Story and Photos by Master Gunnery Sgt. Phil Mehringer
MARJEH, Afghanistan — Construction of a new produce packing plant, the Marjeh Fruit and Vegetable Packing Facility, complete with a solar-powered cold storage facility, was recently finished, inspected and is now ready for business.
The Marjeh plant could change the supply-and-demand economic model for area farmers.
Marjeh lies just east of the Helmand River which provides the necessary water, through an intricate network of canals, to grow a variety of crops year-round. But local farmers struggle to deliver their produce to distant markets.
Maj. Erich Bergiel, project supervisor and member of the Regional Command Southwest Economic Development section, related the problem of getting produce to market in an Afghan parable: “Put fresh pomegranate in the back of your truck and on the way to market it turns into pomegranate jelly.”
The scorching heat in Helmand province is prolific, often reaching above 130 degrees Fahrenheit during the main harvest season. As a result, fresh fruits and vegetables have a very short life span, resulting in limited shelf-life and transportability.
“The new building has the potential to change the current paradigm in the produce market,” Bergiel said. The major and his team recently conducted a final inspection on the facility which has been under construction since May, 2010.
The plant will provide local farmers a controlled environment in which to clean, store and distribute their produce, helping farmers to better market their home-grown fruits and vegetables, and perhaps build a profit-generating business.
Under the old system, farmers harvested their produce and took it to the local bazaar to sell immediately. The problem with this system was bulk quantities of fresh produce would arrive at the bazaars in the morning and lose their freshness and value as the day progressed.
Smart customers waited, purchasing produce at the end of the day and bargaining a much lower price, leaving farmers with little profit.
The new system, utilizing the cleaning, sorting, cold-storage, then distribution process, eliminates an over-supply of produce arriving at the bazaar, while expanding the farmer’s selling base, enabling them to generate a profit by selling fresher goods to a larger market.
At the heart of the new facility is a solar-powered cooling system, generating approximately 12,000 watts of electricity that provides a cooling capacity of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The system is capable of running on both alternating and direct currents.
Bergiel, a Reserve Marine from Carrolton, Ga., who teaches management at the University of West Georgia, said the Marjeh packing plant is the first of its kind in Helmand province.
“We hope to use this facility as a pilot (program) to determine appropriateness and feasibility of the construction of similar facilities throughout Afghanistan.”
This concept and technology are new for Afghan farmers. Bergiel says the local economic supply-and-demand chain will be significantly impacted in a positive direction for farmers using this facility.
Farmers will unload their produce at one end of the brightly colored, 1,800-square-foot facility where it is washed, disinfected and separated by quality, grade and size.
After grading and sizing, produce is moved into the cold-storage area on the other side of the building to be cooled. After cooling, fruits and vegetables will be loaded into trucks bound for distant distribution points.
Bergiel said the plant is a part of a more intricate “hub-and-spoke” model of distribution system connecting outlying production to a central location where larger quantities of produce are collected and distributed.
Five facilities will be built in Helmand province, acting as the “spokes” of the distribution wheel, while the central or hub facility will be located in Gereshk.
Now that construction and inspection of the Marjeh plant is completed, Afghans have responsibility for the new facility. There will be a learning curve Bergiel cautioned.
“But the local farmers are adaptive and extremely capable of taking the reins of this facility and making it successful,” he said.
“It would be nice to one day be back in the states and pick up a container of fruit labeled ‘(Grown and) packaged in Afghanistan.’”