Ex-drug addict persuades Afghan farmers to swap opium production for fruit used in UK snack bars

Monday, 19 June 2017 03:01 Written by  The Sunday Times Read 226 times

Armed with passion rather than guns or rocket launchers, a former drug addict from Swindon has single-handedly persuaded more than 22,000 Afghan farmers to stop growing opium poppies and cultivate mulberries instead.

 

The resulting Plant for Peace fruit bars go on sale in Sainsbury’s tomorrow followed by Waitrose next month, with the pledge of a mulberry tree planted for every product sold.

James Brett, 47, is hoping they will not only become the new superfood, but provide alternative income for thousands of poor Afghans who see no choice but to grow poppies or join the Taliban.

“My whole persona is about recovery and I am trying to make Afghanistan recover,” he said.

Peace through mulberries might sound like a crazy scheme in a country that produces about 90% of the world’s heroin and where the Taliban control more than half the land and Isis has just captured Tora Bora, the former mountain hideout of Osama bin Laden. 

But Brett has raised £2m in funding and attracted powerful backers, including Lord Richards, the former defence chief, and Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan. Prince Charles has hosted a dinner for him. “Like all soldiers, I saw from the outset that our mission in Afghanistan is dependent on long term non-military initiatives that chime with the culture and instincts of the people,” said Richards, a former commander of Nato forces in the country. “So when this amazing character James Brett came along with his wacky plan, I could not resist.”

That plan of using horticulture to lure Afghans away from the Taliban and the poppy came about when Brett went there for the first time in 2007.

After recovering from addiction, he became an entrepreneur and created Pomegreat, which launched pomegranate juice on British supermarket shelves.

Then an aid agency invited him to give a talk on growing pomegranates. Crossing into Afghanistan from Pakistan, he was astonished to see field after field of white, pink and red poppy flowers.

“When I saw the opium poppies it was profound,” he said. “I saw the farmers on the ground the way they were living, not earning much, and thought these people are stuck and don’t have a way out, just as me and my friends who were addicts didn’t have. And they had no idea what they were producing was doing in the rest of the world.”

Few know the dangers more intimately than Brett. Of his four closest friends, one lost his life in an overdose, one through a drug-induced car crash, one had his leg amputated from injecting so much into his groin and a fourth is in jail.

His own descent into addiction started with being sexually abused by his grandfather from the age of nine. His mother was such a pillar of the community, fostering 19 vulnerable children, that in 1985 she was named “supermum of Wiltshire”. Shortly after that, Brett told his parents what his grandfather had done. His mother was devastated.

“All the light went from her eyes,” he said. ”She felt while looking after all these other children she hadn’t looked after her own properly.” A few months later she jumped off the top of a multistorey car park.

“I felt to blame,” said Brett, who was 17. Soon he was smoking 30-40 joints of cannabis a day funded by shoplifting. “I was so dysfunctional I was quite frightening,” he added.

Eventually he met a woman with whom he had two children and received compensation for his sexual abuse, which he used to buy a house and start importing furniture from Indonesia.

One of his customers was a carpet dealer who invited him on a trip to Peshawar in 1999. While there he drank pomegranate juice for first time. He liked it so much he vowed to make a drink of it and with a partner created Pomegreat.

The drink hit supermarket shelves in 2004 and quickly took off but Brett ended up losing control of the company and had a mental breakdown.

Then he met a woman from the Mercy Corps aid agency who invited him to Afghanistan. After seeing the poppy farmers, he did some calculations. “The people making the money on opium are not the farmers,” he said. “I realized that while poppy yields a hundred times more per kilogram than pomegranate or mulberry, if you calculated the yield per hectare then the fruit was more.”

The people in Afghanistan don’t want war, they just need choices

After he erected a placard in a field saying “Pomegranate is the answer”, he attracted the attention of local television. He ended up holding six gatherings with interested farmers across Afghanistan, the last of which attracted 14,000 people.

After Brett burnt 13 tons of heroin, the US embassy gave him $500,000 (£390,000 at today’s rates) to hold more gatherings and supplied 1.9m cuttings.

But the cuttings were of poor quality and only 450,000 took hold. He started a range of pomegranate bars that went on sale in the UK two years ago. However, it was a huge task transporting the produce from Afghanistan, making the bars too expensive.

That is when he had the idea of mulberries, which like pomegranates are high in antioxidants but are more cost- effective.

Seven flavors go on sale tomorrow and so far reaction has been positive. “James’s campaign and story is an inspiring one which we are proud to support,” said Ian Mackie, head of food for the healthfood chain Holland & Barrett, which stocked Brett’s pomegranate bars.

The project would seem to put Brett in confrontation with the Taliban who raise revenue through taxes on poppies. Yet he insists he has never had any problem. “People in Afghanistan don’t want war, they just need choices,” he said. “Even the Taliban are growing mulberries.”