More Profitable Than Poppies?

A former homeless drug abuser from Swindon is the unlikely champion of an initiative that aims to fight Afghanistan’s vast narcotics economy – with fruit juice. James Brett, 39, who once spent a year living rough before becoming a fruit juice magnate, is behind a scheme that aims to replace opium fields with pomegranate orchards.Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world’s opium, which generates almost all the heroin consumed by British drug addicts. The country also grows some of the world’s finest pomegranates, though many orchards have been destroyed during more than 30 years of war.

Mr Brett’s scheme will begin in March with 100,000 pomegranate saplings in the eastern province of Nangahar. He hopes eventually to plant 175,000 hectares (432,250 acres) of orchards across the country.

The idea came to him two years ago as he drove past poppy fields when he was in Kabul for a conference in his role as the founder of Pomegreat. On impulse he stopped his car and went up to a farmer. He said: “I talked to him about the effects of heroin and also the possibility of pomegranate. He explained about how he lived and why he grew opium. I explained how it was possible to change this situation. He agreed with what was said.”

The Afghan Government has offered support to the scheme, dubbed POM354. The scheme aims to raise annual sponsorship of £8 per tree, which would provide farmers with a salary through the five years it takes the saplings to start producing fruit. After that, claims Mr Brett, pomegranate can generate more income than the equivalent opium crop.

With about 150 trees per acre and a maximum annual yield of $50 per tree, each acre of pomegranate orchard would be worth $7,500 per year, he said. Opium yields about $2,000-3,000 per acre.