LASHKARGAH, Afghanistan — Jan Agha, a young Afghan farmer in the restive southern province of Helmand, is contemplating something no other agriculturist has attempted in the vast region bordering Pakistan.
This week, he spent a busy day at a government farm in the provincial capital, Lashkargah, to learn about planting banana trees. He is among the handful of farmers Afghan officials hope will pioneer planting bananas.
“I am here to see whether I can get some banana saplings and grow them in my village,” Agha told Radio Free Afghanistan of his ambition to build one of the first banana farms in Helmand’s rural agricultural district of Nad-e Ali.
“I hope this experiment succeeds,” he said while showing a bunch of green bananas. These fruits are Helmand’s first harvest from nearly 200 banana trees planted by the government’s Bolan Research Farm, a vast establishment in Lashkargah’s suburbs, in recent years.
While mountainous Afghanistan’s dry continental climate produces some of the best apples, melons, grapes and pomegranates in South Asia, there is still no commercial farming of bananas, which typically grow in warm and wet regions. Bananas are popular in Afghanistan and are mostly imported from neighboring Pakistan or India.
The flat farmlands in Helmand, however, are well irrigated and have hot summers. Once conceived as Afghanistan’s breadbasket, farmers in the region turned to poppy cultivation during their country’s four-decade-long war.
Today Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province roughly equal to the size of Switzerland, produces most of the world’s illicit opium, which is used for processing into heroin.
Officials in Helmand say they hope to add bananas to alternative cash crops such as saffron and aloe vera to help the region’s farmers move away from planting poppies. Unlike other fruits grown in Afghanistan, profits from bananas will not be dependent on exports because the sweet fruit is popular across Afghanistan.
“We are surprised to see banana plants growing and bearing fruit here,” Abdul Manan Amiri, an agricultural specialist at Lashkargah’s Bolan Research Farm, told Radio Free Afghanistan. “But we expect considerable regional variations within Helmand.”
Amiri says bananas can grow better in the flatter farmland of central and southern Helmand but are unlikely to adapt to the cooler temperatures in its hilly northern districts.
“We are still learning a lot about how to protect this plant from hot and cold weather and the best irrigation practices,” he said. “Overall, the results we see are positive and encouraging.”
Bananas are unlikely to swiftly replace poppies in Helmand’s countryside. But the initiative indicates that sustained efforts to wean farmers away from the illicit opium crop can succeed with sustainable support focused on providing alternative livelihoods in an overall stable environment.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, Radio Free Afghanistan’s reporter in Helmand.