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Afghanistan’s fruit crops are rotting in the sun as businesses struggle to export the produce in the latest sign of the economic paralysis gripping the country weeks after the Taliban seized power.
While the illegal narcotics and opium trade is massive, dry and fresh fruits such as grapes and figs are Afghanistan’s biggest legal export. The country supplies many of the fruits and nuts eaten in Pakistan and India, which together account for about 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s exports.
The travails of the fruit trade, which traces ancient Silk Road routes from central to south Asia, illustrate the severe blow the Afghanistan economy has suffered since the Taliban retook control in August.
Much of the fighting that preceded the militants’ triumph took place around the landlocked country’s economically vital border crossings, while the banking system remains in disarray and hard currency is in short supply. The export blockages are cutting off a vital source of foreign currency.
Exporters struggle to access enough working capital from overburdened banks, are unable to take payment from their overseas buyers and face long delays on the border with Pakistan.
Jalalurahman, the 35-year-old owner of Era Fruits in the southern province of Kandahar, said his latest consignment of lorries carrying figs and raisins took eight days to cross the Wesh-Chaman border with Pakistan, instead of the usual two hours. It is destined to continue on to India by sea.
“There is no transfer of white [legal] money to banks,” Jalalurahman said. “Half of our money is blocked here in the banks, and half is back with our customers in India . . . We still try to export just to survive but there are too many problems.”
He said the only alternative was the region’s “underground” hawala system, in which informal money transfers were arranged through a network of dealers. But his customers are hesitant to use the system, which is illegal in India and Pakistan.
Ahmad Zobair Amiri, a 40-year-old grape and melon exporter based in Kabul, said domestic prices halved after the economic crisis put small luxuries such as fruit out of reach to many Afghans.
Much of his produce rotted during hold-ups at the congested Torkham border crossing into Pakistan, and he does not have the cold storage facilities required to keep his fruit fresh.
“Lots of our goods were destroyed by the sun because they were parked for a long time in containers,” he said. “They melted away.”
Many of the dry fruits and nuts are destined for the Khari Baoli market in the Indian capital Delhi’s historic walled city. Afghanistan is India’s largest supplier of dry fruits, which make up about two-thirds of the $500m worth of total exports to India.
They are in particular demand in the run-up to India’s important Diwali festival in early November.
Dinesh Chawla, owner of Lahore Dry Fruits store in Khari Baoli, buys his apricots, almonds, raisins and pistachios from Afghanistan. He said supply was beginning to trickle back after a shock in the weeks following the Taliban’s takeover, which had sent prices sharply higher.