Scents & Sensibility

How the author helped Afghans build a thriving soap and body-oil business—and overcame the incompetence of America’s aid establishment

But none of these developments was the least foreseeable when, in late April 2005, nursing an acute case of anxiety, I boarded an Air France flight to Dubai, final destination Kabul. I had been away for seven months. I was going to ask three former employees of mine to quit the well-paying jobs I had found for them on a U.S. military base; counting their families, the livelihoods of about 15 people would now be in my charge. And with zero experience, I was going to try to create a product for which conventional wisdom said the market was saturated. To launch this venture, I had $25,000 from a private foundation in Chicago, and a single collaborator back in the United States—a 16-year-old high-school student from outside Boston named Mari Oye. My mother and most of my friends thought I was out of my mind.

Reentry was eased by the recent appointment of my dearest Afghan friend as chief of the Kabul police. One day he called to ask if I needed a car. A jolt of gratitude shot through me. Did I ever! His chief of staff ushered me to a brown Toyota Corolla, in which I proceeded to tootle around the Afghan capital, trying to drum up support for my would-be soap factory.

From another friend, Andres Judeh, I got joyous encouragement. A plump Palestinian from Bolivia, bearded after the local fashion, he is the sort of development worker Afghanistan could use a thousand of: energetic and inventive, with the courage to travel the hinterland, as well as the understanding that it is up to him to unearth possibilities, rather than wait for them to come knocking. He was working for a contractor implementing a major project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

“You want to process fruit into value-added products?” he summarized. “Greeaaaat ideeea!” Having put himself through college making jam, Andres had faith in my plans to cook up preserves for the local market, using the flesh of the apricots, whose kernels we would press for oil, and the ruby-red part of the pomegranate seed, from which we needed only the hard white center. But he had some doubts about soap. Unfortunately for my dreams of swift institutional backing, he couldn’t go near a project based in Kandahar. His area of operation was in the west.

Andres suggested I turn instead to the Alternative Livelihoods Program (ALP). Funded by USAID, the project is, according to the agency’s Web site, a “major component of the U.S. and Government of Afghanistan’s comprehensive Counter-Narcotics Strategy.” The idea behind ALP is to compete with the ubiquitous opium poppy by promoting other ways for rural folk to make a living. The match seemed perfect. Our cooperative’s main objective was to find new, profitable uses for more of southern Afghanistan’s traditional agricultural and botanical products. The more reliably farmers could earn money from legal crops—especially ones with a higher market value than wheat or watermelons—the less likely they were to have recourse to risky and religiously taboo opium. Full of hope, I approached ALP.

As I was to learn over the next two bewildering years, the Alternative Livelihoods Program exemplifies the disturbing evolution of the international development industry. With neither the staff nor the mobility to carry out or even fully monitor the projects it supports, USAID acts strictly as a moneybag. Though it does fund nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations dedicated to humanitarian action, many American development dollars go to huge for-profit companies that have adapted over recent decades to capture the manna. Chemonics, which landed the contract for ALP in the southern region of Afghanistan—known, inevitably, by the clumsy ALP/S— is one of these.

Chemonics’ initial contract provided for $119 million, for use in three Afghan provinces over a four-year period. Roughly one year after the contract became official in early 2005, Chemonics had spent only a tiny percentage of its authorization, and a large part of that on its own start-up costs. Earlier this year, at its well-equipped building in Kandahar, guarded around the clock by a private security detail, I counted 10 brand-new SUVs. And yet, until this year, ALP/S was hardly visible in Kandahar, and only rarely had an international presence here. According to a former worker on the project, international employees can earn up to about $180,000 a year—plus 35 percent hazard pay, 35 percent “post differential,” and 20 percent for working Saturdays. But USAID, the former worker said, pays the company some $500,000 to $600,000 for each of them. Little surprise that Afghans wonder where the development dollars are going.

My initial contacts with ALP/S in May 2005 were warm, if a trifle confusing. The members of the agribusiness team were enthusiastic but unsure of how they could help. They kept inviting me to lunch at the German restaurant around the corner from their office, as though such charity could replace substantive help. What I needed was money—something they had plenty of. A year’s start-up funding would have been perfect, $50,000 or $70,000, until sales kicked in. The ALP/S workers said they couldn’t give grants and told me to write up a business plan.

Estimate is the word, a euphemism for “shot in the dark.” I was, like many business-plan authors, making it up. But by the end of June, I had submitted my 15-page document, and it included soap formulas, a list of raw materials and products, a description of likely markets and marketing strategies, and a schedule of production activities, both daily and seasonal. Its projections have proved quite accurate, at least in terms of raw-materials costs and margins. Even the monthly operating costs have checked out.

However, at my next meeting with the ALP/S team in Kabul, applause did not break out. “It needs more numbers,” commented one team member. I asked what kind of numbers; he could not specify. A Chemonics bigwig, in Afghanistan on a different project, volunteered to build me a spreadsheet. “It would be good if you could show yourself breaking even within six months,” he advised. A few days later, he e-mailed me an opus. Fourteen screens long on my laptop, in a rainbow of colors, it began with “Production Coefficients,” then scrolled through equipment procurement, loan-repayment summaries, sales figures, labor costs, packaging and shipping costs, and cash-flow statements. It took me two weeks, full-time, just to fill in the cells with real numbers. And I have a master’s degree from a U.S. university. I began to wonder how Afghan entrepreneurs would ever be able to negotiate such requirements.

Sometimes my numbers puzzled Chemonics personnel. Why had I altered the working hours per person for October? Answer: October that year was when Ramadan fell. No one is going to make an Afghan work more than four hours a day during Ramadan. Similar questions arose when purchases of pomegranates were entered only for October and November. Pomegranates are fruit, I explained. They have a growing season. It’s not like supermarkets in the West, stocked all year long.

The expectation that a start-up business, located in one of the most volatile and dangerous cities on Earth, should break even within six months seemed excessive. In any case, the ALP/S agribusiness team greeted the spreadsheet with a snort. “We don’t need anything like that. He just loves to cook up these spreadsheets,” they remarked of their colleague. I was stunned, but not ungrateful for the thought process this task had imposed. And I started over on a different type of business plan.

Meanwhile, our cooperative had gotten under way. It took an entire day to extract our seed-oil press from customs in Kabul—and would have taken longer but for the intervention of the brother of one of our members, who worked in the finance ministry. Braced in its wooden box in the backseat of our borrowed brown car, it looked like nothing so much as a crate of ammunition. Miraculously, no one stopped us on the six-hour drive along the newly paved road out of the Afghan capital.

We reached Kandahar. We uncrated the weighty machine. Tried to set it up—no diagram came with the instructions, and damned if I knew the difference between a press cylinder and a press head. With a couple of rocks, we cracked some almonds we had bought in the bazaar and put the nuts in the funnel at the top of the machine. Then, while two of us sat on the corners of the baseplate to hold it down, Ali Ahmad, stripped to undershirt and ballooning Afghan trousers, ceremoniously began cranking the handle. Out came … almond flour. No liquid of any sort. I called a world away to Germany on my cell phone, to E. Peter Matthies, the gentleman who had sold us the thing in the first place. Across the infuriatingly broken connection, he walked us back through the assembly process. “Oh … that nozzle thing goes inside the part that screws onto the end of the cylinder?”

We tried again. Golden liquid began oozing out the pin-sized holes in what I now knew to be the press cylinder.

It took us two days of hard labor to persuade the machine to squeeze oil from the tiny wheat-shaped stones that are pomegranate seeds, but once we did, we could stun farmers, whose bloodlines had run in pomegranates for centuries, with the sight of it. “Praise God,” they would marvel, rubbing the liquid between gnarled fingers.

Speaking with women, I learned that distilling rose water was a traditional craft; some of the older women still knew how to do it. I knew that black cumin was cultivated in the highlands. “What other tasty seeds grow here?” I asked the mother of a friend. “Lots!” she answered. “There’s khwajawalani ” I stared at her. How was I supposed to put my tongue around that? Her daughter-in-law answered the easier question: “Anise,” she translated. And so we began producing deep-green anise oil.

Soon the guys started getting into it. They would bring dried roses or handfuls of sticks back from the bazaar. A dye: madder root, normally used for coloring carpet wool its characteristic red, or sweet-scented licorice. One day another of our members, Abd al-Ahad, came clutching a bag full of peacock-blue, pea-sized beans. “Shneh,” he said, handing me the bag. “Shneh has a lot of oil.” I cracked one between my teeth—and was transported into a grove of evergreens. I called the local agriculture specialist for the Portland, Oregon–based charity Mercy Corps. “Atiqullah?” I asked him. “What’s shneh?”

“Let me call you back.”

Half an hour later, after he had ferreted through his books and papers, my cell phone rang: “Maybe it’s Pistacia khinjuk.”

“Sorry?”

Pee, ahyee, eys … ” Atiqullah spelled out, shouting the letters to aid my comprehension. I scribbled, then typed my best guess into a search engine on my laptop, connected by satellite to the Internet. Atiqullah was absolutely right: What I had eaten was a variety of wild pistachio nut, henceforth the source of one of our oils.

It was magic to be creating something beautiful and entirely new out of these simple and ancient ingredients, so long neglected.

Presented by

Sarah Chayes is the founder of the Arghand Cooperative and author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban

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