Milling ingenuity

by Chrystal Shannon
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NOTE: The following article is excerpted from U.S. Wheat Associates’ Jan. 25 newsletter.

As we continue to examine food needs in Afghanistan, some have asked how the wheat is utilized. Just about all we see of Afghanistan is television news video of desolate countryside, wind-swept mountains and bombed-out cities. What the television can’t show, however, is the ingenuity of the Afghans.

Wheat is "ingrained" in Afghanistan’s culture. Before the country was assaulted by three years (going on four) of recurrent drought, 85% of Afghanistan’s population was engaged in agriculture, with cereal production estimated at around 3 million tonnes each year.

Wheat is a primary staple food, used to make bread, cookies, pastries, and other special dishes. In remote areas, elders may even recommend wheat for the treatment of some illnesses.

Unlike in some of the world’s nomadic cultures, Afghan households don’t usually pound their own wheat. Afghanistan’s rivers, streams and seasonal winds are all harnessed to operate the mills, and it’s only been in the last 15 to 20 years that diesel or electric-operated mills were built.

Hayatullah Esmati, one of the World Food Programme’s staff inside Afghanistan, told U.S. Wheat Associates about the country’s milling systems.

"Afghan people mill the requirement of a quarter or six to nine months at one go. They never do it on daily basis," Esmati explained. "The reason is that during winter the water is frozen and mills are not working or access is not easy. Also, the seasonal winds are blowing for around three months in Hirat and maybe in Farah."

In 1995, WFP started milling wheat in Peshawar to provide wheat flour for bakery projects in the cities of Jalalabad, Kabul and Mazar. Last year, WFP began providing fortified flour, also milled in Peshawar, to a "widow’s bakery" in Kabul.

Esmati said that as the country reestablishes its agriculture and its infrastructure, and as thoughts of private enterprise begin to germinate anew, there are dreams of building mills with larger capacities in the cities of Kabul or Jalalabad.