Kabul: The one thing that defines Afghan hospitality is their bread and tea. No Afghan meal or interaction is complete without at least one of these. Every meal, from breakfast to dinner, whether as part of a lavish spread or in humble servings, will always include the traditional bread and tea. It’s more than just food – it’s a culture.
One can find a baker on every street in Kabul; sometimes several on one street. You can buy a big round naan (about 20 cms in diameter) for as little as 10 afghanis (10 rupees). “I sell about 400 naans everyday,” says Mohammad Zayeed, a 52 year old baker who has a small bakery off the main road in West Kabul. “Larger bread shops in more populated areas sell over 800 to 1000 naans daily,” he adds.
While there are no clear figures, some bakers who’ve been in this business for long estimate that nearly 5 million naans are sold in Kabul alone, everyday. With thousands of bakeries, just in the capital, the local bread industry has the potential to not only boost allied sectors, but also create a number of jobs for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
The ground realities, however, do not support this obvious claim. For one, nearly all bakers in Kabul, to keep their costs low, have to rely on produce imported from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan which are cheaper and often believed to be of lower quality.
“I get my flour from Kazakhstan,” Zayeed says, a bit offended when asked if he uses Pakistani flour. “The flour I use is of better quality, even though it costs me more,” he explains, adding that he cuts corners in the size and thickness of his bread to make them affordable.
But why doesn’t he use local flour? “It isn’t easy to find locally produced flour these days,” he says, arguing that if the government were to increase production of wheat and local flour, he would be among the first to buy it for his business.
The spokesperson at the ministry of agriculture, irrigation and livestocks, however, contradicts this statement. “Most provinces are self-sufficient in wheat production, and at least nine of them recorded a surplus last year,” says Lotfullah Rasheed. “The reason you only see imported flour in Kabul city is because this province does not have arable land,” he adds.
According to data from the ministry, every Afghan consumes 165 kg of wheat each year, and the total national consumption is nearly 6 million metric tonne per year. “We grow about 4.6 million metric tonnes of wheat internally. We only import 1.4 million metric tonnes,” says Rasheed.
However, the immensity of resources and international aid notwithstanding, the Afghan government continues to struggle to organise the agriculture sector and is unable to meet local requirements. “The average size of an Afghan family farm is one hectare which grows wheat worth about US$500 each year,” the former minister explained in an op-ed from 2010. This isn’t sufficient to meet national food requirements. And so potentially profitable allied industries such as dairy and baking remain under appreciated.
Reimagining the Afghan bread
Bureaucratic challenges, though, haven’t deterred innovation. With the kind of numbers involved, one would assume that the market for traditional Afghan bread in Kabul is pretty saturated. And yet, two young Afghan entrepreneurs set out to innovate the one thing that Afghans love the most. An artisan bread shop called Khanagi in Kabul is reinventing the traditional oven-baked Afghan bread.
Khanagi, which literally translates to ‘homemade’, is a small, unconventional, bread shop, located in the heart of Kabul, and is selling a product that is most widely used and available in the city. Except, they’ve recreated it as a healthier, locally sourced alternative, in a simple menu, sold in a shop with minimalist decor.
Open for less than six months, they have captured the attention of a variety of clients. Afghans and expats alike have been drawn to this alternative, almost hipster, naan shop. “Our bread is made with locally sourced ingredients, as is everything else in this shop,” says Suleman Fatimie, co-owner of Khanagi, pointing at their bread which is a darker shade of brown unlike the market-bought white bread. “We’re completely Afghan, so much so that even the jams and cheese in the shop have been made by local families who deliver it to us on regular basis,” adds Shakib Noori, a partner in the venture, with pride.
Apart from contracting cottage industries, Khanagi employs around 11 locals, as opposed to Zayeed who employs four people. “At the current capacity, we are producing around 1,500 breads per day. But once we establish this business model, we have plans to expand into other parts of the city as well as in other big cities,” Fatimie says.
But despite their optimism, the industry that feeds millions isn’t widely seen as one with the potential to kickstart the war-torn economy of Afghanistan that largely depends on foreign aid.
Irrigation, improvised seeds, technical knowledge and small business credits are some of the hurdles that need to be overcome.
The new minister, Assadullah Zamir, a young man in his late 30s, acknowledged this issue. One of his goals for food security is to achieve wheat self-sufficiency by 2020. He has, for this purpose, reached out to governments of allied nations to support several programmes focused largely on agriculture and more specifically on wheat production. The Regional Agricultural Development Project of the United States Agency of International Development, worth over $300 million, will focus on improving the productivity and profitability of wheat, among other things, in the next five years.
Among the primary challenges, the ability to attract farmers away from opium cultivation and into food grain production is the most arduous. Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium in the world, according to a UN report from 2014. Some 3.3 million Afghans are involved in producing opium, the report stated.
“The reality is that while the Taliban supports poppy production to fund their destructive activities, poppy provides little return to the farmers,” the former agricultural minister had once said. “Pomegranates will earn a farmer five times more than what poppy fetches on the open market. Grapes will earn eight times more. Almonds will earn seven,” he had asserted.
However, as illicit opium production hit a record high in 2014, there was little comfort for farmers in those figures. Zayeed, who has been in the bread business for nearly 35 years, laments the dearth of local produce. “It would be so much better for me as well as the farmers of our country. The government could very well turn it into a profitable venture for themselves too.”
Ruchi Kumar is a Kabul-based journalist