What crop would you grow?
The international forces in Southern Helmand Province of Afghanistan needed a strategy for counteracting the poppy production and related funding of the Taliban. The decision by local farmers to grow poppies rather than produce is not necessarily their choice. The Taliban forced local farmers into contract farming to grow the flower used to produce heroin by threats and cash payments.
Eighty percent of the population of Afghanistan are involved in agriculture across the country contributing 53% of the GDP. See USAID report – usaid-ag-extensions. This report identifies incredible amount of resources devoted to improving the agriculture sector of the economy.
My knowledge of agriculture was limited. Even though I grew up in the US Midwest farm belt about all I knew was some farmers used green tractors and some used red! I also knew corn was to be knee high by the fourth of July each year. Alternatives for poopy production was the major counter-narcotic theme that needed to be solved. There needed to be a comprehensive strategy for creating efficient Agriculture distribution chain. It was our job to assist the Marines and the numerous other agencies working to solve the issue of alternative crops.
Strategy for Agriculture?
It seemed every agency representative in Helmand was working on some aspect of improving agriculture and insuring traditional crops would be more profitable for farmers than poppy. This included USDA, USAID, World Bank, British counterparts, US Army Reservist from US farm belt, and SME from around the world. Projects included irrigation, seed management, fertilizer imports and production, protein for chickens and other farm animals, test plots, training, equipment, cold storage, transportation, and others. Everyone was looking for the silver bullet that would solve the problem of successful alternative crops. Alternative crops just meant crops other than poppy.
Communications were extremely difficult. If you wanted to speak with famers in the field or at the market it required a military patrol and interpreter. Anyone seen talking with us put themselves and their families at risk. Local government officials were happy to assist but not always in the best interest of their citizens. There was evidence that many of the “white papers” commissioned weren’t very accurate, made up of assumptions with little factual data. There was little factual data to be found anywhere.
Already in progress on my arrival was the construction of a produce sorting, packing, and cold storage facility next to the village of Marjeh. One of the Taliban strongholds liberated by the Marines with the surge it was felt to be a key symbol of improved relations and alternative crop production. See Camp Leatherneck blog.
Vegetable and Fruit Packing House.
Someone with more knowledge of agriculture than me determined that providing a means for the local farmers to clean, sort, package and store vegetables produced around Marjeh would create an alternative to the poppy for local farmers. I arrived in time for the ground-breaking.
We meet at Camp Hansen, less than a mile from Marjeh and the site of the new packing house. We journeyed that last mile in a full armor Marine convoy. Upon arrival, at least 10 armor vehicles spread out into a one-hundred-yard circle surrounding the ceremony location. There were perhaps 50 military, civilians and local politicians attending the ceremony. The required security for the ceremony was foreshadowing issues to come later. I also decided at that moment that I would personally forgo any opportunity to attend future ceremonies. The pictures on Military or Navy Times and other publications are viewed by the bad guys as well as the good guys. I rather they didn’t know my name and picture.
Getting products to markets.
The agriculture value chain is as complicated as any industry. The challenge with this value chain is the Taliban made it easy for the farmers to grow poppy. The Taliban would visit the farmers in the spring providing them seed, fertilizer and partial payments to grow poppy. After harvest they would return to pick-up the poppy and make final payment to the farmers. The farmers would grow fruits and vegetables for their own consumption but no longer had to worry about selling excess in the local markets and shipping product to the larger markets. Any alternative crop would need to provide enough additional money to offset the ease of the contract farmer model.
An ag expert could probably better explain the issues of setting up co-operatives to purchase the local produce, clean, sort, and package for transportation to regional markets. Others could explain drip irrigation, crop rotation, fertilizer, and pesticides. All I could explain is there was no value chain. No one was really considering the entire picture from field to market. There was no transportation. There was no quality standards or packaging. There were no plans for sustainability of the facilities being constructed or funding for the co-ops who were to purchase the local crops. ASAP Final Report – AS
A lot of fingers in the pie.
Everyone was working on a segment or portion of issues the prevented economic stability in Helmand. There were a few reports about the big picture but not a coordinated effort to solve issues. Just one example when I asked about costs of maintaining the soon to be built sorting, packaging and cold storage facility. I was told by a “financial person” that it would only cost $60,000 a year to maintain and buy necessary supplies. Considering the annual earnings of a farmer in that area was only $4,000 growing poppy, this is a huge amount of money. Only 1/2 of that for the crops we were suggesting. What about transportation to the nearby markets? Silence! Hadn’t thought about that.
Every effort to improve the distribution chain was isolated from every other effort due to security and communications issues. It was difficult to even determine who was working on any projects. These efforts were a small part of the overall military challenges. Few of those assigned to provide guidance really had the knowledge required. The central government in Kabul might as well have been on the moon for their lack of participation. I was a good example. Except for knowing about green and red tractors, I knew little of agricultural value chains. I set out to find some experts.
In Afghanistan, as in many third world agricultural regions of the world, there is a huge percentage of waste between the field and markets. In the US and other developed countries, it has taken decades to manage the supply chains insuring balanced production and infrastructure enabling farmers to get their crops to market efficiently. One of the many reports I read indicated only 30% of fruits & vegetables produced in Afghanistan make it to market for sale. The rest were lost in the field due to poor practices or rotted during transportation or after time.
How could we impact such a huge problem?
I couldn’t control or influence the country wide strategy for agriculture so I focused on the immediate need in southern Helmand province. There were some knowledgeable people spread across multiple agencies. I set out to find out what everyone was doing and began working on a comprehensive strategy for our small part of the big picture. Adding two agriculture experts to our staff and an agricultural contractor from Bolivia helped to solidify our strategy and execution.
William Duncan, the SES assigned to Leatherneck for our organization, envisioned a hub and spoke network of packaging houses tied to centrally located distribution centers along the ring road. These distribution centers, local produce could be loaded onto larger trucks and transported to major metropolitan areas like Kandahar and Herat. There would be three distribution centers fed by produce from 25 local packing houses. As with all executive “ideas” or strategies there were a few details that needed to be sorted out.
I’ll share some actual hands on reports of progress in the next blog on agricultural strategies in Helmand, Afghanistan. This will illustrate the value of local partnerships.
Copyright 2016 MEA Trading, LLC