05.18.12

In Afghanistan, a Boom in Red Bull

Afghanistan has long been a lightly caffeinated, tea-drinking country. But over the past few years, many have developed a thirst for energy drinks—even some among the Taliban.

On a sweltering afternoon in Kandahar last week, a small convoy of armored vehicles stopped along the main highway that cuts through this southern city. The convoy belonged to the Afghan army, and after the vehicles had stopped in front of a small shop, four soldiers popped out—all sporting dark sunglasses. One soldier guided traffic, while the other three walked into the store. Minutes later, they emerged, not with bottles of water, but with dozens of cans of Red Bull—the original and less expensive Thai version, which is sold in yellow cans for 90 cents apiece.

A day later, in a grand ballroom across town, government officials held a ceremony to honor their security forces. Cans of Red Bull were gleaming on the tables, far outnumbering the occasional bottles of water. These were the expensive Austrian variant: the sleek silver-and-blue cans that cost roughly $1.50 each. Soon dozens of soldiers had cracked open the cans and guzzled them down, as the sounds of patriotic songs like “O Soldier, My Beloved” filtered through large black speakers. The water bottles remained practically untouched.

For hundreds of years, Afghanistan has largely been a lightly caffeinated, tea-drinking country. Few here drink coffee, and yet over the past few years, many have developed a thirst for energy drinks. Today, Afghans consume these sugar-saturated beverages everywhere and at all hours of the day: during the morning ride to work; in wedding halls; and in private dinners, along with servings of Qabuli Palow, a rice dish topped with carrots, raisins, and pistachios.

It isn’t just Red Bull. In visits to two small Kandahar grocery stores, I found an assortment of brands, unknown to many in the West: Tiger Force, Big Bear, Number 1, Chilly Willy, Jaguar, Carabao, and XXL Energy. A poster for Tiger Force read, in the local Pashto language: “It gives you power, stamina, and calm.” Surely, all you need.

This past winter, Big Bear was one of the major sponsors of Afghanistan’s most popular reality television show, The Afghan Star, the country’s version of American Idol. Big Bear commercials ran throughout the program, which also took advantage of product placement: the judges, host, and participants all frequently displayed the drink’s blue-colored cans.

Moby Group, which owns Tolo TV, the station on which the program airs, would not disclose details of the sponsorship deal. But the energy drink provided the winner of the show with a brand new Toyota Corolla worth roughly $20,000.

“In Afghanistan, there seems to be a lot of competition amongst these brands for the attention of the young generation,” says Zaid Mohseni, chief operating officer of Moby Group.

Energy drinks are big business the Middle East and Central Asia. The United Arab Emirates, for example, reportedly consumed about 4 million gallons of energy drinks in 2009, and that number is expected to rise to roughly 10 million gallons in 2014. In Afghanistan, where drinks such as Red Bull and Carabao have existed for only a few years, it is unclear just how big the market has become. What’s clear, however, is that it’s growing rapidly, and that a large number of new brands are now vying for customers.

Yet not everyone is pleased by the country’s thirst for energy drinks. President Hamid Karzai is well-known for his traditional tastes. On one occasion, when he inaugurated a government building in a remote northern province, he called on the governor, in a teasing manner, to treat him for lunch with an authentic northern-style lamb soup. Yet when the president arrived at the governor’s house, one of Karzai’s aides says, he was infuriated that Red Bull was the drink of choice.

“I have asked a doctor about Red Bull,” the Taliban commander said after he had finished the can. “He told me it was halal.”

It is unclear exactly how the Taliban feel about the energy-drink boom. The drinks are not readily available in areas where the insurgency is strong. In 2009, in a widely reported stunt, a group of soldiers from New Zealand posed next to a bomb with a sticker for Demon energy drink on it. The soldiers had also adorned the bomb with a message: “Dear Taliban, enjoy this!”

And yet some among the Taliban seem to enjoy these energy drinks as much as their enemies. Several years ago, at a local shop in a village in Helmand Province's Nawa District, a Taliban commander purchased three bottles of Pepsi for his gunman. For a reporter embedded with the group, however, and for himself, the commander bought two cans of Red Bull.

“I have asked a doctor about Red Bull,” the Taliban commander said after he had finished the can. “He told me it was halal.”

Most energy drink customers appear to be young men, and the commercials that air on several local television channels strive to appeal to this demographic. In one commercial, several thugs are stalking a pretty girl when suddenly a young man appears. After chugging a can of Carabao, he chases the thugs away and wins her heart.

Elsewhere, in Kabul, large billboards of Black Toro, a German energy drink, more explicitly define the target audience. At the bottom of the image of the prominently displayed red-and-black can it says in large yellow letters: “For Men Only.”

Red Bull—especially the Austrian version—along with Carabao appear to be the most widely recognizable brands. The Austrian variant of Red Bull is the priciest energy drink in the county and is largely consumed by young people with steady incomes who work for the Afghan government or sectors of the economy linked to the American military or various NGOs. Carabao, which costs about half as much—and tastes far sweeter—is the energy drink of choice for the average Afghan.

Despite the boom, signs of over-competition are already emerging. Six months ago, the New Kakar Company, based in Kandahar, imported one container—about 72,000 cans—of Jaguar energy drink from Germany.

“The quality of the drinks in the market, imported from Thailand and China, were not so good, so we decided to step in,” said Asef Jan Yousufi, head of New Kakar Company.

In lofty terms, Yousufi said his product was second only to Red Bull, the Austrian version, in quality.

But when asked about future shipments he used more cautious language.

“There are way too many energy drinks here now,” he said. “We want to wait and see who wins the market.”

With Sami Yousafzai

Sami Yousafzai is Newsweek's correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he has covered militancy, al Qaeda, and the Taliban for the magazine since 9/11. He was born in Afghanistan but moved to Pakistan with his family after the Russian invasion in 1979. He began his career as a sports journalist but switched to war reporting in 1997.