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Jun-14-2009 12:10printcomments

Afghan Women Learn Entrepreneurship in Panjshir Valley

For many women at Panjshir's food processing center in Bazarak District, this is their first opportunity to work. As they learn to process the produce into profitable jars of preserves and bottles of juice, their livelihood and social importance in Afghan society is expanding.

women at Panjshir's food processing center
For many women at Panjshir's food processing center in Bazarak district, Afghanistan, this is their first opportunity to work. As they learn to process the produce into profitable jars of preserves and bottles of juice, their livelihood and social importance in Afghan society is expanding. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashton Goodman)

(BAGRAM FIELD Afghanistan) - The fruit and vegetable bounty of Afghanistan's Panjshir province may make its way to grocery stores around the world someday, thanks to a PRT program. A food-processing program recently introduced into the Panjshir Valley is bringing economic prosperity, education, leadership and hope to the area's women.

During the May 12th opening ceremony at Panjshir's first food-processing center, the women's freshly made jams and fruit juices were on display and available for purchase. Their products already are being sold in local markets, and the goal is eventually to fill the shelves of Kabul's larger grocery stores.

The program came to fruition through a coordinated effort between the Panjshir PRT, the U.S. Agency for Int'l Development, and the Welfare and Development Org. of Afghanistan. It's designed to empower women, increase their social status, and above all, provide them with sustainable incomes, officials said.

Panjshir Valley is known for its agriculture-based society, and depending on the season, is filled with apples, apricots, grapes, mulberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes. But because the area lacks consistent electricity and cold-storage facilities, most of the food goes to waste.

"There's a clear market opportunity in food processing, and there'll be a strong demand for these products," said Jeremy Lewis, the U.S. Agency for Int'l Development rep to the PRT. "The best part is that they process a lot of the produce that normally goes to waste."

Through the help of Abdul Seddequi, the Welfare and Development Org. of Afghanistan dir. and driving force behind the program, 20 women are halfway through a 6-month course that's teaching them how to select produce from the bazaar and then process, market and sell it.

Saddequi spends his days traveling around Afghanistan and creating employment and training programs for women. He also is one of their strongest advocates. "This project is designed to provide opportunities for women to play a greater role in the socio-economic uplift of the societies," Seddequi said. "The activity will be a milestone in restoring the lost status of women in the Afghan societies."

For many women, this is their first opportunity to work. "My family's supportive of what I'm learning to do," said Lialima, a 37-year-old woman enrolled in the program. "Before this I was a housewife, and now I can provide some of our income."

In time, 4 more Panjshir districts will receive food processing centers. Each will train 20 women, with priority going to widows, extremely poor women and women who are the heads of their households.

Women between the ages of 18 and 45 are eligible for the program, which also teaches the basics in Dari and mathematics, allowing the participants to read recipes and perform simple business skills.

The women are not paid during their training; all money earned is saved collectively for future operating costs. The intent is for each food-processing center to be self-sustaining once donor support ends.

After the jams and juices are produced, they need to be moved to the markets. Some are nearby and are easily reached, but the community will be called upon to assist the women in transporting their products to more distant markets.

"This is a critical aspect of community support," Seddequi said, "as it will help in the sustainability of the project and the ownership that the community feels over the project."

For the energetic and optimistic Seddequi, transforming his country and helping the women achieve success is his mission. Grand opening ceremonies, such as the one in Bazarak, remind him of the hard work and barriers he's overcome, he said.

As the PRT works with the Panjshir govt to develop the "Road to Badakshan" -- a 40-mile primary road that runs through the province -- team officials said the hope is to transform the province, spurring a generation of private investment and hope, along the road's path.

Eventually "rib roads" also will be designed and paved, connecting the remote villages in the side valleys to the new main road. Once completed in the summer of 2011, these road projects will improve the provincial govt's ability to reach its nearly 300,000 citizens, and link major commerce and govt centers, officials said.

In addition to developing the infrastructure, they added, the road projects also will put local people to work, and can bring the province closer to having the many tastes of Panjshir, delighting palates around the world.

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