The drive to replace Afghan poppies is part of a US$12m dollar American initiative to update and expand the country’s pomegranate industry.
Afghan pomegranates already have a good international reputation, according to an Associated Press report, but until recently the fruit had been limited to domestic consumption.
A new marketing strategy aimed at increasing export, however, will see the bright red fruit branded with ‘Anar – Afghan Pomegranate’, anar being the word for pomegranate in several local languages.
The move comes as pomegranates are experiencing a surge of popularity, primarily in the US and Europe but extending to Asia, based on the fruit’s high antioxidant levels.
The country’s pomegranates have made their way to French retailer Carrefour’s Middle Eastern stores, after the fruit proved a success in its Dubai outlet last year.
Pomegranates present an opportunity to increase incomes for some of Afghanistan’s poorest farmers, according to USAID’s Loren Stoddard, head of alternative development and agriculture.
Farmers growing opium poppies make about US$1,320 an acre, she said, but average about US$2,000 an acre for pomegranates.
The financial incentives alone do not ensure the success of the project, however. Many regions in the sights of the project are still essentially active war zones, and trial shipments last year had to be flown out on US military aircraft.
Corruption is also a significant stumbling block for the project, according to Anthony Cordesman, an Afghanistan and Middle East expert at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
“Almost all of the measures that people suggest - buying the crop, introducing alternative crops - depend on there being a government presence and a police presence in the field that is honest,” he said. “At this point in time, that's impossible.”