HERAT -- Afghan farmers are turning to a lucrative new crop -- aloe vera -- as an alternative to cultivating poppies.
Aloe vera was first grown in Afghanistan three years ago in Herat Province. Because of its success there, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock expanded the crop to other neighbouring provinces and has plans to replace illicit crops with aloe across Afghanistan.
"I am 100% sure that if aloe vera is processed, it won't be just an alternative to narcotics, but it will bring a few times higher return," said Minister of Agriculture Nasir Ahmad Durrani.
"We have cultivated aloe vera in Badghis and Farah provinces where we have development projects, and we have seen that poppy cultivation has fallen to zero in those areas," he said.
Farmers are no longer interested in growing poppies and in giving away the profits of their harvest to others, he said.
"As aloe vera brings higher income, it can help the agriculture sector prosper in Afghanistan," he said. "When farmers start growing this profitable crop, it will obviously reduce farmers' economic problems. As the problems of farmers are resolved, it will [positively and] completely change the situation of agriculture."
The crop requires very little water, making it highly drought resistant, according to Durrani.
"We are planning to introduce aloe vera in 20 provinces this year," he said.
Keeping profits with farmers
Abdul Saboor Rahmani, director of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock in Herat Province, explained the financial benefits of growing aloe vera over opium poppies.
One jerib of land produces 55 to 60 tonnes of aloe vera, he said.
"In the markets, 1kg of aloe vera sells for more than 20 AFN ($0.26)," he said. "[Therefore], each jerib of land [cultivated with the crop] makes between 1 million and 1.2 million AFN ($12,800-$15,300)."
On the other hand, each kilogramme of opium sells for 20,000 to 30,000 AFN ($255-380), and one jerib of land produces less than 20kg for a total estimated earnings between 400,000 and 600,000 AFN ($5,100-$7,600), according to Rahmani.
"In the past, we grew opium poppies, but... our incomes worsened," said Muhammad Rahim, a farmer in Injil District of Herat. "Then we switched to aloe vera. Its harvest is good and brings us a decent income."
"We no longer want to depend on the anti-government elements and drug traffickers who used to purchase our opium," he said. "When we grew poppies, we were afraid every day that the government would come and destroy our fields."
"I have been cultivating aloe vera for two years now, and I have had a good income," he said. "Next year I will try to grow aloe vera on more of my land."
"Previously, I grew poppy and cannabis, but a little while ago I started growing aloe vera and learned how to cultivate it," said Abdul Rahman, a farmer in Guzara District of Herat. "We are happy with growing aloe vera as it has improved our economic condition."
"I call on other farmers as well to switch to growing aloe vera," he said. "Growing poppy doesn't benefit farmers as all the profits go to the drug traffickers. Growing aloe vera has protected us from the drug traffickers, and we earn a legitimate profit."
Increasing interest in aloe vera
"Farmers have an increasing interest in growing aloe vera as it has a higher profit," said Muhammad Haidari, head of the Aloe Vera Processing Plant in Herat Province.
"Many farmers in Farah Province used to grow opium poppy in the past years, but with encouragement they grew aloe vera this year," he said. "We have encouraged a number of farmers in Badghis as well to switch from growing poppies to aloe vera, and they welcomed our message."
"We have sent samples of aloe vera to Uruzgan Province so that we can start growing the crop there as well next year," Haidari said.
"We have bigger programmes through which we will expand the cultivation of aloe vera in southern provinces as well, so that the farmers can start growing aloe vera in lieu of poppies," he said.
The Aloe Vera Processing Plant was inaugurated August 24 at Herat Industrial City. The first of its kind in Afghanistan, the facility purchases aloe vera leaves from farmers in the western region and uses them in producing drinks.
"There are two areas of investments in aloe vera: the first one is in cleaning and distilling aloe vera, and the second one is its use in energy drinks," said Abdul Latif Qanawizyan, director of Super Cola Co. in Herat. "More than $2.5 million [195 million AFN] has been invested in these two areas."
"This is the first phase, and there will be investments in other areas as well in the future so that more farmers can be encouraged to grow aloe vera," he said.
The Aloe Vera Processing Plant has provided 70 permanent jobs, and in the future hundreds will be employed in the aloe vera industry, according to Qanawizyan, whose company works together with the aloe factory.
"The opening of the Aloe Vera Processing Plant in Herat Province has helped boost the cultivation of the crop," said Rahmani, the agriculture director in Herat. "Farmers from the neighbouring provinces of Farah, Badghis and Ghor can also sell their aloe vera harvests to this facility."
"Currently, close to 50 jeribs of land are cultivated with aloe vera in Herat Province, and we have plans to increase its cultivation next year," he said.
"Capitalising on profitable crops increases domestic production and improves the overall economy of a country," said Mohammad Yaqub Mashouf, an economist in Herat Province. "The cultivation of aloe vera needs to be developed so it can improve both the livelihoods of farmers and the Afghan economy overall."
"One of the positive impacts of the aloe vera cultivation is that it replaces [illicit crops]," he said. "When farmers receive higher profits from cultivating aloe vera, they will no longer return to growing poppies."