Plane carries Afghan pine nuts to China, launching air cargo link

KABUL (Reuters) - An aircraft on Tuesday flew 20 tons of pine nuts from Afghanistan to China, officials said, inaugurating their first air cargo link as the landlocked South Asian nation turns to overseas markets to offset its trade deficit.

FILE PHOTO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo

Worth about $500,000, the cargo sent to the commercial hub of Shanghai went by the first of what both countries’ officials hope will be many flights, allowing Afghan companies to expand international trade.

By improving links with markets abroad, the service aims to boost prospects for the growth of the farming and carpet-making industries while Afghanistan battles a deadly Taliban insurgency.

As many as 50 Afghan companies have partnered with Chinese firms to export pine nuts for the next three months, said Naseem Malekzai, chairman of the Afghanistan-China Business Council in Kabul, the capital.

“It’s our first air cargo consignment to Shanghai, but soon we will be sending Afghan products to Beijing and Quanzhou,” he added.

Afghanistan’s economy is heavily reliant on imports. Imports from China in 2017 stood at $1.09 billion, a commerce ministry official said.

“Our aim is to change Afghanistan to an exporter country. Pine nuts will be exported to China and to other markets,” President Ashraf Ghani said at the launch of the inaugural flight.

The government has given subsidies of $2 million to exporters since Afghanistan launched air corridors to various countries, said a senior adviser to Ghani, who sought anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.

“Afghan businessmen have achieved more than $10 million in profit by exporting their products through air corridors since 2017,” he said. “China is a great market for our niche products.”

India is by far the biggest destination, taking 87 per cent of exports shipped by air to bypass its arch-rival Pakistan, which limits overland shipment between its neighbors and often engages in border disputes with them.

Since 2017, 153 flights have carried 3,344 metric tonnes of Afghan fresh fruit, dry fruit, medicinal herbs, asafoetida and saffron to three Indian cities.

Reporting by Rupam Jain and Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez