From poppies to pips
For the grey-bearded Afghan opium farmer, the sight of a large, red-headed white man running through his poppy field in traditional Afghan clothes was one of the strangest things he’d seen. For James Brett, a British entrepreneur with a penchant for adventure and an obsession with pomegranates, running into a field of opium in one of Afghanistan’s most lawless provinces felt completely natural.
“My translator kept telling me I’d get shot,” says Brett, his burly frame rocking with laughter. “It irritated me. I didn’t have time to worry about silly things like that. Bless the farmer: he looked more shocked than me.”
By the end of the bizarre encounter, Brett had persuaded the farmer to grow pomegranates instead of opium. He pulled out a white cardboard sign, scrawled the words “Pomegranate is the answer” on it in blue marker, and took a few photographs of himself and the bewildered farmer. He promised to return.
Those five minutes in the poppy field changed his life irreversibly, he says. If the eccentric Brit from Swindon has it his way, they will also change Afghanistan.
“It was a massive eye-opener,” Brett says, as he recalls the experience. “I realised that the people growing opium are oblivious to what it can do in our society. In the back of beyond of Afghanistan, people don’t have a clue.”
In 2007, Brett, a father of three, took the first step towards helping Afghan farmers plant pomegranate trees instead of opium. He launched the initiative Plant for Peace, originally calling it POM354, after his car numberplate, but changing the name soon afterwards. Out of that has grown a wildly ambitious scheme that aims to revive Afghanistan’s entire horticultural sector and, in the process, foster the peace and security that has so far eluded western powers fighting the Taliban since 2001. It’s an almighty task for one man to accomplish. But since its inception five years ago, Plant for Peace has won powerful backing: supporters include Lady Caroline Richards, the wife of the chief of the defence staff, General Sir David Richards, and the Marquess of Reading.
To raise cash for his plan and to encourage the food industry to buy Afghan products, Brett will produce a fruit bar made entirely from ingredients grown in Afghanistan, including pomegranates and mulberries (plus raisins and almonds). Working initially with a factory in Sunderland, he expects to launch the bar later this year.
Brett hopes the bar’s production will prove to other British companies that importing Afghan ingredients and investing in Afghanistan’s food sector is worthwhile, and that this will, in turn, lead to a future in which Afghanistan will once again export juice, fruit and nuts to a global market.
I met Brett on a sunny day at my house in Kabul. He’d recently returned to the Afghan capital to oversee the cleaning, packaging and transport of the ingredients that will go into his first fruit bar. He already has a prototype. He pulls what looks like a lump of hashish wrapped in cellophane from his bag and lets me break off a corner of the dark-brown substance. It’s delicious — fruity flavours explode in the mouth. “One hundred percent Afghan ingredients. Mulberries and Pomegranates,” he says with evident pride. “There’s a saying in Afghanistan: if you want a good day’s work, you give a man a pomegranate. If you want a really god day’s work, you give him a mulberry.”
Over a cup of green tea, we discuss his ambitious plans for the future of the country that he has grown to love. He exudes self-belief and he gets a kick out of proving his sceptics wrong. And, in a country crippled by decades of war, a continuing insurgency, endemic corruption, foreign meddling and a chaotic political structure, there are plenty of those.
Today, despite the decade-long presence of Nato troops, Afghanistan produces about 90% of the world’s opium. There is little incentive to tackle the opium curse: both the government and the Taliban profit from the trade. But none of this deters James Brett. He believes that his project will diminish the Afghan farmers’ reliance on opium as a cash crop by providing a sustainable alternative. He also says that it will even help Nato’s stalled efforts to bring Taliban fighters in from the cold by creating jobs for insurgents who agree to lay down their weapons.
Brett’s love affair with pomegranates dates back to the late 1990s when he was on a business trip to the Pakistani city of Peshawar. A wizened Pakistani fruit-juice seller handed him his first glass of freshly made pomegranate juice.
Brett tasted the deep-red drink, turned to his friend and promptly announced that he was going to put it in shops and supermarkets across Britain.
“It was a sort of spiritual moment. I can’t put it into words,” says Brett. “Never in my life had I thought about pomegranates. I had no history in the food or drinks industry. But from that day I couldn’t stop thinking about them.”
Brett also had no idea about the purported health benefits of pomegranates. He later learnt that pomegranates, now the toast of the health-food industry — and regarded by many nutritionists as a “superfood” — contain a high level of antioxidants that boost the immune system. Research also shows that the fruit’s high levels of vitamins C and B5, potassium and tannins may reduce the risk of diabetes, prostate cancer and coronary heart disease.
On top of that, Brett had witnessed how heroin can destroy lives in the West. “I have seen first-hand the devastating effects of heroin on families, friends and society,” he says. “A difficult childhood” led him to use drugs himself for 20 years — though not heroin. His two best friends did succumb, however, and died from heroin-related illnesses.
After raising £160,000 from businessmen, friends and relatives, he launched a pomegranate-juice company, PomeGreat. He imported pomegranates from Iran and spent weeks in the laboratories of Mumbai University, India, “messing about with a professor” to fine-tune the drink that, five years after that first sip in Pakistan, would end up on supermarket and health-shop shelves across Britain.
In 2004, however, Brett suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to hospital.“I was a mess,” he says. To add to his troubles, he was ousted as CEO of PomeGreat and received a letter informing him that his shares had been sold. “I was very unwell at the time so I couldn’t make sense of it,” he recalls. He did eventually recover, however, and continued with his mission to spread the word about pomegranates.
Brett was invited to Kabul to give a speech to Afghan farmers about the benefits of growing pomegranates. It was on this first trip to Afghanistan that he ran into a field full of poppies in the eastern province of Nangarhar, accosted an opium farmer and pledged to wean the bewildered old man off his reliance on opium as an income. Months later, he returned to Afghanistan and drove back to see the old farmer. Afghan villagers crowded round him as he dug in a sign that read: “This land has been acquired as an alternative livelihood: from poppies to pomegranates.”
On the plane back to Britain, Brett calculated the cost benefits to the farmers he had spoken with, the amount of fruit they could cultivate, and how many trees they could plant on their land. The net value of dried opium as it leaves the farm was $241 per kilogram last year. The price of a kilo of pomegranates, by contrast, is only $1. But a hectare of poppy only yields 44.5kg of opium, while the same amount of land planted with pomegranate trees can yield roughly 21,450kg. So an Afghan farmer will double his income if he plants pomegranates rather than opium, so the thinking goes.
Brett set about trying to convince Afghan tribes that pomegranates were the future. In 2007, a former Afghan MP organised a meeting of 400 tribal elders from Nangarhar. Brett stood before the gathering and presented his plan. “There was lots of shouting,” he says. “But at the end they were unanimous. They said they wanted to do this project because I was the only person who had come to their community who didn’t have a gun, a badge or a uniform.”
As word spread of the eccentric Englishman’s plan, the size of the tribal gatherings grew. In 2008, Brett addressed a crowd of 6,500 elders. Later that day, he picked up 13 tonnes of raw opium (with an estimated street value of $780m) seized by the Afghan police. Brett drove with the minister of counter-narcotics into the hills outside Nangarhar’s provincial capital, piled the sacks of raw opium high and burnt them. It was a symbolic gesture, but it boosted his profile among foreign donors.
Three months later, with money from the sale of a pomegranate wine company in Armenia and cash from private investors, Brett oversaw the planting of 40,000 pomegranate trees in Nangarhar on land previously used to grow opium.
Plant for Peace will provide training and equipment to help Afghan farmers improve the growth, sorting, storage and distribution of their produce. Brett has set up a food business, Funktional Foods, and aims, over the next 18 months, to construct Afghanistan’s first fruit-bar factory and to persuade British supermarkets to stock the products.
As support for Brett’s plans has grown, his ambitions have become ever grander. He is a maverick, but there is a touch of the Walter Mitty about him, too. His strategy is pretty simple: “grow, produce, sell”. He will need money to continue that process, and he is convinced it will come. Right now, he believes that the West is ignorant of the country’s needs. “You can only help any nation through what it can understand. In Afghanistan, horticulture and agriculture are all-important — and so far we have failed to take that on board.”