For 18 women who dared to take jobs at the processing plant in such a conservative region, it has been a life-changer. (Photos: Sharifi)
Their heads shrouded for correctness and hands gloved for hygiene, the women at the New Idea processing plant go about their daily routine of cleaning and packaging fruit and vegetables.
It's a rather unexceptional activity for a team that was initially viewed as a prostitution racket by suspicious locals in Nangarhar’s Surkhrod district. Or is it?
Against the odds, the New Idea processing facility has emerged as a successful model. Not only has it won contracts for the tons of food processed by its 18 female and three male staff members, but it also overcame stiff resistance to the concept of a predominantly woman-run work project.
Tough fight for recognition
“When this facility started operating five years ago, not a single woman, not even those in the direst financial straits, showed any desire to work in such a place,” recalled plant manager Zarmeena.
Set up with funds from USAID, the business was immediately subject to protests and even demonstrations by local residents who accused the organizers of opening a brothel. The management started engaging the community leaders in talks to explain the project.
“Finally, after a two-month public awareness campaign, we were able to convince people that this facility had been created to assist women, and that [local leaders] could keep close track on what went on here,” Zarmeena said.
Once the elders had been won over, the founders started to recruit. The first three women came from severely disadvantaged families in the district’s Sultanpoor area, received a week of training and got to work as the only processing staff for the first two months of operation. Then, after other local women saw that the facility was guarded by only two older women and that it’s male marketing manager stayed mainly away from the premises, 15 more joined.
They earn nine US dollars for an eight-hour day. It is not only a reasonable wage by local standards, but the income and opportunity has helped lift families out of the worst extremes of poverty.
“My husband lost both of his hands in a traffic accident six years ago and he can no longer work,” says Bano, a mother of five young children who sits cleaning a basket of vegetables. “I came here with nine other women two weeks after we saw six women were working. Our problems led us here and we are still overjoyed that we decided to come.”
Stringent standards are paying off
The actual processing is simple but thorough: the produce is scrubbed and washed three or four times in water before it goes to the packaging line to be wrapped. It is then stored in cold units before being sent for delivery.
Hygiene standards are stringent, insist the managers: Every employee is tested for diseases like hepatitis B and tuberculosis, said Matiuallah Amanzai, public relations director for the New Idea NGO that helped found the plant and also gave it its name.
"At first we opposed the facility...Now we are delighted to have it operating here." Village elder, Surkhrod district
Over the past five years, local farmers like Welyat Khan have found valuable outlets for their produce through New Idea.
“They gave me two and a half kilos of broccoli seeds and I sold the crop to the packaging facility for five afghanis higher than the market price,” said Khan. “Whenever I grew vegetables before they were never purchased and I’d make a loss.”
The facility is curently able to process up to six tons of produce a day, according to marketing manager Ajmal Shinwari. And the quality and professional look of the packaged products meant that last year the plant sent almost 15,000 tons to several Afghan distributors, as well as shipments to India, Dubai and even Germany.
Total turnaround in attitudes
But the change of attitude in the community is the most striking aspect of the story. The processing plant is now an object of pride rather suspicion, said Hayatullah, the head of Sultanpoor village.
Ripe for the market: Local lemons labelled in English "Pride of the Eastern Region" are boxed for delivery in Afghanistan and abroad.
“At first we strongly opposed the facility. But then we saw that its work consisted only of providing income opportunities for women and offering broad support for local farmers, and we are now delighted to have such a facility operating here,” he said.
Hayatullah’s counterpart in the Hijrat Kili village of the Surkhrod district, Badaam Gul, said that as well as initial suspicions about the nature of the women’s work, there was plain resentment at jobs being given to them rather than unemployed men.
But people have now accepted the concept of the New Idea plant, Gul said, stressing that, “there are hundreds of more needy women in the community for whom there are no job opportunities.”
But as the market for the produce grows, so do the plans for the plant. Eventually it will be incorporated fully into the Tek Dani processing company which is currently contracted to run the packaging and distribution side and operates several similar facilities across the country. The number of women employed at New Idea is expected to double during the amalgamation, said Tek Khan’s director Meraj Udin Amiri.