FAO helps Afghan farmers tune in to better incomes

Herat, Afghanistan – Two evenings a week, village farmer Ghulam Mostafa crouches next to his small transistor radio and listens carefully. Over the next few minutes he learns where he
can get the best prices for his wheat, chickpeas and onions.

“If I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t know the prices in neighbouring provinces,” he says. “One time I heard that each kilogram of onions was worth five to six Afghanis in Herat market but
twelve to fifteen Afghanis in Kandahar; so five friends and I rented a truck and went to Kandahar to get a higher price.”

This simple success story is being multiplied all over Afghanistan thanks to a market information system set up by FAO with European Union, German and US funding.

Besides the radio shows, the system generates weekly printed bulletins for cabinet ministers, giving them up-to-the minute data on prices, crop production levels and weather reports – the vital
signs of the nation’s food supply.

Among those gathering price details is Abdul Karim of the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock. Based out of a small, bustling office in Herat, he visits local markets each day to
discover average costs for produce including wheat, flour, mutton and veal.

“At first the shopkeepers were surprised and in some cases suspicious of why we were asking about their prices; some think we are from the local government and that they are in trouble,” he
says. “But we explain how we are trying to help by ensuring they charge competitive prices.”

The market information is compiled and analysed by the Food, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Information Management and Policy Unit, launched by FAO in 2003. The unit tailors its output –
producing radio broadcasts like the one Ghulam Mostafa listens to, a quarterly Agriculture Prospects Report, and an online database. That data is used by, among others, UN agencies, donors and
local authorities to help identify areas where action is needed and where previous aid has proved effective.

Rebuilding public services

FAO’s Afghan programme is worth US$17 million a year, employs 400 staff and cuts across the entire food and agriculture sector. Through such measures the sector is being rebuilt after decades
of disruption caused by conflict, insecurity and drought.

While Phase I of the information system project, funded by the United States and Germany, focused on shorter-term remedies, Phase II, with US$3.8 million in EU funding, seeks to upgrade the
system, with emphasis on hunger and poverty, as well as step up the training of local staff. Although the project currently supports the Unit with additional staff, the objective is to leave a
self-sufficient team in place when the project ends in 2009.

Unit director Haqiqatpal Ghulam Rabbani says: “FAO plays a very important role here. We have a very close relationship and in every aspect they are here to train and help us; one main area has
been in improving computer skills and Internet knowledge.

“Some of our best experts either went abroad or were killed during the conflict, so we’re very behind in terms of technical progress. We have to increase our knowledge and skills through
education and training, in order to progress.”

Broad benefits

It is not only farmers, retailers and the local shoppers who are benefiting.

The cabinet learned of a 1.2 million tonnes deficit in wheat last year and, using the hard evidence provided by the information system, quickly convinced donors to give US$75 million to offset
the shortfall.

Weather indicators forecasting drought also mean the government can increase food stores in anticipation of poor harvests to come.

In contrast, when figures this year predicted over-production of grapes and raisins in Herat province, additional export deals were negotiated to move the surplus. Small-scale farmers reaped
the benefits.

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