JALALABAD -- Standing in a field of roses in eastern Afghanistan, former poppy grower Mohammad Din Sapai quickly but carefully plucks the delicate petals that will be turned into rose water and oils for sale around the world.
The sweet smelling crop is providing farmers in Nangarhar Province with a viable alternative to growing opium poppies, the sale of which has fuelled the Afghan conflict and benefited the Taliban and other militant groups.
"I am very happy with this harvest of flowers," Sapai told AFP as he stands among hundreds of blossoming rose bushes.
Sapai is one of more than 800 farmers in Nangarhar benefiting from the "Roses for Nangarhar" project, a joint Afghan-German initiative set up in 2007 to encourage poppy growers to switch to a legal, money-making flower.
Illegal opium cultivation has long been a lucrative business in Afghanistan, where Nangarhar is the sixth largest poppy-producing province.
"[The 'Roses for Nangarhar' project] provided us with the plants and tools and even paid us for the first year when we had no harvest," Sapai, 50, explained.
"Now I have 600 plants, and I collect up to 1,200kg (2,650 lbs.) of petals."
Last year, poppy cultivation hit a new record in Afghanistan, with opium production soaring 87% to an estimated 9,000 tonnes, official figures show.
Sapai said he is perfectly happy to grow roses.
He makes enough money to support his family and insists roses have lower costs and take less effort. After the rose season, which ends in May, he switches to growing other agricultural products, including vegetables.
ISIS bad for business
The farmers remain concerned over the presence of the Taliban and "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), the former having recently stepped up attacks in Nangarhar.
Shortly before the "Roses for Nangarhar" project started, entrepreneur Abdullah Orzala began growing roses and distributing the plants.
The US-trained engineer recently opened a boutique in Kabul selling rose water and perfumes to both local and foreign customers.
He has 100 hectares (250 acres) of roses but hopes to triple the number of plants next year "if the security [situation] allows".
Orzala never stops worrying about violence.
In 2016, 50 farmers working for him packed up and abandoned their crops in Achin District after it became a stronghold for ISIS.
"You can deal with the Taliban, but you can't mess with [ISIS]," he said.
Two years later, his farmers remain displaced further north.
'Better than poppies'
In spite of the violence, in nearby Omar Qala village, Shah Zaman, teacher and rose-grower, said he was convinced about the benefits of harvesting petals instead of poppies.
"The people here used to cultivate poppies, but this is haram," Zaman told AFP.
He said he expects to harvest one tonne of petals this year.
"The roses are much better... I make good money from roses. They are water resistant and don't require as much expense or work."
Khan Agha, a representative for Afghan Rose Ltd. in Dara-e-Noor District, which emerged out of the Afghan-German initiative, agrees.
"Unlike poppies, roses do not require much watering, fertiliser or care," he said.
Rose trees are also more durable, lasting 30 to 50 years, than are poppies, which must be planted every season.
"We have solid contracts with the farmers who grow roses asking them to stop cultivating poppy and other types of narcotics, and the places where we grow roses are clean from poppy 100%," he added.
'Make perfume, not war'
The farmers grow a variety known as Damask roses, which a German NGO brought from Bulgaria [in 2004], said Mohammad Akbar Mohmand, the owner of Afghan Rose Ltd.
It takes about six tonnes of petals on average to extract one litre of essential oil.
The petals are distilled in Jalalabad, where Afghan Rose Ltd. retreated to after it closed its Achin distillery because of the presence of ISIS.
At peak harvest time, Mohmand's distillery employs more than 120 workers. From dawn until late morning, trucks flow from districts across the province delivering their precious cargo.
Once picked, rose petals begin to wilt within hours and lose their scent.
"The roses picked in the morning have to be distilled the very same day, even if we have to work until 2am or 3am," explained Mohmand, as bags of petals are poured into seven huge stainless steel vats.
Afghan Rose Ltd. now supplies several European companies, including German organic cosmetics brand Dr. Hauschka.
"They [Dr. Hauschka] make very expensive creams with our roses," said Mohmand.
Orzala exports its rose oil to The 7 Virtues, a Canadian company that also sources essential oils from Haiti, the Middle East and Rwanda under the slogan "Make perfume, not war".
It is a message that has more than a whiff of support among Nangarhar farmers.