What You Need to Know about This Group’s Work in Afghanistan

Relief InternationalSince Relief International (RI) began working in Afghanistan in 2001, the organization has placed a major emphasis on building strong partnerships with local communities and on earning respect and acceptance in order to ensure the safety and sustainability of its work. Over the years, the scope of RI’s activities has grown considerably, but even though the organization now works in a wide range of areas—from health and education to governance and civil society—the goal of mobilizing, empowering, and supporting individual communities remains at the heart of its mission. To learn more about how RI is helping Afghan communities with both short-term relief efforts and long-term development projects, read on for an overview of four RI programs from the organization’s past and present.

Improving animal health

Roughly 23 million Afghans live in rural areas, and at least three-quarters of these rely on their livestock to provide them with food and income. But after years of conflict, essentials like adequate animal feed and veterinary services are no longer readily available, thus putting not only the health of the animals at risk, but also the livelihoods of the families that depend upon them.

Together with the international rural development organization Mission d’Aide au Développement des Economies Rurales (MADERA) and supported by funding from the EU, Relief International is working in some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable and volatile rural districts to re-establish reliable veterinary care and to educate and train farmers and livestock owners in animal husbandry best practices. By helping communities to improve shelter conditions and nutrition for their livestock, boosting the quality and availability of animal health services, and strengthening ties between public and private animal health sectors, RI is aiming to expand livestock production and increase animal productivity, which in turn have the potential to significantly improve the livelihoods of rural farmers.

Preventing zoonotic diseases

AfghanistanAnimal health in Afghanistan does not only affect the livelihoods of many rural families in Afghanistan, it also impacts these families’ own health. Afghanistan has a small but robust population—about 2.4 million people—of nomadic families and communities who travel with their livestock; these unique living conditions make these individuals particularly susceptible to zoonoses, which are diseases that animals and humans can transmit to each other. Zoonotic diseases pose a significant health risk, which is exacerbated by a general lack of knowledge about animal health, as well as a dearth of government support services in this area.

Under the umbrella of its One Health Asia Program, Relief International works with Afghanistan’s ministries of health, livestock, education, and environment to develop community education and support programs for animal vaccination and zoonotic disease awareness. Educating susceptible populations enables them to better recognize early signs of infection and seek the necessary treatment, while supporting animal health care and vaccinations minimizes the threat of zoonotic disease at the source. According to officials in the Afghan government, RI is the only organization directly involved in fighting the spread of zoonotic disease.

Alleviating cold and hunger in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces

Residents of eastern Afghanistan are all too familiar with the effects of the region’s long, harsh winters: fewer jobs, higher prices for household essentials like wheat and fuel, and more precarious conditions for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Drawing on its strong relationships created over the years with some of Afghanistan’s most remote communities, Relief International helped support thousands of families in Kunar province through the winter of 2017 by connecting them with a cash program funded by the World Bank and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs & Disabled. With RI helping direct the assistance to cases of the greatest need—typically families with children under the age of 5—the program provided financial support to nearly 2,600 families in 76 of Kunar province’s communities. As a result, more families were able to stave off childhood malnutrition and could afford to send their children to school rather than requiring them to work in order to help out the family.

School construction

afghanistan educationOf the many barriers to education that children and youth in Afghanistan experience, a severe shortage of proper education infrastructure is one of the biggest. With so many schools destroyed by conflict, many remaining education buildings in Afghanistan had to operate in shifts in order to be able to accommodate more students. In other cases, students had to attend classes in dilapidated or dangerous buildings, in tents, or simply in the open air: environments that are hardly conducive to learning.

One of Relief International’s earliest projects in Afghanistan was the construction of three new schools in the Nijrab district of Kapisa province in the country’s northeast. Featuring 60 classrooms, the new facilities offer approximately 2,500 schoolchildren a safe and secure place to learn.

Can NEI Solve the Problem of Malnutrition in Afghanistan?

mantoo foodAccording to research from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), malnutrition is a major problem in Afghanistan. Approximately one-third of the country’s population isn’t getting enough calories on a daily basis, and about 20% of Afghans aren’t getting enough protein. The figures for malnutrition in children are even more troubling: more than 40% of Afghan children under five years old are stunted (or smaller than the average for their age), which is one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting. In addition, 10% of Afghan children are acutely malnourished, and thousands of children die every year because they don’t have access to adequate food and nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition naturally has serious consequences for physical development, but it can also lead to problems with cognitive development and educational achievement. Without the nutrients needed for healthy brain development and functioning, many malnourished children struggle with learning issues throughout their lives, even into adulthood. This is a particular challenge for a country like Afghanistan, which is working hard to increase literacy rates and education levels as part of its post-conflict rebuilding process.

With child health experts calling for greater nutritional investment in Afghanistan, a number of NGOs are stepping in to help tackle malnutrition and the underlying causes of Afghanistan’s food insecurity. Nutrition & Education International (NEI) is one such example: a non-profit organization that is working to promote soybean cultivation and nourishment in Afghanistan in association with local government agencies, universities, and the WFP. Read on to learn more about NEI’s work and its history in Afghanistan.

What is NEI?

NEI logoNEI is a non-profit organization on a mission to eradicate malnutrition in Afghanistan with a surprising weapon: soybeans.

Containing nine essential amino acids, soybeans are a rich source of protein and other nutrients, making them excellent fighters against malnutrition, which is essentially synonymous with protein deficiency. In addition, soybeans are a cost-effective crop to grow, and so are relatively easy to incorporate into Afghanistan’s agricultural practices.

NEI’s primary objective is to help Afghanistan establish a self-sustaining soybean industry by developing a full soybean value chain. The idea is that by introducing seed multiplication, soybean cultivation and processing, and soy market development, NEI can help poor families improve both their nutrition and their economic circumstances. According to NEI’s president, Steven Kwon, a functioning soy economy is one of the most practical remedies to address Afghanistan’s ongoing struggle with chronic malnutrition.

A history of NEI in Afghanistan

2003—Steven Kwon makes his first visit to Afghanistan. Soon after, he develops the soy nutrition initiative and establishes Nutrition & Education International as a non-profit NGO.

2004—Six varieties of non-GMO soybeans are successfully cultivated and tested in Afghanistan’s Balkh province.

2005—Following the successful testing of NEI’s soy program in 12 different Afghan provinces, the government of Afghanistan adopts the program as a national project.

2006—For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, 1,000 tons of soybeans are produced through the efforts of more than 2,000 Afghan farmers across nine provinces. In addition, two soy milk processing facilities are established, and NEI begins its humanitarian soy milk distribution program, which delivers nutrition-rich soy milk to 3,000 high-risk families.

2007—Soybean production expands; more than 3,000 farmers across 15 provinces are now cultivating soybeans.

2008—Three more soy milk processing facilities are established, as is a containerized soy flour factory.

2009—Soybean production expands beyond agricultural operations to include home and community gardens, thus helping individual families and small communities supplement their protein intake independently. NEI’s soy milk distribution program is now reaching 5,000 families, and a newly initiated winter soy nutrition campaign provides 100 tons of soybeans and soy flour to 2,500 high-risk families in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

2010—NEI purchases and distributes 100 metric tons of soybean seeds to farmers in 21 provinces; by this time, Afghan farmers are producing enough soybeans to sustain their own families. Afghanistan’s first-ever soy flour factory is built in Kabul with a capacity of 300 metric tons. NEI also increases its efforts to create a soy market in the country by launching its business arm, Soybean Nutrition Services Afghanistan (SNSA), and concentrates on providing seed resources, training farmers, and further developing the market for soy. A grant from the government of Japan enables NEI to pursue these aims.

2011—Three more soy flour factories are built, and NEI receives a second grant for its soybean production project from the Japanese government.

2012—NEI enters into a partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme to promote soybean cultivation in 100 districts across 20 provinces. More than 6,000 new farmers are trained in soybean cultivation, and 2,000 metric tons of soybeans are produced.

2013—NEI celebrates a decade of work in Afghanistan, and commits to a further 10 years of developing Afghanistan’s soybean industry in order to eradicate malnutrition.

2014—Two more soy processing facilities are established. NEI receives a grant for its work from the Republic of Korea.

2015—NEI’s founder meets formally with the President of Afghanistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan’s soybean industry.

2016—Construction on a sterilized soy milk factory is completed. 17,000 new soybean farmers are trained in 31 provinces, and soybean production reaches a record high of 6,000 metric tons.

What You Need to Prepare Afghan Food at Home

While Afghanistan’s rich and flavorful cuisine is gradually becoming better known outside the country’s borders, it may still be some time before everyone is fortunate enough to have a delicious Afghan restaurant right around the corner from their home. However, if you’re a gourmand who doesn’t want to wait, don’t worry: many of Afghanistan’s tastiest dishes can be made at home with just a few extra additions to your regular shopping list. Read on for an overview of everything you’ll need to try your hand at making Afghan food at home.

  1. Herbs, spices, and flavorings

mintThe complex flavors of Afghan cuisine come from the liberal use of herbs, spices, and flavorings. These seasonings are often used in dishes that need to be cooked for long periods of time, allowing the flavors to blend and deepen. Some of the most important seasonings to have in your pantry include:

  • Cardamom—A relative of the ginger family, cardamom is available in green, brown, or black pods. Cardamom adds a distinctive flavor to rice and curries. If you don’t have a way to grind spices yourself at home, you can also find ground cardamom in the spice section of your grocery store.
  • Turmeric—Another member of the ginger family, turmeric is characterized by its deep, rich yellow color. Turmeric brings an earthy, peppery flavor to curry-style dishes.
  • Mint—One of the most popular herbs in Afghan cooking, dried mint is often added during cooking or sprinkled over the top of finished dishes as a garnish.
  • Rosewater—Distilled from rose petals, rosewater is commonly used to flavor many Middle Eastern dishes, especially desserts.

Other important herbs and spices that you probably already have on hand include cumin, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and chilies.

  1. Pantry staples

  • Rice—The centerpiece of almost every Afghan meal is rice. Afghan cooks are very particular about the type of rice that should be used depending on the dish being prepared. Fragrant and delicately flavored basmati rice, which is probably the least processed variety you can find, is an absolute must-have for your pantry. If you have the space, you’ll also want an additional long-grain variety, as well as a short-grain type.
  • Legumes—Dried legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and split peas are a very popular and versatile ingredient in Afghan cooking. They are often used to “fill out” meat dishes, as they are less expensive than fresh meat. In addition, they can be served fried and salted, as well as coated with sugar as a sweet accompaniment for tea.
  • Ghee—One of the most commonly used cooking fats in Afghan cuisine is ghee, or clarified butter. You can buy commercial ghee or you can make it yourself by simply melting a pound of unsalted butter over low heat in a saucepan and skimming away the milk solids as they separate. To ensure the ghee is as clear as possible, strain it through a cheesecloth before storing in a clean jar.
  • Besan—Also known as “gram flour,” it is made from ground chana dal, a type of small chickpea. It is often used to make traditional Afghan bread.
  1. Fresh ingredients

  • onionOnions—Some form of onion can be found in just about every savory Afghan dish. Most dishes rely on a cooked onion mixture known as piaz e surkh kada, in which onions are finely minced and then cooked in plenty of oil until they are a deep golden brown color. Some Afghan cooks make up big batches of piaz e surkh kada in advance so it’s ready to use whenever the cook needs it. Many recipes also call for leeks, scallions, or a type of onion called “gandana” that looks similar to a leek and can be found in specialty markets.
  • Yogurt—Afghan cuisine makes extensive use of thick, natural-style yogurt as a thickener for curries and stews, as a base for sauces and dips, and even as a drink. Plain-flavored Greek-style yogurt is a handy option to keep in your fridge.
  • Cilantro—Fresh cilantro—or coriander, as it’s also known—is used extensively in Afghan cooking, not only in cooked dishes, but also as a garnish or as a kind of chutney. It’s often referred to as “Afghan parsley”.
  1. Equipment

  • Sutak—Since rice is such an essential part of Afghan cuisine, it’s important to ensure that it’s properly cooked. A sutak is a thick cotton cover that’s placed either over a pot of just-cooked rice or between the pot and the lid during cooking. This helps to absorb excess steam and prevents the rice from sticking together or becoming gluey. One thick folded tea towel will work well as a substitute.
  • Seekh—Kebabs, a beloved Afghan dish often made with chunks of lamb, are cooked over a charcoal grill using seekhs—long flat skewers made of stainless steel.