In Afghanistan, where only a fraction of the country's land is arable or cultivated, a grassroots initiative is helping farmers better preserve their crops and take their produce to market at more profitable prices
Yakawlang, Afghanistan - Fatema is 56 years old, but her wrinkled face and rough, weathered hands give her the appearance of someone much older. For much of her life in the fields she has been accustomed to hardscrabble disappointment and financial shortfalls, often working 6 months at a time for next to no income. That was until the arrival of a modern cold room for storage of vegetables. Today, she says, storing her potatoes allows her to sell them out of season with no wastage and at two or three times the price they previously commanded.
"Three years ago, my husband, three children, and I worked hard and without stop for 6 months at a time, and still we could barely make enough money to live," Fatema says. "Now we are more prosperous. We were even able to buy a tractor with my savings."
Fatema lives in the farmlands of mountainous Bamyan Province, in central Afghanistan, around 240 kilometers (km) northwest of Kabul. In ancient times, Bamyan was an important stop on the Silk Road and a thriving cultural center. Today it has a wealth of neglected historical treasures, but the local populace gets by largely by cultivating potatoes and other crops such as wheat.
Letting nothing go to waste
"The project in Bamyan has resulted in significant changes in production, storage, and marketing [of potatoes]." - Joji Tokeshi, ADB Afghanistan Resident Mission country director
Improved prospects for the people of Bamyan are just one of many outcomes of ADB's Afghanistan Rural Business Support Project, approved in December 2006. The $18 million grant under the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, funded by the Government of Japan, has been supporting rural business development in the northern province of Balkh, in Bamyan, and in Nangarhar Province on the Pakistan border.
Key to the success of the project has been establishing four rural business support centers that help farmers, agriprocessors, and traders more profitably produce, process, and market their products: edible oils, woven mats and carpets, and - in Bamyan - potatoes.
"Potato value-chain development under the project in Bamyan has resulted in significant changes in production, storage, and marketing," says Joji Tokeshi, country director with ADB's Afghanistan Resident Mission. Tokeshi adds that the project has reduced potato losses through better storage methods to around 1.1% from 40%.
"To add value and increase potato production, the project provided potato farmers with training on the best potato production practices and established more than 30 demonstration plots in potato growing districts," explains Mohammad Hanif Ayubi, ADB project officer.
The project also offered business development services, in classrooms and in the field, to help farmers and cooperatives in Bamyan learn how to better market their potatoes to improve revenues.
Perhaps most influentially, the project built 1,100 cold storage rooms - like Fatema's - to help farmers store potatoes for longer.
Deputy director of the project, Mohammad Alem Alemi, says that 642 storage rooms have been built in the provincial seat of Bamyan, 301 in Yakawlang district, and another 157 in Sheebar district. Each cold storage room can preserve 20-25 tons of potatoes for up to 6 months. Between them, the two districts and the provincial seat provide some 80% of Afghanistan's potatoes.
Initiatives such as the cold storage rooms in Bamyan Province are crucial for an agricultural economy says Tokeshi, noting that, "only 12% of the country's 65 million hectares of land is arable and less than 6% currently is cultivated."
As a result of these efforts, the area of potato cultivation in Bamyan Province has increased by 481 hectares (ha). "Farmers' incomes have increased by $3.21 million in 3 years," he says.
The farmers agree, saying that they have seen a 35%-40% increase, and in some cases as much as a 60% increase, in their annual sales of potatoes,
Potato production surges
"In the past, as much as 60% of the potatoes used to go to waste during the winter," says 46-year-old Mohammad Muslim, who heads a Bamyan urban cooperative and also trades potatoes. "Farmers used to sell each 1 ser (about 7 kilograms [kg]) of potatoes for AF30 - AF50 (60 cents-$1), but now they sell the same quantity for AF90 - AF120 ($1.90-$2.50)."
Demand for cold rooms was also formerly so high that they were made available to farmers by lucky draws or simply through random selections. That meant that potatoes were often in short supply too. The project, which was completed on 30 November 2011, has seen production of potatoes surge beyond wheat, the other traditional crop in Bamyan Province.
"Now I grow potatoes on 95% of my farmland, and my income has improved considerably." - Hussain Jan, 65, farmer
"Before these cold rooms were built, I used to grow potatoes on half of my agricultural land," says Hussain Jan, 65, a farmer in the village of Daudi. "That was because a lot of the crop would rot during the winter. Now I grow potatoes on 95% of my farmland, and my income has improved considerably."
Of the 4 tons of potatoes Hussain Jan now farms, he says he puts 3 tons in storage, where they gradually increase in value through autumn and winter, until spring, by which time they have doubled in price.
A boon for women
According to Ayubi, senior project officer at ADB, the project has benefited more than 10,000 farmers, processors, and stakeholders, while providing $4.47 million in financial and technical assistance to more than 5,000 potato-growing farmers. Along with the 1,100 cold rooms for potatoes, 20 tractors were also donated.
This rollout of potato production in Bamyan, where women work shoulder to shoulder with men on the land, has had another outcome. Most of the women belong to agricultural cooperatives, and some have been holding meetings to explore ways that women can increase revenue streams for their agricultural products.
Fawzia, 55, who lives with eight family members in the village of Qula Naw, says the arrival of the cold rooms is inspiring some women to think about making independent livings, or to cooperate with men in marketing new potato products.
One idea, according to Marzia Haidari, 28, a gender officer with a Bamyan NGO called the Peace Foundation, is for women to produce french fries, supported by both the government and NGOs.
"This initiative would see good economic returns, both for women and the government," she says.