Afghan raisin houses get a facelift to boost productivity

Afghan farmer Abdul Jalil Gulzar sits by a pile of raisins in the squat mud brick shed where generations of his family have dried their grape harvest. (AFP)
Updated 20 December 2017
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Afghan raisin houses get a facelift to boost productivity

DHI SAHZ, AFGHANISTAN: Afghan farmer Abdul Jalil Gulzar sits by a pile of raisins in the squat mud brick shed where generations of his family have dried their grape harvest.
Such traditional huts have long been used to hang and desiccate the fruit, but now the keshmesh khanas — the Dari term for raisin houses — are getting a facelift as Afghanistan looks to improve its yield.
The country once accounted for 10 percent of the global raisin market, but nearly four decades of conflict have driven its share of the world market down to just 2-3 percent.
In a bid to boost productivity and earnings, the agriculture ministry and aid groups are financing new modern khanas.
“The new raisin house has much more capacity and they have a single purpose (to dry the grapes),” Gulzar told AFP inside the rustic khana built by his father in Dhi Sabz district near Kabul.
The Afghan agricultural sector, is the main driver of the economy and biggest employer.
Hajji Malek Zabet shows off his new brick raisin house near the Afghan capital. Inside the cement-floored room are neat rows of metal hanging racks where grapes drape down like vines in a jungle.
Afghanistan boasts nearly 100 varieties of grapes which are grown across the country and celebrated in popular poetry, nursery rhymes and proverbs.
In the absence of a winemaking industry, which is prohibited in the Islamic country, many farmers turn their grapes into raisins which are easier to conserve and bring a higher price.
Fresh grapes sell for an average of 300 afghanis (about $4.50) for seven kilogrammes, while just one kilogramme of raisins fetches more than 1,000 afghanis.
Though the profits are nothing compared to the amount farmers can reap from what is now Afghanistan’s biggest export: opium, the lifeblood of the Taliban insurgency and an economic lynchpin for many Afghans.
A recent UN report showed that the area under poppy cultivation has hit a record high, underscoring the importance of providing farmers with successful alternatives.
Afghanistan produced nearly 900,000 tons of grapes last year. However it only exported a fraction — 111,000 tons of fresh grapes and 15,000 tons of raisins, according to government data.
A lack of cold storage facilities and strict import requirements in many overseas markets means the bulk of Afghanistan’s grape crop ends up being sold in local bazaars at harvest time, causing a glut and driving down prices.
“Basically these new keshmesh khanas have three effects: they remove fresh grapes from the market and improve the quality of the process and product, and support prices,” said Abdul Samad Kamawi, national horticulture coordinator at the agriculture ministry.
But even with the improvements, Afghanistan’s rudimentary growing and processing methods means accessing export markets beyond Pakistan, India, the UAE and Russia is difficult.
“Despite their know-how Afghans are still struggling to meet European criteria which are increasingly stringent,” a Western importer told AFP.
Some companies are going hi-tech to lift the quality of their raisins.
Tabasom, a major exporter, has two production lines in Kabul equipped with X-ray machines and metal detectors to ensure only the best raisins are packed and sent abroad.
The drying process in the new brick and cement khanas is quicker and cleaner, but Gulzar is stubbornly keeping his earthen raisin house where his family often seeks shelter during the hot summer months.
“They are cooler,” he said, sitting happily on the dirt floor surrounded by hay and bunches of garlic.


UN: Global fight against AIDS is at ‘precarious point’

Updated 18 July 2018
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UN: Global fight against AIDS is at ‘precarious point’

  • ‘There are miles to go in the journey to end the AIDS epidemic. Time is running out’
  • Since the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, more than 77 million people have become infected with HIV

LONDON: Complacency is starting to stall the fight against the global AIDS epidemic, with the pace of progress not matching what is needed, the United Nations warned on Wednesday.
The United Nations’ HIV/AIDS body UNAIDS said in an update report that the fight was at a “precarious point” and while deaths were falling and treatment rates rising, rates of new HIV infections threatened to derail efforts to defeat the disease.
“The world is slipping off track. The promises made to society’s most vulnerable individuals are not being kept,” the report said. “There are miles to go in the journey to end the AIDS epidemic. Time is running out.”
Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, noted in the report’s foreword that there had been great progress in reducing deaths from AIDS and in getting a record number of people worldwide into treatment with antiretroviral drugs.
The report said an estimated 21.7 million of the 37 million people who have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS were on treatment in 2017, five and a half times more than a decade ago.
This rapid and sustained increase in people getting treatment helped drive a 34 percent drop in AIDS-related deaths from 2010 to 2017. AIDS deaths in 2017 were the lowest this century, at fewer than a million people, the report said.
But Sidibe also pointed to what he said were “crisis” situations in preventing the spread of HIV, and in securing sustained funding.
“The success in saving lives has not been matched with equal success in reducing new HIV infections,” he said. “New HIV infections are not falling fast enough. HIV prevention services are not being provided on an adequate scale ... and are not reaching the people who need them the most.”
Sidibe said a failure to halt new infections among children was a big worry.
“I am distressed by the fact that in 2017, 180,000 children became infected with HIV, far from the 2018 target of eliminating new HIV infections among children,” he wrote.
Data in the report showed that overall among adults and children worldwide, some 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2017.
Since the start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, more than 77 million people have become infected with HIV. Almost half of them — 35.4 million — have died of AIDS.
The report said that at the end of 2017, $21.3 billion was available for the AIDS response in low- and middle-income countries. More than half of that came from domestic funding sources rather than international donors. UNAIDS estimates that $26.2 billion will be needed to fund the AIDS fight in 2020.
“There is a funding crisis,” Sidibe said. While global AIDS resources rose in 2017, there was still a 20 percent shortfall between what is needed and what is available.
Such a shortfall will be “catastrophic” for countries that rely on international assistance to fight AIDS, Sidibe said.