Photos by the author
|FRUITS OF SUCCESS: a pomegranate merchant in Kandahar|
ou could take the man for a Talib, in his flowing Afghan garb, six or seven yards of black silk looped around his head, beard untrimmed, eyes now politely cast down as we spoke, now focused on his glass of tea, now off to his left somewhere—anywhere but looking at me, a barefaced woman who speaks to men directly in their language. The man was no Talib; he was my friend Kabir’s uncle, who cultivates black cumin on a highland plateau that lies across two ridges of bony rock north of Kandahar. What wafted in with him was not the distinctive astringent smell of cumin but the heady perfume of the flower we had asked him to gather, so we could distill its essential oil. It’s called Salvia spinosa, and it smells like ripe bananas doused in lime. How the unforgiving dust of southern Afghanistan produces such miracles remains one of the mysteries of the place for me.
Slideshow: "Everyday Afghanistan"
A photo tour of the country's children, elders, artisans, and landscapes.
I was trying to push 600 afghanis, or about $12, on Kabir’s uncle for the 30 pounds or so of flowers he had brought. It would have cost him half a day to comb the wheat fields, plus an hour and a half’s ride in a jolting open-backed truck to Kandahar. He delicately picked up the bills and placed them a little closer to me on the carpet where we sat. “I didn’t do this for money,” he protested. I cut him short, knowing the value of those bills to him. Three days’ wages for unskilled labor: men who stand in the bazaar in the morning, shovels across their shoulders. For Kabir’s uncle, a windfall he could calculate in rice, kilos of tea, meat for children. “If I came to your home hungry or had been wounded, you could tend me out of friendship,” I told him. “But this is business. Work should be recompensed.”
It took about half an hour, but I brought him round. He folded the money and tucked it away, then promised to plant Salvia spinosa for us next year. It grows wild in the upland fields; crones grind up the shiny seeds and use them in poultices for eye irritations, but no Afghan farmer would think to cultivate the stuff, for up till now there has been no market for it.
This is what we do: Eleven Afghan men and women and I scour this harried land for its (licit) bounties and turn them into beauty products. Our soaps, colored with local vegetable dyes and hand-molded and smoothed till they look like lumps of marble, and our oils, elixirs for polishing the skin, sell in boutiques that cater to the pampered in New York, Montreal, and San Francisco.
The scale of the effort—we sell about $2,500 worth of soap per month—is tiny. Still, our business, the Arghand Cooperative, represents what reports and think tanks say places like Afghanistan need: sustainable economic development. And it is almost entirely the product of private enthusiasm and generosity. From the institutional donors whose job I naively thought was to foster initiatives like ours, we have reaped much travail but almost no support.
I did not come naturally by my soap-factory-in-a- shooting-gallery. After covering the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 for National Public Radio, I decided that Afghanistan was the place to get off the reporting treadmill, as rewarding as it had been. It’s not just that I fell in love with the country—though I did—not just that I felt a perplexing sense of ease in this harsh, impoverished, chauvinistic, explosively independent land. My decision had broader underpinnings. In the wake of 9/11, getting Afghanistan right seemed terribly important— important to the direction history would take in the 21st century. Slogans urged us to cut up the world into two opposing blocs, to align ourselves with one or the other of two irrevocably hostile civilizations. That thinking would get us nowhere, I was convinced.
What better place than Kandahar to give in to the nudgings of a conscience that had been telling me for some time: “Stop talking about it already—do something.” And so I decided to stay in Afghanistan, at least partly to see how I would do if confronted with the requirement to produce a visible difference. Before the soap factory, I set up the headquarters in Kandahar of a maverick nongovernmental organization, founded by President Hamid Karzai’s older brother Qayum, then spent six months running a dairy cooperative. On Wednesdays, I would count out the money for our hundred or so participating farmers, whose children, jockeying adult-sized bikes over lumpy dirt roads, would carry milk to our truck in a riot of receptacles. We had a kitten that loved to roll around in the grubby bills, their condition itself a testament to the grim local economy: Torn notes worth even 5 or 10 cents were sewn or stapled back together.
I started thinking about soap in late 2004, on a breather from Afghanistan. I visited a natural-soap company in New Hampshire. The factory turned out to be one lady—albeit a chemist—mixing oils in her kitchen. I felt the first thrill of possibility: God, I can do that. What struck me about this cottage business was that the soaps, “handcrafted in New Hampshire,” were composed of oils and lye from all over the globe that were ordered online and delivered to a garage apartment near Concord. An Afghan version of this business could stand out by producing its own raw materials, not just stirring somebody else’s together. Turn over a bar of luxury soap and read the ingredients; half of the items can be found in Afghanistan: apricot kernels, sweet almonds, castor beans, fragrant seeds like cumin and anise. There was a pomegranate craze on. Surely I could squeeze pomegranates into soap somehow …
In fact, the startling abundance of fruit in parched Kandahar was what had first led me to consider beauty products. Before leaving the dairy cooperative, I had met with the elders of the village where we bought most of our milk, set in a leafy pomegranate forest that stands out from the surrounding dun, rocky moonscape. The elders gathered on a patch of plastered ground between the adobe houses, accompanied by gawking children. Milk is all very well and good, the men said. But it brings only pocket change. What we really need is a market for our grapes and pomegranates.
Fresh fruit is heavy and perishable, hardly the export for a country lacking roads, electricity, and any notion of international hygiene standards. But skin-care products don’t bruise or go bad, and in the West the market for them has exploded. All I had to do was figure out how to work the necessary magic on Kandahar’s fruit.
And so I hopped on the Internet and typed “seed oil” and “essential oil still” into the search engine. How exactly do you turn an almond, or a rose blossom, into oil? What’s an alembic? A “sap value”?
Just as it has revolutionized every other aspect of life, the Internet has transformed the prospect of doing good. Within days I learned that oil is pressed out of nuts and seeds—coffee beans, even—by the action of a spiraling screw inside a cylinder. I knew that pomegranate seeds, though containing only about 5 percent oil, could be pressed. “Essential oil,” which provides fragrance, is a different thing entirely. It is leached out of fresh plant material by steam forced through a pierced canister filled with leaves or flowers, in much the way a stove-top espresso pot makes coffee. The Internet became my Ariadne, leading me through botanical lore, market prices for nut oils, paintings of pomegranates. And it led me to the German company that manufactured the seed press I bought—a hand-cranked model that was perfect for electricity-starved Kandahar.
The Internet also wove together the far-flung community that has nurtured our cooperative. Without it, I’m not sure we could have survived. The oddly intimate communication that e-mail opens between perfect strangers facilitates the type of direct interaction I wanted. I learned a lot, for example, about the distributor for that seed-oil press: an elderly gentleman who, after an adventurous career in the petroleum industry, bought a ranch in Colorado, and then retired (again) home to Germany and the seed-oil business. In our e-mails, I’ve taken to addressing him as OMOTM, for Old Man of the Mountains, and he calls me Little Lady. Because we had become cyber-pals, Gary Stadler, who builds our essential-oil stills, once filled spaces in shipping crates with dish towels, caustic-chemical gloves, disposable eyedroppers, and glass pipettes. To stay in touch with our board of directors (whose members are spread from Kandahar and Kabul to Massachusetts and San Francisco, through Kansas City, Austin, Denver), we have built Internet communication and voting procedures into our bylaws. A wish list is posted on our Web site, allowing supporters to pick out and send us items they know we need, rather than just write a check.
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 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.
“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.”
“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.
Late in the fall of 2005, six months after my initial contact, I received a document informing me that ALP/S’s “Proposal Review Committee”—meaning the handful of guys I had sat around a table with so often—had decided not to accept our proposal. Given our progress and their promises, I was floored. The reasons listed in the letter were:
* ALP/S is looking for large-scale proposals, and of a proven business model …
* ALP/S’ client, USAID, is asking that it focus its efforts in Helmand province, as opposed to Kandahar.
I interrupted my reading to stare blindly at the window. Then why did they drag us through this whole saga in the first place? I wondered.
* The ALP/S funding framework has been created to support primarily the cost of building a production facility and its ancillary costs, and less that of operating costs.
To be fair, ALP/S was subject to the mercurial temper of its USAID masters. Chemonics employees complained that the agency kept moving the goalposts, a charge that one of them detailed in a letter written after he resigned in disgust and left Afghanistan. For months after the start of Chemonics’ contract, according to several former employees, it had been nearly impossible to hammer out even a basic plan to govern ALP/S activities because USAID kept changing its mind. And while the organization in charge of the crucial alternative-livelihoods dossier was treading water—at roughly $45,000 per month per person—the Afghan south was falling prey to resurgent Taliban and drug smuggling.
ALP/S did try, desperately, to spend money. One outlay was for a feasibility study of a large dairy and milk- processing plant in Helmand province. A consultant from Kansas whom I knew was brought in; he asked me for advice. I could have told ALP/S for free that such a project was not feasible. For starters, an industrial dairy would produce exactly the opposite effect that the program wanted: It would reduce, not increase, alternative livelihoods, since it would put out of business all the small-scale farmers who sold the milk of their two or three cows. Moreover, the market for milk products in the sparsely populated province was too small to support an industrial dairy. The answer was a small collection dairy, adapted to local circumstances, with precautions taken to handle the deteriorating security situation. The Kansas consultant’s costly study declared an industrial dairy to be unfeasible. And that was the end of that story.
“Cash for work,” otherwise known as paying people for short-term unskilled labor, is standard for ALP/S. The Chemonics Web site boasts that ALP/S “has provided immediate cash-for-work opportunities, drawing thousands of workers away from poppy cultivation.” This sounds great—except during poppy-harvesting season, when the $4 to $5 a day ALP/S pays can’t begin to compete. This year, the opium harvest absorbed the entire southern Afghan workforce, for wages of up to a locally staggering $25 a day.
What, precisely, Chemonics was accomplishing for its $119 million was a growing mystery.
By contrast, ordinary individuals rolled up their sleeves. Between chorus practice and cross-country running, my 16-year-old partner, Mari Oye, whipped up a Wellesley High School Afghanistan Club, attracting other students who wanted to make a difference in the world, as well as earn a few community-service hours. She and her classmates held car washes and bake sales to raise money, and boned up on Afghanistan to explain the project. They also served as our sales representatives, securing retail accounts in two Boston-area boutiques; we made the first sales of our soap during Christmas 2005. The students arranged for me to speak at the Wellesley Free Library, setting up an exhibit of Afghan crafts as a backdrop. Thanks to the students, our cooperative was a local phenomenon.
Suddenly, indeed, our soap-factory-in-the-sky was becoming reality. I realized I had better get some structure. A group of friends and acquaintances who had been following my Afghanistan adventures rallied around to constitute a board of directors. After hearing my talk at Wellesley, a classy lawyer volunteered to join. The articles of incorporation and bylaws she composed were as elegant as a mathematical proof.
And things went on like that.
One scene sums up for me the outpouring of spontaneous support we have received: a bright kitchen/breakfast nook in Denver. Six women—brash, loud, competent— sitting around a table, with coffee mugs and plates of brunch food before them. They are marketing executives, called together by a transplanted Canadian friend, a former government official and museum director. I am dressed in a traditional black-velvet Afghan vest, sewn with mirrors and loops of silver braid. “Forget about soap,” laughed one of the women. “Where can we get our hands on those clothes?”
I passed around our rock-like bars of soap, then the mundane rectangular bars from the shelves of a local health-food store. “You’ve got an incredible product here,” the execs agreed. And they launched in. The marketing strategy we hammered out around that table, along with the design principles for labels and promotional materials and the time frame for moving into the North American market, have governed the cooperative’s business model ever since.
Something about our story—perhaps its sheer improbability—speaks to people. A French Canadian television network aired a news segment about us, shot partially in a village that became the front line in fighting against the Taliban last year. The next day 50 e-mails clogged our “info” box. Many of the people who wrote have become mainstays. One designed our Web site. Given the new Quebec link, we needed a French version. A translator offered her services. Two women decided to open a shop to retail our products and others like them. A Canadian CPA completed our 2006 tax filings and sent box after box of supplies to Kandahar: a plethora of tools and work gloves, 10 packages of toys for the children of cooperative members, carefully selected by his own son. Our retailers have hosted fund-raisers.
There was no denying it: People in the West want to help. But it seemed that often they weren’t sure how. What we were providing, I came to realize, was a way for them to do so—a way to get stuck in. Not everyone can drop his or her life and move to Afghanistan. We serve up alternative options, so people can participate according to their abilities and means. Even consumption—that overindulged American pastime—can help, if engaged in thoughtfully. The dollar bill is a phenomenal force for change, I now know, if spent on products and processes that respect the environment and promote dignified livelihoods, rather than destroying them. I have come to feel that what we offer people in the West—an opportunity to participate—may be just as meaningful as whatever benefits we bring to Kandahar.
It was the unflagging effort of a maverick Afghan American Chemonics employee (who didn’t last long) that finally did win us an eight-month contract with ALP/S worth almost $80,000. And by the time we completed our end of the bargain—a month early, on March 1 of this year—our cooperative had become a darling of ALP/S. We had exceeded all our production goals; we were providing sustainable alternative livelihoods to our members as well as the farmers from whom we bought raw materials; we were selling out in nine shops in the United States and Canada, and had 70 more waiting in line; and we were expanding. In a war zone.
During visits by six different members of ALP/S, we were repeatedly assured of a follow-on contract. After only a few bouts of irritation and several humorous exchanges with the latest program director, I submitted our proposal.
One day in early May when I was waiting for news of its status, yet another ALP/S officer dropped by, this one freshly arrived. In tow he had a former Chemonics vice president and an extra vehicle full of bulletproof-vested, gun-toting security personnel—something I had repeatedly asked ALP/S to avoid, as it makes waves in the neighborhood.
The two men had little notion of what we did, so I took them on a tour. They made enthusiastic noises and at the end asked me what I wanted from them. I was a little taken aback. Some feedback on the status of our proposal would be nice, though this was a different ALP/S employee’s responsibility. The gentlemen said they would “take a look and see what it needed.”
This sounded sickeningly familiar. I was under the impression that our proposal had been complete for weeks. Now I would probably have to start the application procedure all over again, at the whim of yet another incoming ALP/S manager.
The letter I received from him a few days later confirmed my premonition. It requested a ream of further documentation, such as a breakdown of the raw-materials cost of a bar of soap and our financial accounts from previous years. “Maybe even more importantly,” the letter went on,
we need to show the real raison d’etre for all of this. It’s because there’s real demand for your products. Demand is not your problem, Sarah, satisfying it is. You’ve already established a vibe in the market. You’re selling in Manhattan and sundry other swanky places. You’ve had plenty of free publicity in media with the appropriate reach to capture the attention of the chattering class whose hands you’re washing. The wind is now behind you and you’ve an opportunity to make a significant contribution to establishing Afghanistan as something other than a squalid state exporting only smack and terror. This is what USAID wants to hear.
Peppering this and subsequent communications were colloquialisms like “the first thing we’ve gotta make plain …”
I replied, providing the requested information, but also a statement of frustration. I was swiftly scolded for my tone: “unbusinesslike, unmannerly, and just plain unaesthetic.”
A few days later, after another volley, I received a lapidary note from the head of ALP/S: “Sarah, Please ignore the other emails, those not written by me. The encouragement of staff initiative can have exasperating consequences.”
I was, for once, utterly speechless.
This kind of management is what our government was buying for $45,000 or so a month? This is what it was offering Afghanistan?
For a night and a day after receiving that note, I turned things over in my mind. The decision I was reaching put a hard lump between my heart and my stomach—not least because my own salary was to be covered in the new ALP/S grant. I took my cooperative members’ pulse. Several of them, I could tell, did not approve. They are Afghan and practical. Take the money while it’s being offered, I could hear them think. Tomorrow may bring calamity. But one of them, Nurallah, spoke out loud. “My advice is this: You should never kiss anyone’s hand for money.” His sentiments echoed mine exactly.
And so I withdrew our proposal. “We’ll make it, somehow,” I thought, putting my faith in our far-flung family. And we are making it, thanks to the members of our cooperative, private foundations, individual donors—and the Canadian International Development Agency, which is somewhat more imaginative than my country’s own.