KABUL, June 2002 -- For Afghanistan to overcome poverty and malnutrition in the post-war, post-Taliban era, it needs to develop and boost its agriculture. Around 85 percent of the Afghan population works in the rural economy. Agriculture in Afghanistan is largely a household activity, with women and children as well as men producing crops, engaging in horticulture and rearing livestock.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is running two initiatives to fight poverty and improve nutrition among the rural poor, especially women. Working with local farmers, it has set up village milk collection centers and started poultry production for women.

Syed Mokhtar lives with his family in the Mir Shah Aziz village near Kabul. Mokhtar is a milk farmer producing around 10 litres of milk every day. He keeps some for his family and sells the surplus on the market. Until a few years ago each farmer in the village had to transport his milk over long distances to the markets in Kabul. There was no quality control and often the milk went bad before it reached the market.

With the new commercial milk collection center, built by the villagers with support from FAO, things have changed significantly for Mokhtar and 80 farmers in Mir Shah Aziz.

Milk collection has become a routine for them. The milk collection center is within reach for everybody. The milk collector tests the quality of the milk and pays the farmer in cash. In Kabul, the milk is pasteurized and processed and sold by local vendors. In the city, demand for milk products is high and often dairy products are sold out within an hour.

FAO supports local milk farmers with training in feeding, cattle management and marketing. And the project offers commercial veterinary services, providing vaccinations against highly contagious livestock diseases such as Anthrax.

So far, 16 milk collection centers have been created around Kabul, with 450 farmers participating in the project. FAO is planning to extend the project to more than 1 000 farmers.

It is not only for milk that big cities like Kabul with more than two million inhabitants depend on nearby villages. The eggs that can be found in the markets of Kabul also come from small families in the nearby countryside.

Poultry production in Afghanistan was severely damaged in recent years of war and conflict. Government and private poultry enterprises were looted and collapsed. Villages were destroyed and farmers and their families were forced to flee.

Del Jan is a female farmer who sought refuge near Jalalabad with her family when fighting and violence erupted near her village. She has just returned to her home. She does not earn enough money with her vegetable shop to feed the family. Therefore Del Jan decided to take part in an FAO project on village poultry production. More than 90 percent of poultry production in Afghan villages is in the hands of women.

From FAO Del Jan received a starter package of 10 hens, construction material for a coop/shed, 10 kg of chicken feed, vaccines and training.

In the past, with the local chicken breed, the family only managed to produce around 50 eggs per year. Production was low, the eggs were small and chicken mortality was high.

Today, using high-productivity breeds, Del Jan's family produces more than 200 eggs per year. This has enabled her to make a small income by selling eggs in the market in Kabul. Egg production contributes about 40 percent of the income of poor families.

Around 2 500 village women living around Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif are taking part in the FAO project and backyard poultry production has improved significantly.

Training is an important part of the project. For six months, small groups of women meet three times per week to discuss poultry production, management, marketing, and animal disease prevention. The meetings also provide an opportunity to talk about social and health issues. Under theTaliban, such meetings were absolutely forbidden and considered a conspiracy. Nevertheless, the project continued.

FAO also supports a dynamic and self-financing Poultry Farmers' Association in Kabul. It serves about 130 commercial poultry farmers. They receive feed, vaccines and training which are otherwise unavailable in Kabul. Farmers pay for the services offered by the Association. The money is then used for other projects.

Today, the Association produces more than 3 tonnes of poultry feed, 20 000 day old chicks and more than 265 000 eggs per month.

Poultry production has big potential in Afghanistan. Working with the farmers, FAO has created a unique infrastructure of self-sustainable projects that could be easily expanded. Involving more people in poultry and dairy production close to the major cities would help to generate income and business opportunities especially for women, it would benefit refugees and internally displaced people and would contribute to a better nutrition.