Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming

Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
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Rasool Rezaie picks mushrooms from a room he uses as his little farm for the cultivation of the plant in the outskirts of Kabul on March 13, 2021. (AN photo by Sayed Salahuddin)
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Updated 21 March 2021

Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming

Breaking the mold: Landless Afghans turn to fungi farming
  • Legion of growers are cultivating highly nutritious mushrooms in their homes as a source of livelihood

KABUL: It has been three years since Jamila Khoshbo began farming oyster mushrooms in a section of her tiny house in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood of southeastern Kabul.

The 48-year-old Afghan mother-of-four said that she learned how to cultivate the fungi from the local radio and “decided to try it since it requires much less space, water and money to grow.”

“I have been in this business since 2019. All you need is a space of four by five meters, and clean wheat straw with chlorine. Keep the mushrooms in plastic bags vertically on posts in humid conditions for several weeks and they will be ready to eat or sell,” Khoshbo told Arab News.

Today, she earns nearly $200 a month — more than the salary of a government employee — by selling to grocers in the area.

Khoshbo is one of a growing number of landless women who are growing highly nutritious mushrooms in their kitchens or backyards rather than working in the male-dominated farming sector.

Since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, Afghan women have regained the right to education, to vote and to work outside their homes.

Still, it is not an easy place to be a woman, with forced marriages, domestic violence and maternal mortality prevalent across the country, particularly in rural areas.

However, access to public life has improved, especially in the capital Kabul, where most women work, and more than a quarter of the parliament is female.

Also, with drought and an acute water shortage affecting several areas of this mainly agricultural nation, growing mushrooms has offered a new lease of life to traditional farmers who prefer cultivating the fungi to other fruits and vegetables since it is cheap and “low maintenance.”

“It needs little water and is a very good, small-scale and clean business which requires two to three people to operate,” Rasool Rezaie, a 28-year-old resident of the Ghazni province in central Afghanistan, told Arab News.

Rezaie learned to grow mushrooms during a stay in Russia in 2012, when he had moved there to escape the insecurity and unemployment plaguing Afghanistan.

He returned to his homeland in 2016 and began selling computers. But “business was not good at all,” he said.

Two years ago, he set up a “mushroom farm” in Kabul.

“I was passing the Ministry of Agriculture one day and saw an official teaching a group of people how to grow mushrooms. Suddenly, I recalled my experience in Russia and set up this business,” Rezaie told Arab News.

His initial farm was small and produced 50 kg of mushrooms, but he has expanded the business to “bigger rooms” and now cultivates nearly 1,000 kg, earning $500 per month.

The cash flow is important for Rezaie, who is the family’s sole bread earner and takes care of his siblings following their parents’ death.

“I sell the mushrooms in the local market and teach new farmers, too,” he said, providing a textbook example of crowdsourced domestic farming by using limited resources.

“It’s easy to learn. I explain the process to interested customers, discuss what sort of tools they need and how to keep the buds at a certain temperature, etc. If someone else can benefit from growing mushrooms, why not?” he said.

Officials agree, with Mohammad Aman Aman, head of the agriculture ministry’s forestry department, telling Arab News that Afghanistan’s “conditions” were ideal for farming the fungi.

“Growing mushrooms is highly effective in this country because they do not need a lot of land or water. We have made proposals to the presidential palace to promote the growth of mushrooms,” he said.

Aman said that while the oyster variety is the most popular choice among farmers, plans are in place to cultivate truffles and morels — the more expensive assortments — as well.

“We export a small number of truffles produced here to India. So our push is to promote the idea of its growth because it is far more beneficial financially,” he said.

Afghans have for generations consumed wild mushrooms, which sprout in the mountainous north and northeastern regions of the country during spring.

The traditional condiment is added to soups and qorma — a meat-based dish infused with herbs, spices and dry fruits — but is increasingly sought after in restaurants selling pizzas.

In recent years, there has been a surge in mushroom consumption in urban and rural areas, according to traders.

“We buy it from farmers for less than $2 for a kilogram and sell it for double that sometimes. Business is good,” Rasool Dad, a hawker in Kabul, told Arab News.

Rezaie said that he hoped that Afghans’ newfound love for mushrooms could be a catalyst for change in other areas, too, such as altering the country’s image as the global producer of opium.

According to UN estimates, nearly 163,000 ha of land were used for poppy cultivation in 2019.

“If we can produce truffle and morels in large quantities, then farmers will gradually abandon the cultivation of poppy here because these two varieties are costly abroad,” he said.


Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe

Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe
Updated 52 min 40 sec ago

Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe

Bangladeshi garment factories plead for vaccines as lockdown delays deliveries to Europe
  • Clothing manufacturers export nearly 40 percent of their annual output during July and August, as the West prepares for winter collections
  • Authorities in the country ordered all business activity to shut down between July 23 and Aug. 5 in an attempt to halt a surge in COVID-19 cases

DHAKA: Clothing manufacturers in Bangladesh are calling on the government to accelerate vaccination programs for factory workers to save the country’s textile sector. It is suffering because a COVID-19 lockdown has halted production during the peak season for orders from Western countries.

A recent surge in cases of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus forced the government to impose strict health precautions, including a halt to all business activity between July 23 and Aug. 5. As a result, thousands of garment factories had to close — and the timing could not be worse.

This is the time of year when the factories are working on multimillion-dollar orders from major Western clothing brands such as H&M, Inditex and Marks and Spencer for their upcoming winter collections. July and August are the peak months for the Bangladeshi garment sector, during which it exports nearly 40 percent of its annual production.

Industry representatives met Cabinet Secretary Khandaker Anwarul Islam on Thursday to appeal to the government to lift the restrictions on garment factories during this crucial period. They also called on authorities speed up the vaccination of factory workers.

Last week, nearly 30,000 workers from factories that supply H&M and Marks and Spencer received a first dose of the Moderna vaccine. But they represent less than 1 percent of the total industry workforce, and the country’s vaccination effort is one of the slowest in the world; only 4.3 million of the country’s 170 million population have been fully vaccinated.

“Once the factories open, we can vaccinate the workers in bulk,” Faruque Hassan, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association told Arab News on Friday. “And it’s very easy, as we noticed during a pilot program that saw the successful inoculation of about 30,000 factory workers in two days.”

Garment manufacturers fear that if they fail to deliver, big brands might turn to factories in other countries. This would deal a major blow to an industry that is the largest in Bangladesh. It employs more than 4 million people, contributes more than 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and accounts for 80 percent of its exports.

“Our industry is completely export-oriented and we produce time-bound products,” said Hassan. “Currently, our factories are working on the next winter and fall season for the Western market. If we fail to export on time our credibility and future business relations will be at stake. Already buyers have stated putting future orders on hold, but they didn’t cancel them.

“If we are allowed to open the factories from the first week of August, we still can recover the losses — otherwise things will be difficult for us.”

The lockdown in Bangladesh comes as many Western countries ease their pandemic restrictions. Apparel sales are rebounding as life begins to return to normal, people order more clothes and big brands prepare for their winter and Christmas seasons.

When Bangladesh went into its first coronavirus lockdown last year, the industry was not too concerned because Western buyers had put their orders on hold because of their own lockdowns. Now, things are different.

“This year, the Western market is fully open,” Hassan said. “People in Europe and America are now keen to buy clothing since they couldn’t do much in the past year.”

Before the pandemic, Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment manufacturer after China, earned $34 billion from exports of apparel. In the 2019-20 fiscal year the value of exports dropped to $28 billion as the pandemic took hold. They recovered to $31 billion during the 2020-21 fiscal year, which ended in June, raising hopes of a major rebound this year.

It was unclear on Friday whether the factories will be allowed to reopen sooner than planned. The cabinet secretary told the factory owners during Thursday’s meeting that “further decisions would be announced after consulting with the prime minister.”

Criticism of the lockdown is growing, as the strict rules do not appear to be succeeding in slowing the spread of COVID-19. The number of coronavirus-related fatalities continues to hit record highs, with more than 200 deaths since the start of this week alone. The infection rate stood at nearly 31 percent on Friday, higher that it was before the lockdown.

“Our economy has been severely disrupted due to the lockdown,” Zahid Hussain, a former lead economist at the World Bank in Dhaka, told Arab News. “If we are failing to reap the benefits of this lockdown, there is no point in closing the factory operations.”


First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US
Updated 30 July 2021

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US

First evacuation flight brings 221 Afghans, many kids, to US
  • US President Joe Biden said he was proud to welcome them home
  • Evacuation flights highlights American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after U.S. combat forces leave

WASHINGTON: The first flight evacuating Afghans who worked alongside Americans in Afghanistan brought more than 200 people, including scores of children and babies in arms, to new lives in the United States on Friday.
US President Joe Biden said he was proud to welcome them home.
The launch of the evacuation flights, bringing out former interpreters and others who fear retaliation from Afghanistan’s Taliban for having worked with American troops and civilians, highlights American uncertainty about how Afghanistan’s government and military will fare after the last US combat forces leave that country in the coming weeks.
Family members are accompanying the interpreters, translators and others on the flights out. The first evacuation flight, an airliner, carried 221 Afghans under the special visa program, including 57 children and 15 infants, according to an internal US government document obtained by The Associated Press.
It touched down in Dulles, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., after midnight, according to the FlightAware tracking service.
Friday’s flight was “an important milestone as we continue to fulfill our promise to the thousands of Afghan nationals who served shoulder-to-shoulder with American troops and diplomats over the last 20 years in Afghanistan,” Biden said. He said he wanted to honor the military veterans, diplomats and others in the US who have advocated for the Afghans.
“Most of all,” Biden said in a statement, “I want to thank these brave Afghans for standing with the United States, and today, I am proud to say to them: ‘Welcome home.’“
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin lauded the Afghans for their work alongside Americans and said their arrival demonstrates the US government’s commitment to them.
Friday’s flight was all about “keeping promises,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq war veteran and an advocate on veteran’s issues.
But a refugee agency said the Biden administration appeared to be still scrambling to work out the resettlement of thousands more of the Afghans, and it urged Biden to bring them quickly to the US or a US territory, such as Guam.
“To date, there is simply no clear plan as to how the vast majority of our allies will be brought to safety,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettlement agency, said of the Afghan interpreters.
“We cannot in good conscience put them at risk in third countries with unreliable human rights records, or where the Taliban may be able to reach them,” the resettlement official said.
The Biden administration calls the effort Operation Allies Refuge. The operation has broad backing from Republican and Democratic lawmakers and from veterans groups. Supporters cite repeated instances of Taliban forces targeting Afghans who worked with Americans or with the Afghan government.
Congress on Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation that would allow an additional 8,000 visas and $500 million in funding for the Afghan visa program.
The United States has been talking with Qatar and Kuwait about temporarily hosting thousands of other Afghan interpreters who are much further behind in their visa application process than Friday’s arrivals.
But US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations, said Friday that no deal had been closed with those two countries. Concerns about housing Afghans who have not completed their security screenings and uncertainty on the American side about finding funding for the massive relocation effort have remained obstacles, the US officials said.
Biden announced earlier this year the US would withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, honoring a withdrawal agreement struck by former President Donald Trump. He later said the US military operation would end on Aug. 31, calling it “overdue.” Some administration officials have expressed surprise at the extent and speed of Taliban gains of territory in the countryside since then.
Biden said that although US troops are leaving Afghanistan, the US will keep supporting Afghanistan through security assistance to Afghan forces and humanitarian and development aid to the Afghan people.
The newly arrived Afghan people will join 70,000 others who have resettled in the United States since 2008 under the special visa program.
Subsequent flights are due to bring more of the roughly 700 applicants who are furthest along in the process of getting visas, having already won approval and cleared security screening.
The first arrivals were screened for the coronavirus and received vaccines if they wanted them, said Tracey Jacobson, the US diplomat running the effort. They were expected to stay at a hotel on a base in Fort Lee, Virginia, for about seven days, completing medical exams and other final steps, Jacobson said. Resettlement organizations will help them as they travel to communities around the United States, with some bound for family members already here, she said.


British Muslim MP weeps in dock as she is cleared of fraud charges

Labour MP Apsana Begum, who represents Poplar and Limehouse in East London, faced three charges of dishonestly failing to disclose information relating to a council housing application. (UK Parliament)
Labour MP Apsana Begum, who represents Poplar and Limehouse in East London, faced three charges of dishonestly failing to disclose information relating to a council housing application. (UK Parliament)
Updated 30 July 2021

British Muslim MP weeps in dock as she is cleared of fraud charges

Labour MP Apsana Begum, who represents Poplar and Limehouse in East London, faced three charges of dishonestly failing to disclose information relating to a council housing application. (UK Parliament)
  • Apsana Begum was accused of housing fraud that her local council said had cost it almost £64,000 ($89,000)
  • She said she is a ‘survivor of domestic abuse’ and had faced Islamophobia, sexism and racism as a result of the case

LONDON: A jury in London has cleared a Muslim member of parliament of fraud charges. Labour MP Apsana Begum, who represents Poplar and Limehouse in East London, faced three charges of dishonestly failing to disclose information relating to a council housing application between 2013 and 2016.

Tower Hamlets council accused her of costing it almost £64,000 ($89,000) by failing to notify officials that she was no longer living in overcrowded housing.

Begum, 31, collapsed in the dock and wept when the jurors found her not guilty on all three counts.

During the trial, she said she fled her home in 2013 during an argument in which her brother said she was “possessed,” causing her to fear she would fall victim to honor-based violence.

She moved in with her then-partner, Tower Hamlets Councillor Ehtasham Haque, but said he subsequently became “controlling and coercive” and took over her affairs.

Helen Law, defending, said that the complaint that triggered the investigation into Begum — made in 2019 by Sayed Nahid Uddin, Haque’s brother-in-law, after the couple split — was false.

According to the prosecution, documents submitted by Begum’s mother and aunt revealed that there were four bedrooms in her property and she had failed to inform the council that by January 2013, after her father died and her aunt moved out, only four people were living there.

Begum said that at the time she was struggling to come to terms with her father’s death and her family’s disapproval of her relationship with Haque, who had been married and divorced several times.

After her acquittal, Begum said: “As a survivor of domestic abuse facing these vexatious charges, the last 18 months of false accusations, online sexist, racist and Islamophobic abuse, and threats to my safety have been exceedingly difficult.

“I would like to say a sincere thank you to all my legal team and all those who have shown me solidarity, support and kindness.

“I will be consulting and considering how to follow up so that something like this doesn’t happen again to anyone else.”


EU to get 40 mn more Moderna jabs in Q3: medicines agency

EU to get 40 mn more Moderna jabs in Q3: medicines agency
Updated 30 July 2021

EU to get 40 mn more Moderna jabs in Q3: medicines agency

EU to get 40 mn more Moderna jabs in Q3: medicines agency
  • European Medicines Agency said it had approved a production boost at the US sites
  • About 70 percent of adults in the European Union have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine

THE HAGUE: The EU's medicines watchdog said on Friday that the bloc was likely to get 40 million more Moderna vaccine doses by October, after an output boost at two new US sites.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) in June gave the green light for the US sites in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to produce ingredients needed for the vaccine in Europe.
At the time, it estimated the sites would "allow the production of an additional one to two million vials of ready-to-use vaccine for the European Union market every month."
On Friday, the EMA said it had approved a production boost at the US sites that "is expected to have significant impact on the supply of Spikevax," it said in a statement, using the Moderna vaccine's brand name.
"It is estimated that in the third quarter of 2021, the US supply chain will provide 40 million doses of vaccine for the European market."
About 70 percent of adults in the European Union have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said earlier this week.
Overall, 57 percent of over-18s are now fully vaccinated across the 27 nations, she said in a statement.
But she sounded a warning over the "very dangerous" Delta variant of the virus that has increasingly taken hold on the continent and seen infection rates begin to tick up again.
"I therefore call on everyone -- who has the opportunity -- to be vaccinated. For their own health and to protect others," she said.
The EMA also last week approved the use of Moderna's coronavirus vaccine for children aged 12 to 17, making it the second jab for adolescents for use on the continent.


Shots fired outside Berlin store, four injured, one arrested

Shots fired outside Berlin store, four injured, one arrested
Updated 30 July 2021

Shots fired outside Berlin store, four injured, one arrested

Shots fired outside Berlin store, four injured, one arrested
  • The perpetrator was on the run, sources said
  • The motive behind the attack remains unclear

BERLIN: Shots were fired in a violent clash at a store car park in northern Berlin on Friday, leaving four people injured, the Berliner Zeitung reported.

Squads of police were dispatched to run down the attacker and one person was subsequently arrested, the newspaper added later.

The injured included three men and a woman, local media reported, adding that police had questioned eyewitnesses and cordoned off the area.

Of the injured, one person was stabbed with a knife, another suffered a gunshot wound, and a third suffered a head injury in a fight in the car park of a DIY store in Berlin's Wedding district, the Berliner Zeitung added.

The motive behind the attack remains unclear.