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Afghans find modest prosperity in once-banned trade – milk

The country's first dairy cooperative has helped farmers more than double their incomes.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 2008

Cash cow? Kabul's dairy coop is so successful that similar ventures are being opened in other cities.

Mark Sappenfield/The Christian Science Monitor

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Zakaria Ahmadzai's dream of saving thousands of Afghans from war and poverty sounds a bit far-fetched at first.

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He wants to revolutionize Afghanistan's dairy industry, creating as many as 100,000 jobs. It is an ambitious plan, considering that the industry essentially did not exist seven years ago, and that back then Mr. Ahmadzai was a manual laborer earning $3 a day.

But the nascent dairy trade has made entrepreneurs of men like Ahmadzai, now head of Afghanistan's first dairy cooperative. His income has doubled since he began selling milk from his three cows – a practice once forbidden by the Taliban. Other dairy farmers' salaries have increased 10-fold since 2002 to about $545 – more than twice the average yearly income here.

To Ahmadzai, it demonstrates how – with international help – Afghans can find alternatives to opium or insurgency.

"This changes the life of our people," he says. "If they can have money easily with peace, why do they need to fight?"

The Afghan economy is growing at double-digit rates – 13.5 percent during the past year, according to the World Bank. At the same time, billions of dollars of foreign aid is pouring into the country. Yet neither the economic growth nor the aid is having a substantial impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans, 85 percent of whom make a living in agriculture.

A wide array of aid projects has targeted agriculture – from pistachio growers in the north to pomegranate farmers in the south. Some have had success, many have not – for a variety of reasons, ranging from a reluctance among aid organizations to work beyond secure compounds in Kabul to an unwillingness to embark on long-term projects.

Incomes jump fivefold

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (UNFAO) dairy scheme, which began in 2001, has required no small amount of patience, persuasion, and creativity. But the result has been Ahmadzai's Kabul Dairy Union, a cooperative of 620 local farmers established in 2006 that runs its own affairs and covers its own expenses.

The project's success has been in its simplicity, says the UNFAO's Mustafa Zafar. Afghan farmers generally keep one or two cows for family use, and the goal was to teach farmers how to leverage those cows into a better life, he explains.

For Ghulam Sediq, it has worked. Like Ahmadzai, he used to make his living as a day laborer, filling trenches with sand for construction projects. The work was hard and the pay meager. "Feeding my eight children was very, very difficult," he says.

Now, with his five cows, Mr. Sediq makes $20 a day – five times what he made as a laborer. "With that, I can take care of my family easily – feeding them and buying them good clothes," he says. "And it's not a lot of work."

One of the cooperative's collectors, Mohammad Hanif, still runs a butcher shop on the side. With the extra money from selling milk from his two cows and collecting the milk from Logar Province, he built a $15,000 house – making him rich by his village's standards, he says with a wide smile. Now he wants to buy more cows.