KABUL — In the crowded old city of the Afghan capital, dozens of shops are lined with piles of colourful dried herbs, sitting out in the open. Their fragrance wafts into the street. Hindu shopkeepers wear red, blue and black turbans, and have long, bushy beards. They tell they've been making and selling herbal medicine here for generations.
Darmander Singh is a Hindu sage – a wise mystic. People here call him La La Dil Soz, which means ‘Kind big brother" in Persian. He sees more than 30 patients a week, asking them detailed questions about their body, before setting them on their way with herbal creations. Singh is one of a hundred Hindu sages in Kabul who specialise in herbal treatments.
"This treatment is centuries old, and it is relevant even now. Herbal medicine gets positive results almost 100% of the time, with no side effects," he insists. "That is why people still come to us and encourage their relatives to come too."
Herbal medicine is known as ‘Greek treatment" in Afghanistan. That's because it was brought to Afghanistan from Greece. It's widely believed that these herbal remedies came with the invasion of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, in 330BC.
Now, most herbal medicine practitioners are Hindus, whose ancestors arrived in Afghanistan from India around three hundred years ago.
In one of the shops here, Saifulla Alokozy is making herbal tonics. "As you see now I am making medicine for sexual virility, it's made from five different herbs," he explains.
Plants like saffron, cumin, coriander, licorice root, olive, and garlic are separated out. Each herb is pummeled in a separate metal bottle. Then they're mixed in special combinations, sometimes with a drop of water, oil or honey.
"Most of these herbs are collected from provinces around Afghanistan, by villagers who understand herbs," Alokozy says. "Then they bring it to us to sell. We know which herb works for which disease. Then I make medicine from it."
Ismial Omer. 40, is buying a tonic for his rheumatism. He tells me the treatment is cheap and effective.
"Once I had pain in my backbone. When I got herbal treatment I got better. That's why I come here for my rheumatism treatment too," he tells me. "Our ancestors used this treatment before there was modern medicine. I think it's the best method."
Those living in rural Afghanistan strongly rely on herbal treatments. It is cheaper and more readily available in areas that have few health clinics, and poor transportation.
But not everyone is convinced that it's a good option, and 24-year-old Hasib Muhammadi tells me he's experienced painful side effects after using herbal treatments.
Medical expert Dr. Abdul Jabbar Mominyar of Nangerhar University says that many sages are illiterate, relying on informal, verbal wisdom passed down from one person to the next.
He argues herbal treatment should be regulated for the safety of patients. "If we want to use herbal treatment, it needs to be standardized, in coordination with the ministry of health, and taught through university and books. Otherwise herbal treatments could be harmful."
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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