The two organizations decided to collaborate several years later after agreeing that together they could overcome the myriad obstacles necessary to turn the far-fetched idea of Parwan fair-trade raisins into reality.

The first issue Fullwell Mill faced was persuading the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International, or FLO, and its certifying body, FLO-CERT, to consider allowing raisins grown in Parwan to carry the Fairtrade label, a logo that signifies to consumers that growers have received a fair price and that a portion of their profits will be used to further economic development.

As part of the labeling process, FLO-CERT auditors visit producers to verify that they meet the group’s stringent environmental, labor and organizational standards. In the case of the Parwan raisin cooperative, however, FLO had no ability to verify facts on the ground and did not want to risk the danger of sending its staff to Afghanistan, no matter how secure Parwan itself might be.

After months of talks with Fullwell Mill, a solution was found in which Mercy Corps provided FLO-CERT with pages of documents regarding the cooperative’s ability to meet Fairtrade requirements. For now, the Parwan raisins will be available only in Britain, the largest global Fairtrade market, though the process may serve as a pilot for bringing Fairtrade to other conflict areas.

From the view of the fair-trade representatives, the decision to allow the Parwan raisins project to proceed under their label presented formidable business risks.

“We would all recognize that actually these are the sorts of groups we want to be working with,” said Chris Davis, who manages producer partnerships at the Fairtrade Foundation. “The debate was around whether, by coming up with a new way of working with this group, could that, if anything goes wrong, potentially bring the fair-trade movement into disrepute? Do we run the risk of undermining the benefits that we can provide to other farmers and workers around the world?”

In the end, the foundation decided that by being open with consumers about the unusual certification process, it could indeed give the raisins the Fairtrade seal.

Then there was the challenge of getting farmers to embrace new farming techniques and standards so that their products could be competitive overseas. And convincing them that if they did so, they could indeed trust the foreigners who promised to come back at harvest time to buy their products.

“We are trying to put a bit of institution in there so that from this very cowboy Wild West, we get a situation where there are rights and responsibilities within the supply chain,” said Richard Friend, co-founder of Fullwell Mill, which also works with almond growers in northwestern Pakistan to supply almonds to Ben & Jerry’s, the ice cream maker. “The farmers are guaranteed a whole series of things like reasonable quotas of what we are willing to buy from them, and they know in advance there are guaranteed prices and a guaranteed premium on Fairtrade certified product. Concomitantly, there are a series of things they have to give.”

Those things include being trained in and adopting certain modern techniques, like mat-based drying of the grapes. Traditionally, the farmers had let their grapes dry on the ground and then sold them to the first bidder so that they would not be left with perishable products on their hands. Mr. Taheri, the Mercy Corps program coordinator, and his colleagues told farmers that they simply had to dry their grapes on the new mats made of river reeds because they produced cleaner and plumper raisins for the international market.

Fullwell Mill’s pledge to buy 7 kilograms, or about 15.5 pounds, of raisins for 350 afghanis, or about $8, rather than the going market rate of 7 kilograms for 200 afghanis, added a strong financial incentive.

For their part, the farmers at the center of the program say that all the education has been a boon to their production and to their families. Now that they know they can trust the Fullwell Mill team to deliver on its promises, they hope that this is just the beginning of the collaboration. From the 35 farmers who initially agreed to try the new mats, more than 200 have signed on this year.

“We want to find many more foreign markets — this is our hope,” Mr. Hamidullah said, proudly showing visitors row upon row of his ripening grapes a few minutes after urging his Mercy Corps trainers to extend the program past its current end date of May 2011. “When we get such good benefits from our products, we can improve our whole lives: our homes, our machinery, our education.”

And for Fullwell Mill, the unusual partnership with Mercy Corps and the Parwan Raisin Producer Association has translated into a strategic business opportunity for a niche company operating in a field of far larger players. The first Afghan raisin shipment of 35 metric tons arrived in late August after months of transit to London. While the amount is only a tiny fraction of the 340,000 metric tons of raisins imported last year by the 27 nations of theEuropean Union, Fullwell Mill sees the program as a robust start that promises great potential for future expansion — so long as British buyers are interested.

“I see opportunity where a lot of other people see risks,” said Adam Brett, Fullwell Mill’s director. “Going into Afghanistan will give us a really exciting unique product that the largest customers will be curious about and want to have, which will give them an edge. If we are lucky, Afghanistan moves toward stability and then it can become a real powerhouse for trade.”

Already, customers like Community Foods, a British supplier of natural and organic dried food that purchased Afghan dried fruits in the 1970s, have pledged to buy the Parwan Fairtrade raisins this year and next.

“It is going to be seen as a bonus that the raisins come from Afghanistan,” said Paul Moore, Community Foods’ marketing director. “I think the British public realize that we are there because forces have been sent their by their government, and any project that involves bringing people together will be viewed as positive. A country like that, that has been at war for 30 years, if you can bring calm and happiness to a few families’ lives and that can grow, why wouldn’t you want to do that?”

View Slides here: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/10/08/business/global/09raisins-slideshow.html?ref=global