By Air Force Capt. Stacie N. Shafran
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 10, 2009 - The fruit and vegetable bounty of Afghanistan's Panjshir province may make its way to grocery stores around the world someday, thanks to a provincial reconstruction team program. A food-processing program recently introduced into the Panjshir Valley is bringing economic prosperity, education, leadership and hope to the area's women. As they learn to process produce into profitable jars of preserves and bottles of juice, their livelihood and social importance in Afghan society is expanding.
During the May 12 opening ceremony at Panjshir's first food-processing center, located in Bazarak district, the women's freshly made jams and fruit juices were on display and available for purchase. Their products already are being sold in local markets, and the goal is eventually to fill the shelves of Kabul's larger grocery stores.
The program came to fruition through a coordinated effort between the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Welfare and Development Organization of Afghanistan. It's designed to empower women, increase their social status, and above all, provide them with sustainable incomes, officials said.
Panjshir Valley is known for its agriculture-based society, and depending on the season, is filled with apples, apricots, grapes, mulberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes. But because the area lacks consistent electricity and cold-storage facilities, most of the food goes to waste.
"There is a clear market opportunity in food processing, and there will be a strong demand for these products," said Jeremy Lewis, the U.S. Agency for International Development representative to the provincial reconstruction team. "The best part is that they process a lot of the produce that normally goes to waste."
The women capitalize on the program by turning the perishable items into preserved commodities, allowing healthy food options to be available after harvest.
Through the help of Abdul Jalil Seddequi, the Welfare and Development Organization of Afghanistan director and driving force behind the program, 20 women are halfway through a six-month course that's teaching them how to select produce from the bazaar and then process, market and sell it.
Saddequi spends his days traveling around Afghanistan and creating employment and training programs for women. He also is one of their strongest advocates.
"This project is designed to provide opportunities for women to play a greater role in the socio-economic uplift of the societies," Seddequi said. "The activity will be a milestone in restoring the lost status of women in the Afghan societies."
For many women, this is their first opportunity to work. "My family is supportive of what I'm learning to do," said Lialima, a 37-year-old woman enrolled in the program. "Before this I was a housewife, and now I can provide some of our income."
In time, four more Panjshir districts will receive food processing centers. Each will train 20 women, with priority going to widows, extremely poor women and women who are the heads of their households. Women between the ages of 18 and 45 are eligible for the program, which also teaches the basics in Dari and mathematics, allowing the participants to read recipes and perform simple business skills.
The women are not paid during their training; all money earned is saved collectively for future operating costs. The intent is for each food-processing center to be self-sustaining once donor support ends.
Besides furthering the cause of progress among Panjshir women, Seddequi said, this program also will unite communities.
After the jams and juices are produced, they need to be moved to the markets. Some are nearby and are easily reached, but the community will be called upon to assist the women in transporting their products to more distant markets.
"This is a critical aspect of community support," Seddequi said, "as it will help in the sustainability of the project and the ownership that the community feels over the project."
For the energetic and optimistic Seddequi, transforming his country and helping the women achieve success is his mission. Grand opening ceremonies, such as the one in Bazarak, remind him of the hard work and barriers he's overcome, he said.
As the provincial reconstruction team works with the Panjshir government to develop the "Road to Badakshan" -- a 40-mile primary road that runs through the province -- team officials said the hope is to transform the province, spurring a generation of private investment and hope along the road's path.
Eventually "rib roads" also will be designed and paved, connecting the remote villages in the side valleys to the new main road. Once completed in the summer of 2011, these road projects will improve the provincial government's ability to reach its nearly 300,000 citizens and link major commerce and government centers, officials said.
In addition to developing the infrastructure, they added, the road projects also will put local people to work and can bring the province closer to having the many tastes of Panjshir delighting palates around the world.
(Air Force Capt. Stacie N. Shafran serves in the Provincial Reconstruction Team Panjshir public affairs office.)