Afghanistan's agony bears fruit at last

How one man overcame war, picked up the pomegranate, and saw it ripen it into a £20m business

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The Independent Online

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 Mr Sadiq's "Omaid Bahar" factory, and workers in juice-stained clothes unload sacks of pomegranates, the dark red seeds of which are prized for their abundant antioxidants.

"Besides a thousand things negative said about Afghanistan, no one can ignore the quality, the taste of our fruits, which is admired everywhere," says Mr Sadiq, a quiet 47-year-old with ambitious plans to expand his two-year-old, $30m (£19m) venture into a $100m Afghan-born fruit behemoth.

Omaid Bahar, or "Spring Wish", is a rarity in war-racked Afghanistan: a 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.

The company is a huge gamble for Mr Sadiq as other businesses fall around him, including many that relied on making military boots and uniforms, but whose orders have recently been cancelled or scaled back.

Where others fret about instability, Mr Sadiq sees opportunity, selling fruit-juice concentrate and fresh produce to Britain and Western Europe, as well as to Canada, Dubai, Pakistan, India, and markets in south-east Asia. He has advanced plans for joint ventures in the US. "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," Mr Sadiq says.

Pomegranates, whose edible pulpy seeds are laden with health-giving antioxidants, vitamins and fibre, 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 claim that the fruit originated in the country's fertile river plains and valleys, where insurgents have battled Nato and Afghan security forces for 11 years.

Mr Sadiq has had to overcome myriad problems, including Taliban insurgents blocking access to farms, stone age agricultural techniques, potholed supply routes riddled with landmines, and the bureaucratic torment of the country's notorious kleptocracy. "If we had peace and security, we would be in touch directly with the farmers. Now we cannot reach many places that we want. But we try our best," he says.

Inside his factory, fist-sized pomegranates tumble into water for cleaning before bobbing on to conveyors and into a stainless-steel crusher, where they are pressed into juice concentrate by machinery imported from Italy and Sweden. This is packed into vacuum bags that then fill huge green drums shipped in from Russia. A separate factory next door squirts fresh juice into shop-ready packs at a rate of 7,000 250ml cartons an hour.

Winning export business is vital, given almost all Afghanistan's food is imported, meaning Omaid Bahar must comply with quality standards enforced in Europe and elsewhere Ω no easy task. "Here we don't have an insurance system. Police at the Tajikistan border wanted to open our containers, and I said if they open it, the concentrate will spoil in 24 hours. We had to take another way to Kyrgyzstan," says Mr Sadiq's troubleshooting factory manager Abdul Rahman, smiling broadly.

Mr Sadiq's factory is just the first stage of a plan he expects to cost another $70m and deliver new lines in yoghurts and fruit-flavoured milk, and jams and jellies. He is close to agreeing a venture to sell concentrate in smaller packets into the US, he says, while distribution offices and warehouses in Afghanistan will expand next year to cover all 34 provinces. The firm is also negotiating with the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces and Nato to supply them with juice, in what would be a multimillion-dollar coup.

To secure his supply lines from around 35,000 farmers who sell Omaid Bahar 40,000 tons of fruit each year, along routes that pass through Taliban strongholds in the south, Mr Sadiq is also shifting Afghan farming practices from horse and plough to modern methods.

He is testing pilot farms with yield-improving drip irrigation and mechanised harvesting, and looking to import cows to supply milk products, which would reduce reliance on imports via Pakistan after cross-border security closures. "It is already a profitable business. It can become much more profitable," he says. "All the products we used to import, I'm trying my best to produce locally."

In its most recent Afghanistan assessment the World Bank said while growth reached 8.4 per cent in 2010/11, bolstered by big aid flows, the Nato pull-out could halve that rate.

Mr Sadiq says Afghans and foreigners tended to over-react to the dangers the country faces, including his own parents who fled to Europe when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. He himself fled the 1990s civil war after returning briefly when the Soviets withdrew. "I expect that these troubles, these uncertainties [will last] for the next 50 years and the next generation to come. But it is our country, we have to build it, we have to live here. And only then we can bring peace," he says.