At Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy, I meet Ghulam Zekria Ahmad Zal, chairman of the union. His first question for me: Would I like cheese or would I like yogurt? (I chose both.)
A former farmer, Zekria was unanimously elected chairman by his fellow farmers, who are also shareholders of the union. When he was elected in 2006, he spoke barely a word of English. Today he manages the language well, and proudly wears a Uniball pen in his blazer pocket, a mark of education. He has introduced union members to the basics of marketing and other modern management techniques. He even has an email address.
Here is the co-op’s daily routine: Around 5 a.m., farmers bring their milk to collection centers in Logar and Wardak province, both adjacent to Kabul. At 6 a.m. the milk is loaded onto a truck for its one-hour journey to Kabul. At 7 a.m. the milk cans arrives in the capital. By early afternoon, the products are pasteurized, packaged, and ready for delivery to Kabul’s dairy shops.
Or at least that is what Zekria tells me. The next day, when I arrive just before 8 a.m., there are no milk trucks, nor is Zekria there. I am told that both are due to arrive any minute now. While I wait, breakfast is served. It is a simple fare of cheese, bread, and coffee. The Nescafé tin is nearly untouched—to Afghans, coffee is a strange dark drink that only foreigners consume.
Soon, Zekria arrives and so does the milk truck, carrying 60 cans of milk from Wardak. Another one, carrying the same amount, is due to arrive from Logar soon. Then, the butter is churned, and the yogurt is packaged. This is no small feat, considering an industrial butter churner runs $130,000, and a yogurt packer is roughly $40,000. Both are courtesy of foreign governments. Before these investments, milk was pasteurized over an open flame and butter churned in washing machines. Zekria shows off his latest milk pouch-filling machine with evident pride. He's been running the facility on city power, which has been reliable ever since the government began importing electricity from Central Asia. Otherwise, he would have to run a generator that guzzles 14 liters of diesel an hour, which would be far too costly for the union.
Gulam Siddiq is a farmer who has just arrived on the truck from Wardak. Every morning his wife milks their three cows, and he brings the milk into Kabul. Initially the profit from the union was only supplementary. His main livelihood was from farming wheat and potatoes, an annual earning of around $1,800. But soon the milk began bringing home $90 a week—a more than twofold increase in the family’s income. The day the milk money comes is a good day in the Siddiq household. The whole family sits around to discuss how the funds should be allocated. Last week it went toward a new dress. This week it may be for a sack of sugar. It has allowed other families like Siddiq’s to afford that rare luxury: an education for their girls.
But this is still Afghanistan, and the growth of the dairy market hasn't been without its share of tragedies. Early one morning in 2009, there was an explosion near a milk-collecting site in Logar, where Zekria then lived. The explosion killed 25 people, including Zekria's two brothers and his two sons. The children had stopped at the facility on their way to school to drop off a breakfast for their uncles. Zekria’s elderly mother forbade him from returning to the dairy business, but the local community begged him to continue. Parliamentarians came to show their support. Soon, Zekria was back at work.
He has his theories about who was behind the attacks "It was the enemy of Afghanistan, especially the neighbors!" He means Pakistan. Like many pro-Western Afghans, Zekria blames most of his country's insurgency on Pakistani support of the militants. Others speculate that the milk collection center wasn’t the target at all.
Are insurgent attacks a concern? The union says no. "In society, there are all types of people," says Tek Thapa, a senior advisor at the Food and Agriculture Organization. "There are refugees who return, those who are pro-government, or those who are the Taliban. Unions are owned by the people." He continues: "In some sites, milk collections are done by the Taliban."
"The farmers are the Taliban?"
Rlung agrees. “Even the Taliban need an income. Everyone needs to eat. Without food, people cannot fight.”
When I finally visit the dairy shop, the lunch hour rush is just beginning. Ahead of me in line, a man in a suit asks for two ladles of yogurt in a plastic bag and chides the shopkeeper for not giving a little extra. Another customer, a kid, has been sent on an errand to buy chekka. A housewife is there to pick up butter for lunch; she fans around a dollar bill to get the attention of the shopkeeper, before leaning in on the counter and picking her teeth with the same bill.
The shop is remarkably clean. Inside a glassed display fridge are orderly rows of yogurt cartons and bottled dooght, the fermented and salted drink of ancient Persia. Bags of what I assume to be butter hang neatly alongside each other.
Just outside this pristine store window is the rough-hewn landscape that is downtown Kabul. The open sewers choke with effluents—more waste than wastewater. The air is heavy and acrid. Kabul is ringed by a mountain range that gives the city its bowl-like shape, so that air pollutants have nowhere to go but to settle into the dense warren of streets. This is one of the most affluent commercial districts of the city, and the dust is unrelenting.
One by one, the customers pay up, gather the neat packages of butter, chekka, and yogurt, and head quietly back into the world beyond the shop.