Growing pains in Afghanistan
Risking his life in one of the world's most dangerous countries, Stuart Pettigrew has used his horticultural expertise to help reshape an industry and the lives of thousands in Afghanistan.
Stuart spent 12 months based in the Afghan capital Kabul, away from his wife and two daughters, helping Afghan farmers - including women and even former members of the Taliban - produce crops more efficiently.
Stuart, who grew up in Adelaide, studied at the University's Roseworthy Campus and graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Natural Resource Management) in 1992. He began his career in the citrus industry, and after working for 10 years in Adelaide, Stuart and his Swedish-born wife decided the time was right to make the move to Europe.
"My parents ran a landscaping business, so I grew up around plants and outdoor work, and have always had a passion for growing things. It seemed natural that I would move into something to do with nature and the environment," he said.
"I think that life does not get any easier than being a white, educated male in Australia. I wanted to give something back after having a pretty easy run for so many years in my career."
Stuart was reading The Economist one day in Sweden and noticed an advertisement for a horticultural specialist in Afghanistan. Three months after applying, he was living in Kabul, while his wife and children stayed behind in Sweden.
"That was without a doubt the hardest part. Seeing my family only every eight to 10 weeks was pretty tough, but Afghanistan is a country in great need of help," he said.
Employed by German development organisation GTZ International Services, Stuart worked on a project funded by the World Bank, which was spread over 44 districts in 11 provinces through the central and northern parts of Afghanistan.
"My work involved increasing the ability of farmers to produce horticultural crops more profitably," Stuart said.
"It was very much an economic development project, but starting from a very low level.
"We established around 2200 hectares of almond, grape, apricot and pomegranate plantings, assisted around 6000 farmers, and also involved a workforce of around 230 local staff who we were training in improved practices and modern growing techniques.
"There were also several smaller components of the project that involved building better marketplaces to allow farmers to sell their goods at better prices."
Stuart said one of the most memorable outcomes was a program to assist female farmers - many of them widows - with orchards, training and inputs.
"We were told by lots of people it would fail, but despite some challenges, we planted several hundred orchards for women, and had 125 female farmer groups meeting regularly," he said.
"Women in Afghanistan have few opportunities to socialise outside the family, but meeting to discuss horticultural and farming practices gives women in remote villages the opportunity to interact in ways they could not previously manage."
Another highlight was convincing a local Taliban commander - who was also the father of a young boy - to grow grapevines in a nursery.
"Setting this example for his son holds a lot of significance for our project. If he and his generation can grow up without violence and war, and get an education and basic services of health, food and security, then that is the key to a successful future for Afghanistan," he said.
And, of course, with such a hazardous project there were also huge drawbacks. The poverty and pollution, as well as dealing with political corruption, were some of the challenges Stuart faced, not to mention risking his life on an almost daily basis.
"It is amazing how quickly you get used to seeing guns everywhere. However, the worst experience I recall was having our window shot out by a US convoy - a warning shot apparently, but still incredibly scary," he said.
Agriculture in Afghanistan is a booming industry, contributing to approximately half of the country's revenue and employing around two-thirds of the workforce.
"A thriving agricultural sector is essential to reducing poverty and hunger, increasing food security and driving economic growth.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that the long-term peace and even survival of Afghanistan relies heavily on a successful agricultural economy."
Stuart is now settling back into family life with his wife and two daughters in the Republic of Kosovo, where he is employed by Swiss agency Intercooperation to help improve the overall professionalism of the horticultural sector and its markets.
While Kosovo is much more `family-friendly', Stuart said he misses working in Afghanistan, a place that has seen 30 years of "almost uninterrupted war and devastation".
"The results were real, and the people appreciated the help immensely," Stuart said.
"And the fact is that 95% or more of the population welcomed the international presence there. Almost everybody I met there wanted peace and security, and was working hard to achieve it.
"The international community has to stay the course, as the local population and the future generations need and deserve that." ■
STORY CONNIE DUTTON