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Making every drop count, Coke opens in Afghanistan

Written by: Staff
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KABUL, Sep 10 (Reuters) The blind cleric's haunting Arabic prayer chant echoed among the sterile plastic rows of Coke and Fanta, seeking Allah's blessing for the only major business to open in Afghanistan in more than a decade.

Coca-Cola, with its distinctive red-and-white logo, has come to Kabul in what is at once a sign of economic progress and a symbol of the failure of major businesses to open up in the five years since the fall of the hardline Islamist Taliban.

President Hamid Karzai opened the 25 million dollar bottling plant in the capital's industrial complex of Bagrami, meaning sweet or fragrant, today.

Karzai's Western-backed government is desperate to kickstart an economy independent of the 3 billion-a-year dollar illegal drugs trade, but has been unable to lure investors to one of the world's five poorest countries, where violence has hit a high since the 2001 war.

The plant, which Coca-Cola goes out of its way to emphasise will produce only non-alcoholic beverages, is franchised to one of the country's richest men, Habib Gulzar, and will initially produce Coke, Fanta and Sprite and soon make bottled water, the company said in a statement.

During the Taliban's five-year rule, only a pirated version of Coca-Cola was available in the country.

''Afghanistan is a country promising a lot of growth opportunity for our company,'' Coke's Pakistan and Afghanistan manager, Rizwan Khan, said at the opening.

The ceremony began with the chanting of Qari Barakatullah Salim, Afghanistan's most famous Koran reciter, who despite being blind has memorised the entire Islamic holy book.

Karzai spoke only briefly, and waved off an offer of a glass of Fanta.

Although Afghanistan is one of the world's five poorest countries, Coca-Cola's Southern Eurasia head, Selcuk Erden, said the country of about 25 million was ''the missing link'' in the company's global business strategy.

But the country has no economy and apart from thousands of well-paid United Nations personnel, foreign troops and aid workers, few people have money to spend.

The average income is about 0 a year. A small bottle of Coke costs about 20 cents in the shops.

''Nothing much has been done to develop the economy. There is no investment,'' academic, writer and former cabinet minister Hamidullah Tarzi told Reuters recently.

''We are living in a sort of artificial economy. This is completely false because there is no production and there is nothing you can call investment.'' Any business looking at Afghanistan must invest heavily in security. By some estimates, 10 times as much money is spent on security as development.

REUTERS SY BD1656

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