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Roses vs drugs

Julia Mahncke /aiNovember 5, 2012

Afghanistan depends on agriculture - and that means: on the illicit drug trade. The Afghan government is fighting opium and cannabis on farmers' fields, and now, a Canadian businesswoman has joined the fray.

Rose petals (picture:Abdullah Arsala)
Image: Abdullah Arsala

She has never been to Afghanistan, and originally, she actually wanted to become a social worker. But now, Barb Stegemann is doing good business with Afghanistan. The 42-year-old imports the oil won from rose and orange petals and mixes them into perfumes.

Her scents are not only sold over the Internet, but also can be found on the shelves of large department stores in her home country of Canada and in several duty-free shops at airports. What is helping Stegemann is also having a positive effect on Afghanistan. When farmers plant roses and oranges and can make money with them, there will be fewer opium poppies in the fields.

Stegemann knows she is only scratching the surface with her business. Most Afghan farmers are still planting huge quantities of opium and cannabis, rather than legal crops, like oranges and roses. With a market share of some 90 percent, Afghanistan is the largest producer of opiates worldwide, according to the United Nations.

Building up trust

Stegemann, however, hopes that her example will encourage other investors to realize similarly innovative investment ideas abroad. Trade helps to build trust and is a key to development in this crisis region, she says.

Villagers harvest opium (picture:UNODC/AP/dapd)
Most farmers in Afghanistan still prefer growing opium and cannabisImage: dapd

Some 80 percent of Afghans today live from agriculture. There have been many attempts to ween farmers away from the drug trade. Since 2004, the German NGO, Welthungerhilfe, has been helping farmers plant roses and harvest the oil.

Barb Stegemann got the idea for her business from her best friend who was a soldier in Afghanistan. Learning more about the country, Stegemann stumbled across an Afghan trader, Abdullah Arsala, who had already started a business with essential oils as an alternative souce of income for farmers. Stegemann planned her end of the business in her own garage and initially bought oil from Arsala for around $2,000 (1,560 euros).

"The banks didn't want to give me a loan," she told Deutsche Welle. "So, I had to put it on my visa card." Within a month she had the money back.

After her appareance on a Canadian TV show two years ago she managed to convince an investor. Since then, her company "7 Virtues" has invested some $100,000 in Afghanistan. Her business partner, Abdullah Arsala, has 15 regular employees in his country. During the harvest season, another 2,500 seasonal workers are hired. "Roses and oranges are a good substitute for opium," he says. "But these plants take between three and five years until they reach full bloom." Many farmers can't afford to wait that long, he lamented.

Drugs trade twice as lucrative

Opium, on the other hand, can be harvested several times a year, depending on the weather. The sellers can get up to twice as much as they get with the petals and oils, explains Afghanistan expert, Jane Kursawe, of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. "Many would prefer not to grow opium," she told DW. They know it is banned and many would find it easier to enter the legal crops trade, if they had support for purchasing seeds and fertilizer and setting up irrigation systems.

ISAF soldier (picture: Maurizio Gambarini /dpa)
NATO troops try to curb the opium trade and subsidize other cropsImage: picture alliance / dpa

The projects aimed at alternatives, like roses or saffron, not only have positive sides though, cautions Kursawe. "The price for rose oil dropped rapidly after some time because suddenly there was so much supply. And that has made it less attractive again compared to opium."

But there is no need to abandon such projects. What is needed over the long term, Kursawe emphasizes, is an effort to break the dependence on agriculture, to develop infrastructure, and with that, to boost other sectors of the Afghan economy.

 Barb Stegemann is already taking her business to the next level: She now imports oil from Haiti and plans to take her perfumes to the European market.