Not so long ago, Afghan farmers collected the thick winter undercoat their goats shed every spring and threw it on the fire to heat their homes and cook their food. Some have since learned that the super-soft fluff that comes off in clumps as the weather warms up, once cleaned, refined and spun into yarn is cashmere – a luxury product that finds customers as far away as the United States, Britain and Europe.
It’s changed life for goat herders like Mohammad Amin. He has 120 goats grazing the open spaces around an industrial park on the outskirts of the western city of Herat. At this time of year, most of the female goats have kids and shed the cashmere, which Amin pulls off in huge handfuls. With an extended family of 13, he has a guaranteed income from the best of the cashmere he harvests as traders, processors, donors and international businesses are cottoning on to Afghanistan’s potential as a major producer. “Buyers come to us and buy the good quality cashmere, the rest we take to the market and sell,” Amin said.
Each animal yields up to 250 grams (8.8 ounces) of cashmere, Amin said. Each season he can earn more than 61,250 afghanis ($1,100) – not bad in a country where the annual national average is less than $700. Only about 30-40 percent of Afghanistan’s 7 million goats are combed for cashmere, according to estimates by the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development, even though up to 95 percent of the animals could become part of the production chain. Most of the raw product is bought by traders who sell it to Chinese middlemen to feed the mills that produce affordable clothing for much of the world. Afghanistan is the world’s third biggest producer of cashmere, its 1,000 metric tons (1,100 U.S. tons) a year, worth $30 million.