Afghans find modest prosperity in once-banned trade – milk
The country's first dairy cooperative has helped farmers more than double their incomes.
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"It's a big difference, because people are making legal money," says Khair Mohammad, an assistant at the Kabul Dairy Union.Skip to next paragraph
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Speaking generally, he adds: "If these farmers didn't have this, they would be growing poppy."
Based on its success in Kabul, UNFAO has established two more cooperatives in the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif. The Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team in the western city of Herat is planning a fourth.
From family cows to dairy coop
To get to this point has required countless conversations to build trust. The notion of an Afghan dairy farmer, curious to outsiders, was no less curious to Afghans themselves at first.
"Afghan farmers told us: 'This is not our culture,' " says Dr. Zafar.
It took a year of preliminary work to convince them. Part of this was training farmers how better to care for their cows, increasing yields. But part of it became a debate on Islamic doctrine. In 2001, the Taliban had opposed the scheme on the grounds that milk was the food of heaven and should not be sold.
Even after the Taliban left, collector Mr. Hanif remembers when farmers used to bring their milk to him hidden beneath their vests, embarrassed. Now he points to the dozens of canisters lined up on the slick white tiles of the Kabul Dairy Union's receiving dock. Eventually, logic won out.
Farmers milk their cows three times a day. Their families cannot drink all of it, meaning the rest is given to the poor or left to go sour.
"You have to throw milk away," Mr. Hanif recalls a member of the UNFAO project telling him. "Why not sell it?"
Zafar and Ahmadzai built the Kabul Dairy Union on this simple principle.
Still needed: storage, safe passage
There are numerous challenges. No farmers say they have been harassed by the Taliban for selling milk, but Taliban fighters confiscated one of the cooperative's two trucks about a month ago because it had UN license plates. The cooperative has had to rent another for $60 a day.
Perhaps a bigger problem, though, is that police at checkpoints routinely demand bribes, says Hanif. "They ask for milk, but we don't give it to them, because if you give it to them, they will start asking for more milk every day," he says, adding that they have to pay $3 to $4 instead.
Despite this, Ahmadzai has been able to build a modest operation – two rooms filled with shiny silver equipment donated by Germany that spins, whirrs, and clatters in the background, separating the raw milk into milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter.
In a country with virtually no refrigeration outside Kabul, farmers at collection points keep milk cool by draping canisters with wet rags or immersing them in pools of water.
Still, a bootstrap mentality can only take the cooperative so far, says Ahmadzai. Without cold storage at collection points, the cooperative can operate only in two neighboring provinces, Logar and Wardak. Moreover, it can make only one collection a day, cutting potential profits by two-thirds.
Ahmadzai imagines foreign donors helping to build cold-storage centers across the country. With more advanced equipment that packages milk to stay good for weeks without refrigeration, he says, Afghanistan could employ thousands of people and lessen its reliance on imports. Currently, the Kabul Dairy Union supplies less than 1 percent of the Kabul dairy market.
There are four million people in Kabul who need to purchase dairy products," he says, noting that people in the capital don't have their own cows. "We have a market."