Raisin Producer Cooperative Center No. 2 stands alone astride the highway in Parwan Province, an hour north of Kabul. Inside the clay-colored building with a cheery yellow gate, a group of Afghan raisin farmers sits cross-legged on the tan carpet, talking about the past — and the future.
“Before the wars, we were exporting our raisins to the U.K., to the Soviet Union, to India,” said Haji Hamidullah, who was chosen by his fellow farmers to serve as president of the Parwan cooperative. “It's our hope that we will again find good markets for our products on the international market.”
Next month, raisins grown in Parwan will once again land on shelves in Britain, selling in health food and fine food retailers under the Tropical Wholefoods brand thanks to an unusual alliance among Afghan farmers; Mercy Corps, an international aid organization based in Portland, Oregon; and Fullwell Mill, a British food producer.
The venture is part of an effort to bring the practices and profits of the so-called fair-trade movement to Afghanistan, a country known more for conflicts than cooperatives. Along the way, participants also hope to build more stable and more prosperous Afghan communities by building and improving on an indigenous business that in years past was a source of local pride.
In the decades before war decimated Afghanistan's infrastructure and its land, the country produced 10 percent of the world's raisins. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the country's raisin production peaked at 86,000 metric tons in 1981 before plunging to less than a quarter of that figure by the end of the 1980s.