Afghan entrepreneur defies war to squeeze out a juice empire

Sun Oct 14, 2012 5:11pm EDT
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By Rob Taylor

KABUL (Reuters) - From a gritty walled compound in a fringe of Kabul better known for bombs and violent demonstrations, Mustafa Sadiq is building a global empire on fruit, selling Afghan produce to the health-conscious in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Gaudily painted trucks line up outside Sadiq's 'Omaid Bahar' factory and workers in juice-stained clothes unload sacks of pomegranates. The fruit's dark red seeds are prized in Europe for their abundant antioxidants, and in Japan where many believe they can help fight cancers in the aftermath of last year's Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.

"Besides a thousand things negative said about Afghanistan, no one can ignore the quality, the taste of our fruits, that everywhere it is admired," says Sadiq, a quiet 47-year-old with ambitious plans to expand his two-year-old, $30 million venture into a $100 million Afghan-born fruit behemoth.

Omaid Bahar, or 'Spring Wish', is a rarity in war-wracked Afghanistan: a mid-sized business employing almost 1,000 people and thriving even as many entrepreneurs eye the country's exits, worried about what will happen when NATO combat troops leave in 2014.

Underscoring fears of a Taliban resurgence or worse, a renewal of the bloody ethnic civil war that raged through the early 1990s, Afghans carted $4.5 billion in cash through Kabul airport last year to safety abroad, according to the central bank, much of it ending up in Dubai.

The company is a huge gamble for Sadiq as other businesses fall around him, including many which relied on making military boots and uniforms, but whose orders have recently been cancelled or scaled back.

Where others fret about instability, Sadiq sees opportunity, selling fruit juice concentrate and fresh produce to Britain and western Europe, as well as Canada, Dubai, Pakistan, India, and markets in Southeast Asia.

He has advanced plans for joint ventures in the United States, and sales of juice in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as well as at home, where Afghans are mostly unaware of how highly-regarded their homegrown pomegranates are by health food aficionados.   Continued...

An Afghan man works at the Omaid Bahar fruit factory in Kabul October 9, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail