In Kabul, Naan Endures – Heated
Assadullah started his own business at 18 and is now a khalifa, training a younger generation of bakers. On several occasions in the last few decades, the reality of war came too close to Assadullah’s shops.
“In the 1990s, the mujahedeen fighters would clash on this street in front of my shop, and we had to take cover from their rockets. Sometimes, the jihadi commanders would come and ransack my shop and take hundreds of naan to feed their fighters. I never got paid for those,” he says. The Taliban regime that followed the civil war was worse and would shut his business on the mere accusation of not having offered his prayers at the local mosque, he says.
“Then the Americans came started to bomb the Taliban. Twice they dropped their bombs close to my shop. One evening, there was a line of customers outside my shop when the bombs fell. Many were injured and a young girl who had just minutes before purchased naan from me was killed,” he says with sadness. More recently, though, Assadullah has had to worry about a resurgent Taliban, who have increased their attacks on Kabul in recent years. “My shop has been damaged a few times in the recent Taliban attacks. The worst was during an explosion at the square two years ago which injured two of my employees,” he says.
Despite the decades of war, violence, and growing insecurity, the business of bread is one of the most sustainable industries in Afghanistan, and one with the potential to help the agrarian economy and create jobs. According to Afghan government estimates, as well as international agencies, an average Afghan consumes about 160 kilograms of wheat annually — one of the highest rates in wheat‐consuming countries around the world. And almost all wheat is consumed as naan.
Assadullah’s bakery produces close to 3,000 pieces of naan every day, but even smaller bakers sell a minimum of 500 naans daily. There are thousands of naan shops in the Afghan capital, and according to rough estimates by local bakers, about 5 million naans are produced every day just in Kabul city. So it is safe to say that the health of the naan industry is directly linked to the health of the Afghan economy. “You can tell a lot about the economic state of a neighborhood by the kind of naan you find in the shops there. A neighborhood with higher rent, lower incomes will have naan made using less than the standard 200 grams of dough per naan,” he says.
Assad Zamir, the former Minister of Agriculture, concurred. “For Afghans, naan is not just part of the main course; for many it is the main course. It is not uncommon to see poorer families and even soldiers on the battlefield survive only on naan for their sustenance,” he told Heated.
Governments in Afghanistan have struggled to match production with demand, largely due to increasing insecurity in the country. The Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock has made efforts to modernize agriculture, build new water canals and introduce improved grain variety to facilitate higher production. However, despite this, the wheat production estimate in 2018 marked a 25 percent decline from the five-year average. “There has been some focus on increase wheat production since 2011, nothing or less had been done before that,” Zamir explained, pointing out that while productivity had increased it doesn’t meet the required targets for self-sufficiency. “The wheat production was around 1.2 tons per hectare in 2002–2003, and it has increase to 2.3 tons per hectare in 2016. Though the target was to reach to 2.8 by 2020,” he added, referring to report by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The UN agency attributed some of this decline to the widespread opium cultivation, estimated at 263,000 hectares as of 2018. And Mr Zamir agreed. “Some farmers with small size of land who were not making enough from wheat cultivation were convinced to shift to opium, both in north and souther regions,” he said. As a result, Afghanistan is projected to be the top importer of wheat flour in 2019–20 at 2.5 million tons, according to the International Grains Council.
Things weren’t always so grim; farmers and bakers alike held hope for a boost to their industries in the years after the U.S. invasion. In 2009, things seemed optimistic when UN agencies observed that Afghanistan had come close to wheat sufficiency by producing 92 percent of its wheat requirements. Unfortunately, it was also the year that insurgency and violence started to make a steady rise within the country, affecting thousands of civilians. Some academics who have observed this country for decades believe that simply clearing the older land mines across Afghanistan could boost agricultural production by 88 to 200 percent.
Local wheat and flour would be welcomed by those like Assadullah, who currently use flour imported from neighboring countries like Pakistan and Uzbekistan. “Not only will local wheat be more economical, the flour produced in Afghanistan is made in water mills, which is of better quality and healthier for consumption than flour made in electric mills,” Assadullah claims. “But it’s not only expensive to buy local flour but also hard to find in the markets,” he adds, urging the government to improve national wheat production.
Despite the challenges, Assadullah wouldn’t trade his profession for anything else. “I am well known and respected in this neighborhood as the naan baker. It is an honest business that feeds people,” he says. “Everyone eats the naan, whether rich or poor, whether during peace or war.”