How to help Afghan farmers? Gorge on watermelons

Monitoring Desk

KABUL: Afghan traders performed a group dance before enjoying one full watermelon each. Doctors and shopkeepers dedicated entire meals to just bread and sliced watermelon. A young economics student devoured eight large watermelons to win a contest.

And the country’s president issued an order: Buy watermelons for the soldiers.

The efforts were all part of a campaign across Afghanistan to support suffering farmers after an exceptionally abundant watermelon harvest created a catastrophic drop in prices during already trying times.

The intensely flavorful fruit of Afghanistan — including pomegranates and figs, grapes and melons — has been a point of national pride for centuries. But the raging war often blocks roads to markets at critical times. And the country’s bitter political wrangling has at times complicated economic planning, turning bountiful harvests into heartbreak for farmers.

The western province of Farah, one of the main producers of watermelon, has been hit worst by the lack of a market for the fruit. This year’s harvest far exceeded expectations, doubling to two million tons of watermelon, according ZalmayMohammadi, the deputy leader of a farmer’s association there. The price for a ton reached as low as $11 this month.

Much of the watermelon this year lay rotting in the fields because the going market price could not even cover the transportation costs.

“I know many farmers who loaded their watermelon into trucks in the hope of selling it for a higher price in markets in Kabul,” Mr. Mohammadi said. “But when they calculated the rent for the truck, what they would make from selling the watermelon would not even add up to the rent. So they left the trucks loaded and went back to Farah — they left the product to pay for the rental.”

MohamadHashim, 31, who owns a 13-acre farm in the northern province of Kunduz, which is known for its sweet melons and watermelons, said the support was having an effect. “I hear that there was a campaign on Facebook calling people to eat watermelon — I think that has helped with the prices,” he said.

“If this campaign wasn’t there, we would have suffered more,” Mr. Hashim noted. “The government doesn’t really care for us.”

Officials in Kunduz said that the watermelon harvest had been at least 40 percent bigger than usual — and that prices in the province had dropped to about $15 per ton.

Social media campaigns were unlikely to have bumped prices back up on their own. But the efforts, prompted by a television news story about farmers’ struggles in Farah, did lead to a presidential order that almost certainly had an effect.

President Ashraf Ghani ordered his officials to immediately start buying Farah’s watermelons and including them on the menu for the big army units in western and southern Afghanistan — tens of thousands of soldiers.

Farmers and some local officials said that the implementation of the order was still lagging a week later. (Producers needed to form associations and then register their association before government procurement could deal with them.)

But the governor of Farah, MohamadShoaibSabit, said the purchasing had started. “After the president’s order, we immediately formed an association of farmers,” he said. “And three army corps have started buying the watermelon.”

In any case, the promise of buying watermelon in such large scale, at more regular prices, meant that farmers were no longer rushing to dump their product in the market.

In recent days, watermelon prices in Farah were running about four times higher than they were at their low point this month.

Among the more inventive displays of watermelon solidarity took place in the city of Kunduz, where a private university organized competitions on Wednesday. The process of buying the watermelon for the contest was part of a lesson in supply and demand for students.

“We have an economic council at the university that meets every month to plan new initiatives,” said AfshinAimaq, the director of the university, the Kuhandazh Institute of Higher Education.

“This month, we realized the watermelon prices were very low — the supply was high, the demand very low,” he added. “We wanted to create excitement for buying the product, to help create a market, and to try a new experiment that could support the farmers.”

About 200 people gathered for the competition. For the women’s section, 20 teams competed in watermelon designs. Then 20 teams of men — each consisting of a watermelon eater, a slicer, and an umpire around a small table — went head-to-head in an eating contest. On the table in front of them were eight watermelons, weighing 10 to 15 pounds each.

The men’s competition went into a runoff between the top three contestants — all had eaten five watermelons in the allotted 20 minutes. The overall winner, who finally polished off eight watermelons in a total of 30 minutes for the two rounds, was RahmatullahQuchqarzada, a 22-year-old second-year economics student and son of a government clerk.

“I have never eaten this much watermelon in my life,” Mr. Quchqarzada said. “But people were cheering me on. And I didn’t want to let down my father’s name.”

“I even had an exam afterward,” he added. “I took my exam after the competition, and leisurely walked home.”

Some saw the lighter side in the outpouring of support for the farmers.

One Facebook user, HamimJalalzai, wrote: “I have been eating watermelons instead of bread and water in the past few days. Even when the kids have asked for ice cream and biscuits we have offered them watermelons.”

In terms of a food to overeat in solidarity, things could be worse. As Mr. Jalalzai noted, “I just read that the country’s onion harvest this year is also abundant.”(The New York Times)