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Better than meeting Springsteen

Afghanistan, November 11, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Haji Hamedullah and Sayed Muslem, two leaders of the cooperative in Parwan province, Afghanistan. Mercy Corps has helped link local Afghan raisin producers to lucrative international markets. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Examining raisins. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Grape farmer Naeen, Mercy Corps program coordinator Aman Taheri and Mohammed Nazin move sacks of raisins in a storage room near the Parwan Raisin Producers Cooperative. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps

Some people are thrilled to meet rock stars or celebrities. I, on the other hand, get really excited about meeting grape growers.

I’m not talking about just any grape growers — these are the famous raisin producers of Afghanistan’s Parwan province. About a year ago, a Mercy Corps colleague told me about a group of 35 farmers participating in one of our agriculture programs. The farmers are part of a cooperative — the Parwan Raisin Producers Cooperative (PRPC) — Mercy Corps helped form two years ago, and they are now working with a British food buyer, Fulwell Mill, to provide fairtrade raisins to UK consumers.

The raisins — 25 metric tons of them — will start appearing on the shelves of British health food stores later this month. They will be the only Afghan fairtrade item sold in the UK. Getting the fairtrade label wasn’t an easy process. Fairtrade certification usually involves close, in-person inspection of a product, but the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) wasn’t able to travel to war-torn Afghanistan. Instead, the farmers and our team had to provide detailed product information and undertake intense negotiations to earn an exceptional form of fairtrade status.

I was very impressed with these entrepreneurial farmers, and in subsequent months, I’ve talked them up to many colleagues at Mercy Corps. Last month, the New York Times ran a great story on the farmers, showing that other people are impressed too. So when I recently had the chance to sit down with them in Parwan province, I jumped at it.

In a small room in the village of Demulayousuf, I met with about 30 members of the PRPC. They told me how pleased they were to participate in the cooperative, and how much they enjoyed the opportunities — like linking to a lucrative export market — they would never have been able to pursue on their own. A market with consumers willing to pay a premium, fairtrade price means the farmers can increase their incomes, and further invest in their families and farms.

The farmers were also grateful for the training and expertise they’d gained through Mercy Corps. Most Afghans use outdated agricultural methods which render their products unfit for sale to international retailers. Through trainings with Mercy Corps, the farmers learned to dry their grapes on mats rather than directly on the ground, to use trellising systems to keep grapes from bruising and to harvest the grapes with shears rather than by hand.

When I sat down to talk to two leaders of the cooperative, Haji Hamedullah and Sayed Muslem, I realized just how organized and invested this group is. Haji and Sayed are both experienced farmers, but they’re also viewed by their peers as skilled leaders and businessmen. The PRPC has supervisors and board members elected by its membership. They hold an annual meeting with all members of the cooperative, plus smaller monthly meetings, and the group’s leaders are continually monitoring their progress and challenges. This is not a Mercy Corps initiative; it is truly led by these farmers.

The coming year will be a tough one for the PRPC and its members. Usually this area of Parwan province gets one or two months of rain each year, this year it rained about four months. The farmers here expect the raisin crop, and other harvests, to be sparse and damaged. Their incomes will suffer; the farmers I spoke to expect to make only one-tenth of their usual profit this year.

But the farmers seem poised to weather the upcoming storm. When I asked what the cooperative needs to succeed in the future, they didn’t ask for handouts. Instead, Haji told me, “We need continued coordination, honesty and trust among the cooperative’s membership. We will share problems and solutions with each other, and keep working hard.”