Kabul’s dairy unions: How Afghanistan gets its milk to market.

Afghanistan’s Milk Is So Good, Even the Taliban Helps Deliver It

Afghanistan’s Milk Is So Good, Even the Taliban Helps Deliver It

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Oct. 4 2013 3:38 PM

How Afghanistan’s Milk Gets to Market

It’s so good, even the Taliban helps deliver it.

Dairy shop in Kabul.
What makes Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy truly remarkable is that it comprises all elements of Afghan society: communists, shopkeepers, everyday citizens—even the Taliban.

Photo courtesy May Jeong

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KABUL, Afghanistan—A shop in my neighborhood in Kabul sells dairy products. Butter, cheese, milk, that sort of thing.

In a country that is still very literal—bakeries advertise by nailing loaves of bread to sheets of plywood, and butcher shops hang freshly slaughtered goat meat on hooks—Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy is something else entirely. There are no jugs of milk or knobs of butter on display.

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In fact, when it first opened in May, it had no sign on the store at all, which predictably made it easy to miss. Many would-be patrons, including myself, drove past it, armed only with poor directions and a hunger for fresh dairy. (“It’s across from the mosque on the main road.” Which mosque? Which main road?)  

When the shop did finally get a sign—lebaniyat furushi, the dairy shop—I still didn’t realize the coup this place represented. (The shop is actually one of 27 in Kabul and 157 nationwide that is run by local dairy unions.) That knowledge came later, when I had my first taste of their butter.

It happened during an iftar dinner to break the Ramadan fast. Our host brought out a bowl of butter, sat it next to a stack of Afghan bread, and insisted we all try some. In the warm night, the butter had already melted somewhat. Tearing off a corner of the bread, we scooped up the soft butter to taste. Right then it occurred to me that I had never tasted real butter until now. It tasted both full and light, like some kind of an imagined ideal of a food I thought I knew.

It’s a small thing, in light of Afghanistan’s many ailments. But what makes this dairy shop truly remarkable is that it is part of an operation that comprises all elements of Afghan society—communists, commanders, shopkeepers, everyday citizens, and yes, even the Taliban. That’s an incredibly rare thing in this war-torn country. But when it comes to fresh milk and butter, Afghans have found something worth not fighting over.

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I wanted to meet the people responsible for the Kabul dairy union and its magic butter. And so, on an overcast Sunday morning, I drove to the outskirts of the city to visit Lutfullah Rlung, who helped start Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy, and others across Afghanistan. Rlung has been working with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization for two decades. (The U.N. agency made the initial investments that helped these dairy unions get off the ground.)

When he sees that I am a woman, he immediately begins to explain how the dairy unions have increased women’s decision-making power. In his office, he shows me a PowerPoint presentation that explains that female union workers carry greater responsibility in the feeding, grazing, watering, and milking of the cows. "Women are the ones who [are] busy with the keeping of the cows!" he exclaims. As if to suggest something even more outrageous, he leans in to confide, in a near whisper, that some husbands will even baby-sit the children while their wives attend union meetings.

The PowerPoint continues: Women have been the main beneficiaries of the program, receiving more than 90 percent of its income. "This is a good income-generating project for housewives," Rlung offers, and gestures toward me, as if to say, Yes, you, a woman, can dare to dream!  

Modern milk production was introduced to the country in 1975, but was halted in 1978 in the wake of President Daoud Khan’s assassination in a communist coup. A champion of liberal progress, when Khan died, so did many of the country’s dreams of modernization. The dairy plants survived the Soviet invasion, but only barely. The mujahedin years were devastating. "Everything was looted. Nothing was left," Rlung says.

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In 1998, the U.N. developed the country’ first modern milk-collecting plant in Kandahar under the Taliban. That operation quickly expanded to Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kunduz. The Italian government began a project in Herat. Another U.N. agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, is funding the latest dairy plant in Jalalabad, which will produce 10 metric tons of milk every day.

The unions revolutionized the way people consume dairy. In the past, you could only buy milk in bazaars close to the processing plants. You couldn't buy fresh milk during most winter months as there was no feed for the cows, and you couldn't buy any during most summer months because the milk spoiled under the blistering sun.

Now the union milk is considered pure enough for President Hamid Karzai, and other leaders. Every morning, Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy delivers to the doors of the presidential palace, the National Directorate of Security (Afghanistan's spy agency), and the central bank.

It wasn’t an easy sell in the beginning. The first constituency the union had to convince was the farmers themselves. Afghan custom demanded that surplus milk be used to make chekka (a sort of sour cream) or quroot—dried curd that is, for outsiders at least, an acquired taste. Farmers told union organizers that the idea of selling their product was as offensive as selling their mother's own milk. (When you ask Afghans why, they will tell you it is simply Pashtun tradition.) A German named Olaf Thieme, who worked for the Food and Agriculture Organization in Afghanistan in the 1990s, was one of the first to start convincing farmers to sign up for the union. Decades of being passive recipients to foreign aid had burdened the farmers with a sense of entitlement, he says. "It was the mood, you have to bring us support, you have to help us,” recalls Thieme. The union was the first attempt to break the farmer’s cycle of aid dependence, and show them the benefits of self-sufficiency.

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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. 

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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.

Kabul’s Guzergah Dairy
Just outside the store's window is the rough-hewn landscape that is downtown Kabul.

Photo courtesy May Jeong

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?"

"Yes, exactly."

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.