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

Kabul

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?