Afghanistan looks to squeeze new markets from pomegranates

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Clogged with overloaded trucks, construction firm yards, hardware shops and police checkpoints, the Jalalabad Road on the outskirts of Kabul is an unlikely place for an agricultural revolution.

But beyond the impatient traffic, a high wall topped with razor wire and heavily guarded iron gates, the Omaid Bahar Fruit Processing Company is being hailed as a beacon of hope for Afghanistan's fractured farming sector.

This is the country's first juice concentrate factory, designed mainly to transform succulent pomegranates into juices and purees for consumption at home and around the world.

"If you want to see what Afghanistan's agricultural future will be, look here," said minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock Mohammad Asif Rahimi, as he opened the privately owned factory this week.

"This is the beginning," he added, calling the initiative "our path to prosperity."

Inside the building -- a Soviet-era textiles factory converted at a cost of more than 11 million dollars -- women in black, full-face veils and blue plastic overshoes wash giant, red-skinned pomegranates at a conveyor belt.

Nearby, men in blue overalls, face masks and hairnets sweep mounting piles of leathery peel into wheelbarrows.

Shiny chrome pipes snake outwards and upwards from the factory floor, into and out of large, round tanks until a sweet-smelling, ruby red liquid -- squeezed, pressed, sieved, filtered, heated and cooled -- finally emerges.

Luca Panzeri, from the Italian company that provided the machinery, said with pomegranate juice considered a "super food" in the West, the initiative could be lucrative for impoverished Afghanistan.

"Pomegranates are one of the highest added-value fruits," the food technologist with Bertuzzi Food Processing told AFP.

"They're full of antioxidants and good for health. They protect against cancer and many kinds of diseases. There's a large market in the US and Europe."

Some 200 people, including 70 women, will work in two shifts around the clock at the factory, while the government estimates that 50,000 farmers will benefit directly from its creation.

Pomegranates -- found everywhere in Afghanistan and hailed by its people as the best in the world -- will be the main fruit, although there are plans to process apples, melons, peaches and apricots.

Work is under way to ensure a constant supply chain, with the unit taking lower-grade fruit that could not otherwise be sold at market.

About 5,000 tonnes of fruit are expected to be processed by the end of this year with projections that the factory will deal with 25,000 tonnes in 2010.

Afghanistan produced 96,000 tonnes of pomegranates in 2008, according to the government, with the main export markets in neighbouring Pakistan, India and the United Arab Emirates.

International aid agencies are helping the processing plant develop a business plan and win new customers in North America and Europe.

"We have four European companies interested in buying our product," one Western aid agency official told AFP on condition of anonymity but refusing to name the firms. "There's a lot of goodwill."

Up to 80 percent of Afghans rely on agriculture, yet the country's rural economy has been blighted by three decades of conflict.

Rural poverty has been identified as one of the main factors fuelling the cultivation of poppies -- used to make heroin, the profits from which have fuelled the Taliban insurgency.

But there are hopes that the Kabul factory could help persuade farmers to grow more legitimate crops.

"The security and stability of Afghanistan is dependent in a huge way on employment," Rahimi told dignitaries at the opening.

"If you have people out of work, especially in rural Afghanistan, I can assure you that there will not be peace and security in Afghanistan, even if you double the number of soldiers."

The aid agency official said that it was hoped that farmers would not have to turn to "alternative crops" if they had contracts to supply the factory with fruit at market prices.

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