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Harvest Time in Afghanistan

by Mary Tjotjos

In 2009, Raffi Vartanian took a trip to Afghanistan. He stayed with friends in Kabul who served dried fruit and nut snacks—and Vartanian was floored. “They were unique and exceptional,” he says.

At the time, Vartanian worked in bulk trade and commodities. He and three friends in finance and international development— Patrick Johnson; Kabir Arghandiwal, born in Afghanistan; Scott Cantin—saw an opportunity: “to coalesce our passions around food and development in the region.” Ziba (“beautiful”) Foods was born.

Afghanistan, a lush and fertile land, is historically renowned for its delicious nuts and dried fruits. As Vartanian experienced, firsthand, the baby pistachio kernels, heirloom almonds, wild mulberries, sweet apricot kernels, kishmish raisins and parwan walnuts were too good not to share. “We jumped in feet first,” he says. “All of us came at this from a sustainability perspective,” says Vartanian. “To be commercially viable, there has to be a core-profit model with a development model.”

They built a factory in Kabul, hired Afghan women in 85 percent of the management and staff positions, and got to work developing direct relationships with 350 small farmers and cooperatives in the north where agriculture supports 80 percent of the economy. The farms are set in valleys naturally irrigated with snow melt that comes from the Hindu Kush mountains. And everything is farmed organically or grown wild.

Ziba follows through on a bold mission: providing job security through year-round employment, along with education (including English lessons) and industry-related training. The company was chosen to partner with EFI Food Initiative, a UN program run by the International Trade Center and funded by the EU. EFI connects artisans from developing countries to socially and environmentally conscious consumers, and provides technical training and expertise as well as a template for fair working conditions. With the help of the UN initiatives, Ziba is working to implement the first official Organic Certification Program for dried fruit and nuts in Afghanistan. A favorite of top chefs, including those at Restaurant Daniel in New York City, Ziba Foods is well on its way.

But the current situation in Afghanistan is challenging. After the Taliban took over, an eerie quiet came over the streets of Kabul, says Vartanian. People were worried and apprehensive, and many stayed home. Now, there’s no fighting. And it’s harvest time. So the team at Ziba decided to go back to work. “It’s been a good harvest,” Vartanian says. Still, there have been logistical challenges. The banking rules have changed, presenting some delays accessing capital.

“Despite the 100,000 refugees leaving the country, there are still 38 million people in Afghanistan who need to work and support their families,” Vartanian says. And Ziba has orders to fill from around the globe. zibafoods.com

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