The drinks company has come to Kabul in what is being seen as both a sign of economic progress and a symbol of the failure of major businesses to open up in the five years since the US-led invasion to overthrow the government.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, opened the bottling plant in the capital’s industrial complex of Bagrami, which means sweet or fragrant, on Sunday.
Karzai’s Western-backed government is desperate to improve an economy independent of the $3 billion-a-year illegal drugs trade, but has been unable to lure investors, particularly since violence in the country has hit a high in recent months.
The plant, which Coca-Cola emphasises 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, later on, 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.
Rizwan Kjan, Coke’s Pakistan and Afghanistan manager, said: “Afghanistan is a country promising a lot of growth opportunity for our company.”
The ceremony began with a reading from the Quran by Qari Barakatullah Salim, Afghanistan‘s most famous Quran reciter.
“Nothing much has been done to develop the economy – there is no investment”
Hamidullah Tarzi, former Afghan cabinet minister
Karzai spoke briefly, and waved off an offer of a glass of Fanta.
Although Afghanistan is one of the world’s five poorest countries, Selcuk Erden, Coca-Cola’s southern Eurasia head, said Afghanistan 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 $200 a year. A small bottle of Coke costs about 20 cents in the shops.
Hamidullah Tarzi, academic, writer and former cabinet minister, said: “Nothing much has been done to develop the economy. There is no investment.
“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.